TechPresident: Three Critiques of Obama's Tech Policy

Cross-posted on One Million Strong

The editors of TechPresident, a blog dedicated to the intersection of politics and technology and to which I am an occasional contributor, took the time to grade each candidate's technology proposals. 

Here are the grades:

Barack Obama A-

John Edwards A-

Joe Biden B 

Hillary Clinton B- 

Chris Dodd C

Bill Richardson C-

Dennis Kucinich D 

The rationale behind each grade is available here.  Details below, and I'll focus on TechPresident's critiques of the Obama campaign... 

TechPresident highlights Obama's plan for "'a transparent and connected democracy,'" focusing on where his proposals go farther than Edwards ––– in their vision for the use of technology to "connecting citizens to each other and by opening up the federal government to change how business is done."

TechPresident sees Obama's plan as "clearly signaling a commitment to a much more robust e-democracy than anyone else."

And then part of what attracts the editors of TechPresident is the neat packaging.  Obama has managed to bundle a variety of these proposals into a coherent and expansive platform. 

But TechPresident also lays out three main critiques of Obama's approach:

1. Although Obama lays out a breathtaking vision for the role of technology in furthering government transparency and increasing citizen participation in decision-making, he doesn't seem to apply that same vision to the role of technology in education and the digital divide.  

What kinds of changes can be made through connecting America's heartland?  How can the internet be used to transform and improve education?

TechPresident cites Obama's interest in wiring schools but wants more. 

2. None of the candidates have addressed the issue behind one of the policy proposals TechPresident laid out in their manifesto"Who Wants to Be America's First TechPresident?": the creation of a national NetGuard.

[B]ecause as our country becomes more reliant on 21st century communications to maintain and build our economy we need to protect our communications infrastructure and be able to have an emergency response capability to establish emergency communications, rebuild networks and databases, and provide tech support for all relief and recovery efforts.

It's time to create a "National NetGuard" of technically skilled Americans who can volunteer to be trained and deployed to respond to any terrorist attack or natural disaster.

It's an interesting idea that might still be taken up by one of the candidates, though Obama does take up the idea of creating the office of a Chief Technology Officer.

This new officer would not only be responsible for ensuring the effectiveness of the internet-based efforts for increasing citizen participation but would also be involved in updating outdated government equipment, improving interagency communication through the use of technology, and ensuring a functional first responder network.

3. This is the most sound and thoughtful of the critiques.  TechPresident highlights how the Obama campaign points to the campaign website as an illustration of what this new era of citizen participation might look like.

The Obama campaign is right that the use of technology "opening up the closed practices of governance to greater citizen engagement and participation and re-connecting Americans with their democracy in new ways."

But this is where practice falls short of the remarkable vision of the proposal.  Here's TechPresident:

[W]e wish he didn't tout his own campaign's use of technology as demonstrating how he will open up governance, as we know the Obama campaign has maintained strong control over how its supporters use its web tools.

First, the Obama campaign touts the submission of 15,000 policy ideas via the MyPolicy feature on the website, but where are these ideas?  As YouTube's Steve Grove asked: "Were any of them any good?" 

Why not post them publicly?  Why not have a system where these ideas aren't just sent off but are highlighted somewhere and can receive feedback from the community?  Why not feature some of the ideas or suggestions on the website?

Second, the community blog on has provided the opportunity for literally thousands of users (including me, by the way) to create their first blog and experience broadcasting their thoughts online.  But there are too many internal walls preventing community interaction.

As I've written previously:

The Obama website gives you, along with the lack of a blog roll on the website, the impression that the campaign hesitates slightly at putting independent voices in the public eye.  This is perfectly understandable, but it does a lot to deflate the discussion.  

Blog entries seem to be isolated bursts, without easy connection to one another and usually drawing few comments.  You don't have the impression that your posts are being read.  Most crucially, it doesn't leave you with the impression that you are part of a lively and active community.

There's a need for a recommended list, for greater visibility of the diaries, for creating more opportunities for interaction, and for increased efforts to highlight the work of independent bloggers and activists.  One Million Strong was founded with the explicit goal of trying to fill this gap.

When Obama announced his run for president, he announced the principle on which his run would be based:

This is why this campaign can't only be about me.  It must be about us - it must be about what we do together.  This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams.  It will take your energy, your advice - to push us forward when we're doing right, and to let us know when we're not.  This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions calling for change.

Obama has released a powerful statement of the distance that the web might be able to take us in furthering transparency, deepening our democracy, and reclaiming the meaning of citizenship.  Now let's see if we can start to live up to that promise.

Unleashing the power of millions of voices for change requires relinquishing some of the control. 

It is not always possible to speak with one voice when there are millions clamoring to regain their voice in the public square.

Tags: Barack Obama, net neutrality, President 2008, Technology, TechPresident (all tags)



As usual

A nice, thoughtful post. I agree with you on critique number three - Obama's campaign has controlled its user-generated content too tightly. As nice and clean as the website looks, it's sterile and top-down.

by clarkent 2007-11-21 10:31AM | 0 recs
Thanks, clarkent

I appreciate that.

by psericks 2007-11-21 11:10AM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks, clarkent

We don't share the same choice as our favored candidate, but I can appreciate the obvious care and hard work you put into your posts and comments.

OK, love fest is over!

by clarkent 2007-11-21 02:07PM | 0 recs

to one of our candidates clobbering Clinton this primary season.

That's all I want for Christmas.

by psericks 2007-11-21 03:51PM | 0 recs


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