Tag Archives: obama

Back to Reality: The Politics of Government Transparency & Open Data

A number of my friends and advocates in the open government, transparency and open data communities have argued that online government transparency initiatives will be permanent since, the theory goes, no government will ever want to bear the political cost of rolling it back and being perceived as “more opaque.” I myself have, at times, let this argument go unchallenged or even run with it.

This week’s US budget negotiations between Congress and the White House should lay that theory to rest. Permanently.

The budget agreement that has emerged from most recent round of negotiations – which is likely to be passed by congress –  slashes funding to an array of Obama transparency initiatives such as USASpending, the ITDashboard, and data.gov from $34M to $8M. Agree or disagree, Republicans are apparently all too happy to kill initiatives which make the spending and activities of the US government more transparent as well as create a number of economic opportunities around open data. Why? Because they believe it has no political consequences.

So unsurprisingly, it turns out that political transparency initiatives – even when they are online – are as bound to the realities of traditional politics as dot.com’s were bound by the realities of traditional economics. It’s not enough to get a policy created or an initiative launched – it needs to have a community, a group of interested supporters, to nurture and protect it. Otherwise, it will be at risk.

Back in 2009, in the lead up to the drafting and launching of Vancouver’s Open Data motion I talked about creating an open-government bargain. Specifically, I argued that:

..in an open city, a bargain must exists between a government and its citizens. To make open data a success and to engage the community a city must listen, engage, ask for help, and of course, fulfill its promise to open data as quickly as possible. But this bargain runs both ways. The city must to its part, but so too must the local tech community. They must participate, be patient (cities move slower than tech companies), offer help and, most importantly, make the data come alive for each other, policy makers and citizens through applications and shared analysis.

Some friends countered that open data and transparency should simply exist because it is the right thing to do. I don’t disagree – and I wish we lived in a world where the existence of this ideal was sufficient enough to guarantee these initiatives. But it isn’t sufficient. It’s easy to kill something that no one uses (or in the case of data.gov, that hasn’t been given enough time to generate a vibrant user base). It’s much, much harder to kill something that has a community that uses it, especially if that community and the products it creates are valued by society more generally. This is why open data needs users, it needs developers, think tanks and above all, the media, to take interest in it and to leverage it to create content. It’s also why I’ve tried to create projects like Emitter.ca, recollect.net, taxicity and others, because the more value we create with open data for everyone, the more secure government transparency policies will be.

It’s use it or risk losing it. I wish this weren’t the case, but it’s the best defense I can think of.

The Real-time Politician – It's about filters (and being unfiltered)

The other day Mathew Ingram, in response to articles about the president’s one year anniversary asked What Are the Implications of a Real-Time, Connected President? More specifically:

Is a real-time connected president more likely to think for himself and look outside the usual Washington circles for ideas or input, or is being connected just a giant distraction for someone who is supposed to be leading the nation?

The policy implications of a real-time, connected president could be interestingly different around say, copyright law, net-neutrality and a myrad of other modern issues a pre-internet president might not get.

But in response to Mathew’s specific question I think the connected president (or politician) has more ways to fail, but if they manage their filters correctly, could also be much, much smarter.

Let me explain why.

The entire infrastructure around a politician is about filtering. As odd as it may be for some readers to hear, politicians do almost nothing but work with information. Indeed, they are overwhelmed with the stuff. Theirs is among the first jobs to deal with the noise to signal problem. (How do you distinguish important information – signal – from unimportant information – noise). Ever notice when you talk to many politicians (particularly ones you don’t know), they listen but aren’t really absorbing what you say – it is because they have people telling them “what matters” about 9-14 hours out of every day. And each issue they get approached about is “the most important.”

Moreover, most politicians have marginal influence at best (even the president can only change so much, particularly without Congress’s help). So that glazed look… it’s not that they don’t care, they are just overwhelmed and don’t know how to prioritize you.

To deal with all this information (not to mention, for politicians like the President, all the decisions), politicians have evolved filters. These filters are staffers. This is why, in many instances, advisers are so deeply powerful – the elected officials they serve are often completely dependent on them to filter out all the noise (irrelevant information) and feed them the factual and political information they need to know (the relevant information) and not much else (like, say, context). A good constituency office staffer knows who in the riding absolutely needs to be called versus who is the time-suck that would never vote for you anyway.  A good policy adviser can provide a briefing note that filters out the misinformation and presents the core message or choice the politician must communicate or make.

Previous new communication technology either didn’t disrupt this filter mechanism because they were purely broadcast (think radio or television), or had limited effect because they only widened circle of people the politician could consult in a narrow fashion (telephone or telegraph). The internet however does two things. One, it allows you to communicate, in an unfiltered manner, with millions of people, who can in turn communicate back to you. Second, it allows one to access a vast swath of information – much of which is itself already filtered.

The implication of the first shift has been widely talked about. I think politicians are still grappling with this opportunity, but Facebook, Twitter, even email all allow politicians to access their supporters and constituents in interesting ways. They also allow constituents to easily self-organize to give you feedback, be it positive or, (as Obama experienced when his own supporters organized on my.barackobama.com in protest to his vote in favour of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) “corrective.” In this regard, politicians are going to need a whole new set of filters – ones that are able to identify which 2,000 person facebook group might swell into a 220,000 person group in 3 weeks.

But the really interesting shift is in the relationship between politicians and their advisers. And here we’ve already seen that shift.

The fact is that most technologies have allowed politicians – particularly those with executive authority – to further centralize that authority. The telegraph, and then telephone allowed politicians to have more direct contact with more people. This gave them the opportunity to micromanage their affairs rather than delegate to officials (think Nixon with the telephone and the details he would get into or the ever centralizing authority of the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office since Trudeau).

For the networked politicians the temptation to reach out and micromanage a greater array of staffers – or even to be consulted directly on a greater number of smaller decisions – is enormous. At some point, in a networked world the flow of information, the quantity of decisions, and the number of relationships will simply become overwhelming.This is how these technologies can cause filter breakdown and ultimately paralyze the decision making process (a problem Canada’s present Prime Minister has wrestled with).

And this is why the situation will be so interesting. A networked world increases the power of both the politician and their advisers. As connected politicians have to deal with so much more information the need for filters, and thus the role of advisers, actually becomes more important. At the same time however, the President’s capacity to go around their filters – to access the opinions of outsiders, particularly those who have been filtered by the masses as being credible – also increases. So, in some ways politicians are more autonomous: less dependent on, or more able to challenge, their advisers. (This is somewhat the picture being painted in the Washington Post article about Obama.)

My sense is that the networked politician has a difficult time in front of them. Finding the right balance between trusting one’s advisers, managing decisions at the appropriate level and knowing when to listen to outsiders will require more discipline than ever before. Networks and modern communication technology make the ability (and temptation) to do too much of any of these much, much easier.

On the flip side however, if a politician can stay disciplined, they may be able to demand better work from their advisers and engage in a greater swath of issues effectively.

Why Smart Power matters

America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America. The best way to advance America’s interest in reducing global threats and seizing global opportunities is to design and implement global solutions. This isn’t a philosophical point. This is our reality.

The president-elect and I believe that foreign policy must be based on a marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology. On facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice. Our security, our vitality, and our ability to lead in today’s world oblige us to recognize the overwhelming fact of our interdependence.

I believe that American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted. We must use what has been called “smart power,” the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural — picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy. This is not a radical idea. The ancient Roman poet Terence, who was born a slave and rose to become one of the great voices of his time, declared that “in every endeavor, the seemly course for wise men is to try persuasion first.” The same truth binds wise women as well.

– Hillary Clinton, January 13th, 2009

During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hillary Clinton used the term “Smart Power” no less than 12 times. It is a clever term, one that seeks to navigate between the Hard Power of military might and economic coercion, with the Soft Power of ideology, culture and agenda setting. Does the term signal something new in US foreign policy? Depends on your time frame. Without a doubt it marks the end of the George W. Bush foreign policy era. Clearly the blustery swagger of a shoot first, ask question later has ended. This is a United States that will be more cautious and more engaging. But rather than the start of something new, Smart Power likely signals a return to the Bill Clinton and Bush Sr. era of foreign policy. Indeed, as important as the term Smart Power was, the focus should lie not on the term, but on the revealing paragraph leading up to it:

“The president-elect and I believe that foreign policy must be based on a marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology. On facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice. Our security, our vitality, and our ability to lead in today’s world oblige us to recognize the overwhelming fact of our interdependence.”

Here the guiding principles behind the shift to Smart Power are revealed. Two strike me as paramount. The first reaffirms what I think will be the buzz word of the Obama administration: pragmatism. Despite his soaring speeches and inspiring words Obama is first and foremost interested in achieving the possible – stretch goals are fine – but ideological dreams are not for him. Second, in this speech, the United States’ next Secretary of State signalled to the world that it once again recognizes it cannot go it alone. The acknowledgement of interdependence is the antithesis of “you are with us or against us.” It is an recognition that allies – real allies, not the minnow states bullied into participation – are required to sustain and enhance the stability and prosperity of the international system. Bush Sr. understood this when creating his coalition for the first Gulf War, Clinton sought, insofar as possible, to build similar agreement when advancing his international agenda.

These have two dramatic impacts for Canada – and other countries. The first is that we should expect the Americans will ask us what we think – our advice or thoughts may not change their opinions, but we will likely be asked and when that happens, we’d better have something smart and meaningful to contribute. Second, the opportunity of being consulted comes with it the responsibility to contribute and support, even when the decision or strategy isn’t one that we completely agree with. When you’ve been part of the discussion you can walk away when the rubber hits the road. Third, those who have a well thought out plan for solving a problem will win out over those who have grievances to share. Demonstrate to this administration that you can solve a problem through realizable actions and I suspect they will listen and support you.

For Canadians nowhere is this change in attitude possible more important than on the management of the Canadian Border. I would have a new briefing plan of how we believe the border should be managed ready and waiting for when Clinton or Obama’s first arrives in Ottawa. If the Obama administration acts as it talks, I suspect it will reward and seek out, not those who do as it says, but those who solve the problems they care about. This is a welcome return to the diplomacy of the 1990’s which was also cautious and smart. It was also a good period for Canadian-American relations.

Canadians have spent years hoping the Americans will change. Now that they have, are we ready?

Bush-Cheney and the Global Puke

Andrew Sullivan pretty much sums up what were all feeling about Bush, Cheney, the election and our collective hopes for America if Obama wins:

The more I think about it the more this election day feels like one giant collective, global puke. That Bush-Cheney thing never quite settled with us, did it? We’ll feel a lot better but a lot more tired once the last heave is over.


Powell's Obama vs. McCain's Obama

If you haven’t seen this clip of Powell endorsing Obama, I highly recommend. It is a great example of the type of statesmanship and class the American political system is capable of (and yet so often does not achieve). I’m wrestling to think of a similar moment when a former Canadian political figure has been as eloquent and purposeful as Powell is in this clip. But then, it seems we generally put our old political figures out to pasture.

Money line – “All villages have values, all towns have values, not just small towns have values.” (take that Palin)

In contrast, below is perfect caricature of how McCain wants Americans to see Obama. His sleaze campaign – the one that helped cost him Powell’s endorsement – is working hard to create this image. Black rage? McCain wishes… if anything has defined this election its been McCain’s rage. (clip from Chasing Amy by Kevin Smith, it may not be for everyone).

Presidential debates and conservative candidates

Enjoyed watching the presidential candidate debates last night. I’m not sure anyone did exceptionally well (if anything both candidates seemed tired). McCain’s temper/contempt for Obama flared up at least once, but the only real good hit of the evening was scored by Obama (full transcript here):

McCain: You know, my hero is a guy named Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt used to say walk softly — talk softly, but carry a big stick. Sen. Obama likes to talk loudly.

In fact, he said he wants to announce that he’s going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable.

You know, if you are a country and you’re trying to gain the support of another country, then you want to do everything you can that they would act in a cooperative fashion.

When you announce that you’re going to launch an attack into another country, it’s pretty obvious that you have the effect that it had in Pakistan: It turns public opinion against us.

Obama: Look, I — I want to be very clear about what I said. Nobody called for the invasion of Pakistan. Sen. McCain continues to repeat this…

…Now, Sen. McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I’m green behind the ears and, you know, I’m just spouting off, and he’s somber and responsible.

Sen. McCain, this is the guy who sang, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don’t think is an example of “speaking softly.”


Back in Canada, we’ve had the debates but only at between the party leaders. Sadly try having a debate at the local level in Canada. Our conservative candidates are more protected than Sarah Palin. Last night at the Canada’s World debate not one of 14 conservative candidates in the lower mainland could make it. Indeed, across the country it would appear that conservative candidates have been told to not do all candidate meetings. It’s a sad state of affairs for our democracy when the party in power essentially hides its politicians.

Check out this website for a list all the incidents identified so far where Conservative candidates have declined an invitation to attend an all candidates meeting.

Obama and Web 2.0 in 1995

Salimah E. just forwarded me this fantastic piece – from the Chicago Reader – about Obama. Part of what makes it fascinating is that it was  written 13 years ago. Just read it and look how consistent Obama’s past and present is from a values and goals perspective. This piece could have been written yesterday. What a rock that guy is.

Also interesting to read the piece from a technology angle. Consider again that it was written a decade before Web 2.0. But look at how Obama’s language and values around community building fit so perfectly with the social media technologies of today. Reading this (again written in 1995!) it becomes obvious that Obama would immediately see the potential and opportunity around online, self-organizing, social media. It explains how and why his stie has done so well. He literally lives and believes in the values of self-organizing to a degree that few other politicians do and so is willing to hand big parts of his site over to its users. (in this case users, supporters, or followers all feel like inadequate words, sigh).

Money quote:

“What makes Obama different from other progressive politicians is that he doesn’t just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young.”

Obama, different than other progressive politicians? Hmmm, I’ll confess that this line also makes me like the piece because it resonated with Taylor and I’s piece on the death of progressive politics. (Shameless link, I know).

Neo-Progressivism: The Next Political Cycle?

lrc_0908_largeSeveral months ago the Literary Review of Canada put out a request for articles about the rise of Obama and what it means for politics in general and Canada specifically. Mine and Taylor’s proposal won out and is the lead essay in this month’s edition of the LRC. Needless to say we are pretty excited.

The essay explores how the Left has been killing progressive politics. Those on the right have always been clear about their disdain for progressivism and their desire to rollback its success. On the left however, an equally strong conservatism has emerged. Fearful that any debate, or worse reform, will threaten successes of the past century many progressives have become anti-change. It is a more subtle conservatism, but it has helped foster a political environment within the left and centre-left that is defined by silence and stagnation.

But change is afoot. A new generation is challenging old assumptions. It is these same people – the neo-progressives – that helped propel Obama to the top of the democratic party. This new generation of progressives could similarly reshape Canadian politics.

You can read the article here.

And he's off…

As with all things Obama it seems like people saw what they wanted to see in his acceptance speech.

Was it his best speech? Hardly. But it was the right speech. Political, attacking and yet still laying out a vision.

I’m predicting a 12% convention bounce. Bold, I know, but after Taylor’s prescient 5 month Biden prediction, I’m feeling the pressure to deliver something big.

Regardless of the bounce, I worry about how the Democratic Party seems to slowly be sinking its teeth into the Obama machine. Over the past few months I sense a slight drift towards a more “traditional” liberalism and less championing of a new progressivism. He’s started to play it safe – a challenge that arose during the primary and that, once he grasped, shook him up, loosened him up, and had being himself again.

Obama’s unique – and thus perceived risky – perspective is what made him popular. Put out that flame and you kill his passion. Fortunately, this speech showed his original political instincts and leanings are still very much alive. The policy prescriptions -bound together by a narrative of encouraging both individual and collective responsibility – were sensible and pragmatic. His instinct to reach out and make space for others, while holding firm to some core principles, also shone through.

I don’t think it is possible, but I do fear the party will do to Obama what it did to Gore and Kerry – try to force him to make compromise after compromise, slowly sucking the life and passion out of him as it transforms him into block-vote seeking automaton. It ain’t a pretty picture but look at the speeches Kerry and Gore gave, it would be a different world if they’d spoken like that 4 or 8 years ago.

Fortunately, the New York Times thinks Obama has insulated himself against this outcome in large measure because he’s already managed to remold the party in his image. I hope they are right. Looking at the people in the stadium – the mix of race, class and age – suggests this is the case. It certainly was a picture of America as we’d all like to see it.

I just hope that the make-over has filtered higher up as well. I can’t bear to watch the democrats lose another election – especially with such talent leading them.

Obama vs Bush: What the hidden microphones reveal

So apparently during Obama’s visit to the British parliament a casual conversation between him and Conservative leader David Cameron was recorded.

It reminded me of when, during an earlier campaign, Bush was caught speaking with Cheney while the microphone was on. Just so we can all see how similar these two politicians are I thought I’d put their unscripted comments side by side:



Bush: “There’s Adam Clymer–major-league asshole from The New York Times.”

Cheney: “Oh yeah. He is. Big time.”

[To be more fair I could have used this back and forth between him and Blair, but it ain’t much better. Apparently diet coke is better than coke and the middle east issue is best addressed through the use of swear words.]

VS. Cameron: “You should be on the beach, you need a break. Well, you need to be able to keep your head together.”

Obama (agreeing): “You’ve got to refresh yourself.”

Cameron: “Do you have a break at all?”

Obama: “I have not. I am going to take a week in August. But I agree with you that somebody, somebody who had worked in the White House who — not Clinton himself, but somebody who had been close to the process —  said that, should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be — ”

Cameron: “These guys just chalk your diary up

Obama: “Right. In 15 minute increments…”

Cameron: “We call it the dentist’s waiting room. You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time.”

Obama: “And, well, and you start making mistakes, or you lose the big picture. Or you lose a sense of, I think you lose a feel– ”

Cameron (interrupting) “Your feeling, and that is exactly what politics is all about. The judgment you bring to make decisions.”

Obama: “That’s exactly right, and the truth is that we’ve got a bunch of smart people, I think, who know ten times more than we do about the specifics of the topics. And so if what you’re trying to do is micromanage and solve everything then you end up being a dilettante but you have to have enough knowledge to make good judgments about the choices that are presented to you.”

So yeah – with luck we are in for a real change.