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Under Obama, a newly interactive government?

The president-elect aims to use the Internet to make government more participatory.

By Staff writer / November 13, 2008

Hi-tech: Volunteers entered data into laptops in April at an Obama campaign office in Carlisle, PA.

Chris Fitzgerald/Candidate Photos

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New York

Want to give Barack Obama a piece of your mind about what’s wrong with the United States government? Just go to www.change.gov and click on “Share Your Ideas.”

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A man named John from Seattle did: “I am so tired of special interests getting the best of us all.”

So did Lexington from San Diego: “I’d like to see an agenda that focuses on promoting transparency....”

The website is the official, online face of the Office of the President Elect. It gives a first glimpse of how Mr. Obama intends to harness technology to create a cutting-edge, participatory democracy in a similar way he used Internet connectivity to transform campaigning.

The idea is premised on the digital world’s potential to transform the US into one large cyber town-hall meeting: Every citizen will ideally have a window into the workings of government and an opportunity to tell elected leaders exactly what they think of it.

It’s an idealistic notion that will require some concrete changes – from a large investment in upgrading government computers to a change in the rules and regulations that guide government employees. Most important, it will require a radical transformation of the entrenched culture of secrecy and the dominance of special interests that define how Washington operates.

“This will be the first president who has an opportunity to use interactive technology in ways we’ve never seen – it really is remarkable,” says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit organization that promotes greater government accountability and transparency in Washington. “What was so unique about the Obama campaign [was] that interactivity was real. When people commented on something, they saw things happen. That’s what the people are expecting the president to do now.”

Obama will not be the first online president. That was Bill Clinton, who set up the White House’s first website in 1994 and in 1996 ordered all federal agencies to get online as well. The websites were pretty rudimentary sources of information. President Bush took that a step further, turning the White House website into a “repository of all the things the president was doing on that day,” according to David Almacy, who was the White House’s Internet director from 2005 to 2007.

But as Mr. Almacy discovered, much of what the White House could do was constrained by a lack of resources. He had a staff of six to run the White House’s Internet operations. The Obama campaign had 95 people. Then there are the federal rules and regulations.

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