A couple of weeks ago, Julian Sanchez at Ars Technica, Ben Smith at Politico and others noted a disturbing pattern on the incoming Obama administration’s Change.gov website: polite but pointed user-submitted questions about the Blagojevich scandal and other potentially uncomfortable topics were being flagged as “inappropriate” by other visitors to the site.
In less than a week, more than a million votes-for-particular-questions were cast. The transition team closed submissions and posted answers to the five most popular questions. The usefulness and interest of these answers was sharply limited: They reiterated some of the key talking points and platform language of Obama’s campaign without providing any new information. The transition site is now hosting a second round of this process.
It shouldn’t surprise us that there are, among the Presdient-elect’s many supporters, some who would rather protect their man from inconvenient questions. And for all the enthusiastic talk about wide-open debate, a crowdsourced system that lets anyone flag an item as inappropriate can give these few a perverse kind of veto over the discussion.
If the site’s operators recognize this kind of deliberative narrowing as a problem, there are ways to deal with it. One could require a consensus judgement of “inappropriateness” by a cross-section of Change.gov users that is large enough, or is diverse with respect to geography, time of visit, amount of past involvement in the site, or any number of other criteria before taking a question out of circulation. Questions that have been preliminarily flagged as inappropriate could enter a secondary moderation queue where their appropriateness can be debated, leading to a considered “up or down” vote on whether a given question belongs in the mix. The Obama transition team could even crowdsource this problem itself, looking for lay input (or input from experts at places like Digg) about how to make sure that reasonable-but-pointed questions stay in, while off topic, off color, or otherwise unacceptable ones remain out.
But what are the incentives of the new administration’s online team? They might well find it convenient, as Julian writes, to “crowdsource a dodge” to inconvenient questions–if the users of Change.gov adopt an expansive view of “inappropriateness,” the Obama team will likely benefit slightly from soft, supportive questions in the near term, though it will run the risk of allowing substantive problems, or citizen concerns, to fester over the longer term. And that tradeoff could hold much more appeal for the median administration staffer than it does for the median American.
In other words, having the administration’s own tech people manage the moderation of questions directed at the President may be like having the fox guard the henhouse. I agree that even this is much more open than recent past administrations, but I think the more interesting question here is what would be ideal.
I suspect this key plank of the new administration’s plans will never be able to be fully realized within government. The President needs to answer questions that a nonzero number of his most enthusiastic supporters are willing to characterize as “inappropriate.” And for that to happen, the online moderation needs to take place outside of .gov. A collective move toward one of the .org alternatives, for this key activity of sifting questions, would be a great first step. That way, the goal of finding tough but honest questions can plausibly sit paramount.