Re-Do It, Mr. President-elect: "Open for Questions" Gets an F

By Al Giordano

"We live in an era of non-response."

-       Jacques Ellul

It started out as a brilliant idea and fulfillment of President-elect Obama's pledge to make government more open and transparent.

But it turned out to be a cruel joke on Obama's own supporters.

Obama's Change.Gov transition team website offered citizens the chance to ask questions, any question, about public policy. It gave them the opportunity to vote other people's questions to the top of the list and to flag others as "inappropriate." How cool was that? It was a pioneering moment in governors relating to the governed. Or so it seemed...

The Obama team claimed to be impressed by and grateful for the wide participation:

Last week, our Open for Questions feature was particularly well-received: more than 20,000 people cast nearly 1,000,000 votes on questions posed by the community. Overall, just over 10,000 questions were voted up or down and ranked by visitors to the site.

The result is a snapshot of the issues you're concerned about as the pieces for the next administration move into place.

Many of the top questions raised legitimate policy issues often ignored (or reported badly) by the mass media but clearly of importance to thousands of Americans. After the questioning and balloting closed last Thursday at midnight, we noticed that six of the top 20 questions (indeed, 31 of the top 100) were on matters of drug policy. A wonderful opportunity was presented to the President-elect to reiterate and expand upon positions taken during his campaign and to address new ones from the perspective of governing.

It was clear that some of the questioners would - if Obama reiterated his campaign positions - be disappointed in some of the answers (everybody knows he never promised to "legalize marijuana" during the campaign), but on others they would be heartened to hear him state, as President-elect, with greater specificity how he intended to make good on campaign promises to reform other drug policies.

And this was to be itself a fulfillment of one of his biggest most oft-stated pledges: to make government (and his transition to it) "the most transparent and open in history."

Even on areas where Obama might disagree with his base, there was a precedent set during the campaign when he expressed his reasons for his disagreement, as when last July 3 he responded forthrightly to thousands of opponents of the FISA wiretapping bill on his campaign website. It began:

I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to those of you who oppose my decision to support the FISA compromise...

And in nine thoughtful paragraphs he offered disagreement with respect and with his argument for his differing view.

That kind of sincere and detailed response to the citizenry, frankly, is what he promised to do throughout his campaign should he be elected.

And that, just as frankly, is the kind of response his base expected to his "Open for Questions" process.

Instead, we were served gimmickry, sloganeering, curt and almost snide "responses" that were disrespectful of the thousands of people who, after all, took time from their daily lives to participate in the invited forum (helping Obama govern by answering such invitations is another form of volunteering - but ask any of his field organizers about the wisdom of "burning" volunteers if you want them back again.)

The Obama staff bothered to answer just five questions: two of them in a sentence apiece, none of them in more than a single paragraph.

To just one of the top questions on drug policy - the one on legalizing marijuana - the response came without argument:

Q: "Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?" S. Man, Denton

A: President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.

Big whoop. Wow, those Transition policy and website staffers really had to do some heavy lifting to craft that original phrase! Where did they come up with such fine policy prose? (Maybe they got the rocket-scientist-cum-energy-secretary to pen that one?)

The five other drug policy questions among the top 20 were totally ignored, yet they were closer to the line of scrimmage on Obama's own stated campaign positions. Here's a summary of those questions:

 - Will the federal government stop raiding and prosecuting medical marijuana users and their doctors?

 - If not legalization, what about decriminalization?

(After all, on November 4, voters in Michigan and Massachusetts voted for exactly that; the context of the issue - and "conventional wisdom" about public opinion on it - has shifted somewhat since Election Day.)

 - What about prioritizing treatment over incarceration for drug offenders?

 - How do we fix the prison system?

 - And what about the Food and Drug Administration's cozy relationship - the freedom from liability and the protective legislation previously given - with the pharmaceutical industry?

Those were the more interesting top drug policy questions that deserved a sincere and transparent response. Instead, they were ignored in favor of picking the question to which he could give a typical politician's "blow off" response.

We know from previous statements by Obama on the campaign trail that he has more detailed and nuanced answers to some of those questions. Take this talk of his from September 2007, in New Hampshire, for example:

 

And so the "Open for Questions" feature at the Change.Gov website proved to be an insulting mockery of the 20,000 members of his base that crafted 10,000 questions and voted them up or down.

The Transition Team says it is looking forward to "round two." But who in their right minds would continue to participate in a process that in the first round proved insulting and fraudulent and completely out of sync with the tone and pledges of a more open and transparent government?

On this, Mr. President-elect - and from one that has defended you and even some of your appointments that didn't make me cheer on the basis that the governance hasn't begun yet - you and your staff get an "F."

Those non-responses, being part of a transition, were part of governing, and if this is what you had in mind for your "most open and transparent" communication with the people, lord, that mocking tone your staff took toward the participants will shortly after Inauguration Day boomerang and be returned in kind from one million and more strong, and deservedly so. 

Go back, Mr. President-elect, and re-do your answers to the top 20 questions: instruct your staff to stop ridiculing your supporters and give them concrete and thoughtful answers and arguments on the first round of questions before asking us to participate in Round Two.

Round One is now an open sore, and an unanswered charade.

 

Comments

Agreed.

I'll be incredibly disappointed if we don't see a re-do of those responses. It definitely seems very un-Obama-like to basically assume that the people who spent time submitting questions were also somehow too dumb to be able to find Obama's views on drugs on his website. The idea, I thought, and everyone thought, was that this was a forum where Obama would *elaborate* on those publicly stated positions as nudged to do so by the public.

 

Agreed. And while I wasn't

Agreed. And while I wasn't completely satisfied with Obama's response on FISA, it was much better than the follow-up. If you remember, they had some of his advisors do a live "chat" of sorts where for a few hours they replied to questions message board-style, and every last answer they put was basically a paraphrase of Obama's earlier statement or some generalized campaign talking points. Given that weak-sauce performance, I have to say that this latest charade is disappointing but not especially surprising. And it's telling that when we get a statement from Obama himself, it's always a lot more thoughtful and substantive then when his PR flacks handle it.

Open for Questions Feedback Form

I've let the campaign know how disappointed I was with these answers.  You can send feedback directly through this form:

http://change.gov/page/s/askfeedback

Well, your response is

Well, your response is pretty much what I expect.  It is important to be clear-eyed about how we are governed, understanding how power is distributed, how politicians typically act.

I would like to see progressives mobilized outside the Democratic Party or Obama.

The human toll with this drug policy is tragic--and we can't expect the MSM to bring this to the forefront.

I will be kicking you a little money later this week, Al (because you fulfill my expectations as an honest and empathetic journalist).

Thanks for bringing this to the forefront of conversation.  I am doing my best to alter my thinking and behavior-and to not become cynical and apathetic.

There's always many trees to grow--and I won't wait for 'change' to come from upon high.  That would be silly.

 

 

 

1st shot

Ok, the responses sucked, granted. But I'm willing to spot them a little slack for the first time out - the mere fact the transition team asked for input in the first place is a huge step forward. And who knows what might be going on behind the scenes with that data...

Rather than a lot of bitching here, I think the suggestion above to provide feedback to the site is worthwhile action.

http://change.gov/page/s/askfeedback

I've was pleasantly surprised and impressed how much the campaign responded to suggestions I made during the election, even at the upper levels of the state brain trust. I'm willing to take a few mins to give the team some appropriate feedback and see if they use it as a learning opportunity - they have plenty of times before.

I just made the suggestion that Obama tackle some of these questions during the weekly YouTube messages - how cool would that be?

The Third Front

It is short-sighted for the Obama administration to not take these questions seriously. The bullets are coming this way, across the border, in greater numbers every day.

This isn't about esoteric policy questions; it will become increasingly, just as in Juarez [the laboratory of our future, a term journalist Chuck Bowden coined years ago] about life and death for even middle class America.

That is not hyperbole.

We can chose the path of more militarization and bullets, or we can wise up and pursue more enlightened policies that reduce the harm and benefit the many over the few who profit from the death machine.

Reality will soon collide with false drug-policy theory and create a dissonance that will shake loose the facade that conceals the blood in the streets and the houses of death across this country. It is no longer confined to the lands south of the border.

Time is not on the side of the institutionally endowed policy wonks on this one. The front of America's "third" war is at our doorstep, and we are not winning this one either.

It is what it is. The question is what will Obama be in the face of this challenge. He is a fool if he ignores that question, and waits for the bullets to hit the bones of the nation.

I work in research and one

I work in research and one of the things we do is implementing best practices. When we are trying to use new tools and we engage our primary care community (doctors, nurses, etc) we frankly never get it right the first time. To achieve success, or to come as close to it as possible takes a great deal of stakeholder (community) engagement, of testing the tools, seeing what works and what does not and how best we could communicate and how or what kind of language or terms we should use so we could have a better understanding or outcome.

 

I am disappointed that you naively believe that the first engagement using this new tool by Obama's transition team would somehow be perfect.

 

Think of what Obama is doing at change.gov as a pilot test, where they are testing a new product (engaging citizens), they are creating something that has never been done before and it is not going to be perfect but they hope you will still engage/participate in it because the end product will be a good one.

For example, we currently have pilot study on chronic disease management and the sites we are working with know that because we are creating something new, that has not been done before that there are going to be bugs in the program but they are willing to work with us because we need to test those bugs and find solutions for them. These sites also want to work with us because the input they provide, through this exchange of dialogue/ideas, etc would lead to a better tool and they want to have a stake in the creation of it, and that their input was valued and not ignored.

That's how I interpret this process were it will be a series of engagement and missteps, were they will learn and we will learn, and eventually we will get it right.

You don't give up. The first time you play baseball you don't hit a home run. The first time you run a marathon you don't win it. The first time you try anything, anything at all that was important and matter, it took effort. It wasn't easy.

That's the first lesson of life, you try, and try and try again.

 

I am not suggesting you don't complain or critic what I am saying is that if you want your government back, you need to engage it continiously.

Looking for Phase II

Hopefully the feedback commentary will get someone's attention. Meanwhile, what's to keep those who care deeply about the issues from refusing to let the question go away. What keeps variations on the question from being re-submitted and voted up again and again? I voted on quite a few questions, but couldn't see why the simplest (and easiest to blow off) question was ahead of better constructed ones. Did that one simply get submitted ahead of the others and thus have a chance to gather more support?

I guess what I'm looking for is a strategy going forward.

Yeah

The answers were just repackaged talking points. As others have stated, this is brand new, so I'm hoping that with some feedback, they will retool the how this is run. Otherwise, they just need to scrap the whole thing.

 

 

Grass and grassroots

Most of the questions showed a progressive bent. Obama is not a progressive. Its possible that those few skimpy answers are all he has for us. He won't take the initiative to decriminalize marijuana.

Just another reminder to take Obama's advice and keep working for change ourselves rather than expecting it all to come from him.

marijuana

It would be very beneficial to the whole country if marijuana were decriminalized at the federal level and laws regarding it were left to the states. Think of the billions we could save by ending this brain-dead prohibition! I suppose Obama doesn't want to waste any political capital on this "minor" issue. Well, millions of his dedicated supporters are also serious devotees of cannabis, and he is going to lose political capital with us by NOT taking some position on this issue.

People could have voted up a better question ...

The strong interest in drug policy issues on change.gov and change.org is an excellent sign of the popularity of this issue as well as reform activists' skill at mobilizing online.  That said, a yes/no question with an obvious (and well-known) answer isn't a great way to engage.  As you point out, other drug questions were a lot more interesting; however I think the Obama team was being true to the spirit of the pilot by answering the ones that were most popular.

However it may be a mistake to focus too much on the immediate and remarkably bland responses from the Obama team.  The real question to me is whether they use this information to prioritize longer responses -- for example blog posts and videos, like this one (which responded to the #3 question).

Even on areas where Obama might disagree with his base, there was a precedent set during the campaign when he expressed his reasons for his disagreement, as when last July 3 he responded forthrightly to thousands of opponents of the FISA wiretapping bill on his campaign website.

Well, the legalization response was certainly forthright: "no".  Agreed though that it was a lot less detailed than several of the other responses, and it certainly comes across as dismissive.  That said, his response to the FISA activists was also "no" -- and it's not like the civil liberties answer in Open for Questions was so great.  So while the tone is different, the underlying challenge is the same ...

Organizing on MyBO and asking questions on Open for Questions lets a group of people come together and put an issue on the agenda.  How to build on that and actually get some change?

 

My answer to change.gov

 

I thought this 'open for questions' was a really great idea and a huge leap forward compared to how other people govern. But I am very disappointed with the tone and quality of the answers. For example, six of the top twenty questions were on drug policy, which surely is one of the areas where change is urgently needed (to reduce prison population, number of failing states etc). And what do we get? A snide one liner to the most far-reaching question, where we could have guessed the content of the answer anyhow. No reasoning, and no answer to the other five questions.

I think people will give you a lot of slack in the beginnning. This is a new feature, after all, and a very welcome one. However, it is well known that reputations are burned easier than restored.

My suggestion is to answer all the top questions to avoid the impression of cherry picking. If necessary you could restrict that to ten questions. Also, you could postpone some answers to the next cycle, if you mention it and do it afterwards (this could be useful for questions where you feel higher level staff input is needed). Also, always include some reasoning with the answer, if it will be controversial (probably always the case). You started this transparency business, you better keep up with it. It is addictive:-)

I wish you better success for the next round.

Sent to http://change.gov/page/s/askfeedback

Answering Questions Well Isn't Complicated

Erika - You can't really compare something as simple and straightforward as offering meaningful answers to questions (after having solicited those questions) to, say, "a pilot study on chronic disease management."

Writing substantive answers to questions should be the easiest thing in the world. Anybody that went to High School has done it.

You write:

"I am disappointed that you naively believe that the first engagement using this new tool by Obama's transition team would somehow be perfect."

Well, I am disappointed in return: What in my essay insists on anything being "perfect"? You don't get to distort the original intent in order to set up the bowling pins and knock them down indignantly.

Writing meaningful answers to questions is something most 15 year olds can do.

And complying with one's word - in this case, having told the people that they should ask questions because they will be answered - is something that every serious adult has to do to maintain credibility.

I'm sorry: it's just not that complicated a matter to be compared with some hospital's bureaucratic challenge. There are no long term institutional regulations hanging over the transition team preventing it from solving problems clearly and honestly.

It's this simple: If you solicit questions you have to be able to answer them. That doesn't require a "pilot project." It only requires being a man or woman of your word.

Crossposted to DKos

Here.

Mark T, sure we should cut

Mark T, sure we should cut the new jack some slack, but once all his rubber ducks are in a row and ready to quack (he is Inaugerated, cabinet issues are settled, hounds of hell are done baying about open seat in Illionois, etc., etc) all bets are off.

 

 

Simple response

Everybody re-post your questions exactly the same way, and everybody who voted, do so again, exactly the same way.

Repeat until somebody throws a shoe.

 

What's a standard for answers?

I read things quickly but one thought occurs to me:

What would be the right standard for answers to questions? I would think that a good way to close the loop would be to issue some kind of positon or strategy paper in response to the question. You could maybe do it this way:

1) Start with a quick response, but indicate the basic principles on which you'd give an answer

2) Assign the question to a staffer who would then have the job of putting a paper together on the issue, ideally in collaboration with the person who asked the question

3) Release the paper as an explanation of the position, with indications about the roles and responsibilities of the administration, congress, stakeholders (like the bailout banks, for example) as well as the citizens of America.

4) With roles delineated, the Obama community could pick up what they will and try and drive that agenda, ideally for an agreed upon period towards a specified result.

5) Repeat.

 

What do others think?

Another issue with Open for Questions

It quickly became inundated with thousands of questions, making the process of reviewing and rating them cumbersome.  Worse, many of those questions were just minutely different restatings of other questions already asked, or were just members of a particular advocacy group all piling on with similar questions instead of collectively uprating one or two well-written questions.

I suggest that the questions themselves be submitted in categories or be tagged by their originators and/or reviewers so that they can be clustered together.

Then, the managers of the forum should conflate the most commonly asked/most highly rated questions in each category into FAQs which could, in turn, be addressed by the transition team.

I uprated a few questions about R&D for childhood cancer, for example, but after a while it seemed every third question was on that topic.  Tons were submitted, but no one of them was recommended to a high level for response.  Had moderators tagged them as "childhood cancer" questions, one could peruse that category and either uprate individual questions or the entire category.

I'd think it'd be worth 20

I'd think it'd be worth 20 minutes of Obama's day to write out some relatively thoughtful answers to these questions, if only to avoid bad press.

I Don't Think Those Questions Were Going to Get A Response

Unless it can be verified that these questions are from supporters of the administration and not others using it as a potential wedge issue I can see why it would elicit a brief response. I was very surprised that these were the questions that made it in the top percentile. I think most people have other concerns related to equal opportunities in jobs and housing, education expenses and needing health care. Not everyone smokes pot, grows pot or wants to be around pot.

as promised, $25 after payday

Al, just donated $25 - as promised - after payday!

Pot, Kettle...

Faith - You write:

"Not everyone smokes pot, grows pot or wants to be around pot."

That's low, because it implies that only people that want one of those three things could possibly want to see the policy changed. It's like calling Obama a "socialist" because he favors progressive tax policy. Both are McCarthyist tactics.

True, 75 percent of the American people don't smoke pot - another 25 percent sometimes do (and more than half have tried it). But 100 percent of the people pay to put 800,000 nonviolent offenders in prison. We pay to clog the court system with those cases. We pay for the police cars roaming the neighborhoods and picking out minority kids to search for the substance (and arrest them if they have it). The mother of a teenager caught with pot in a federal housing project loses her apartment. The wife and children of a man caught growing pot lose their home and land (and often their breadwinner when he is sent to prison).

The battered wife who ends up killed because police response time is slowed by the misallocation of resources and personnel to the narcotics investigations... The schools that don't get built or staffed because the money goes to prisons... the one trillion dollars of the underground market under prohibition that goes untaxed and funds violence in towns and neighborhoods instead... You don't have to want pot, smoke it or be around it to suffer from the consequences of the policy.

Bull's-eye!

'Pot, Kettle...' is so powerful, so heart wrenching, so sensible; it would make an incredible op-ed piece. Al, do you ever submit your writing to traditional newspapers? I believe that reasonable people of all stripes would pay attention and find themselves nodding in assent in a perfect 'ah-ha' moment. Your arguments hit home.

"Not everyone smokes pot, grows pot..."

 

"Something's on your mind, isn't it?" said Arthur.

"I think," said Ford in a tone of voice which Arthur by now recognized as one which presaged something utterly unintelligible, "that there's an SEP over there."

He pointed. Curiously enough, the direction he pointed in was not the one in which he was looking. Arthur looked in the one direction, which was towards the sight-screens, and in the other which was at the field of play. He nodded, he shrugged. He shrugged again.

"A what?" he said.

"An SEP."

"An S ...?"

"... EP."

"And what's that?"

"Somebody Else's Problem."

"Ah, good," said Arthur and relaxed. He had no idea what all that was about, but at least it seemed to be over. It wasn't.

"Over there," said Ford, again pointing at the sight-screens and looking at the pitch.

"Where?" said Arthur.

"There!" said Ford.

"I see," said Arthur, who didn't.

"You do?" said Ford.

"What?" said Arthur.

"Can you see," said Ford patiently, "the SEP?"

"I thought you said that was somebody else's problem."

"That's right."

Arthur nodded slowly, carefully and with an air of immense stupidity.

"And I want to know," said Ford, "if you can see it."

"You do?"

"Yes."

"What," said Arthur, "does it look like?"

"Well, how should I know, you fool?" shouted Ford. "If you can see it, you tell me."

Arthur experienced that dull throbbing sensation just behind the temples which was a hallmark of so many of his conversations with Ford. His brain lurked like a frightened puppy in its kennel. Ford took him by the arm.

"An SEP," he said, "is something that we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. That's what SEP means. Somebody Else's Problem. The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye."

"Ah," said Arthur, "then that's why ..."

"Yes," said Ford, who knew what Arthur was going to say.

"... you've been jumping up and ..."

"Yes."

"... down, and blinking ..."

"Yes."

"... and ..."

"I think you've got the message."

 

 

Excerpted from Life, The Universe, and Everything, by Douglas Adams

 

Warren

Hmm any thoughts on Rick Warren? I would think that also gets an F.

@ Douglas Adams

Absolutely bloody brilliant.

More "pot - kettle"

There's another huge area of social and economic costs of the nation's awful drug policy and that's in the whole area of Child Welfare Services.  Incarcerating parents, particularly single parent mothers, for non violent drug offenses is breaking the nation's foster care system and is needlessly destroying the parent child bond. We can thank the Clinton Administration for mindless "Zero tolerance" guidelines regarding the whole family losing subsidized housing if junior gets arrested for possession.

Sunshine

For anybody who has any appreciation of 1) prose or 2) policy, the Obama non-responses proved to be both disheartening and disingenuous. After a majority of his appointments have proven to be exceedingly safe if not infuriatingly disappointing to Obama's progressive base, the transition team really needs to move beyond the pablum to genuine engagement with the very people that turned formerly red states blue. Non-answers to basic questions will very quickly evoke recollections of the bad-old-days that have yet to pass. Yes, what is needed is real sunshine on Mr. President Elect's policies and personnel. 

Gay-Friendly Joseph Lowery to give closing benediction

Since the inaugural came up, here's this:

The Reverend stated that we "are too easily divided and victimized by ‘weapons of mass distraction.’" Here he told the story of an African-American, Washington, DC-based pastor (who he kept nameless within his speech but who we all know to be the Reverend Willie Wilson of the 8,000-member Union Temple Baptist Church) who led his congregation down a path of division and mis-guidance, preaching and pushing for an amendment against same-sex marriage. The Reverend asked, Why care about something like same-sex marriage when millions of your own children are dying in starvation and poverty within the slums? The Reverend went on to speak on respect for all people and how that played in to Civil and Human Rights as a whole. He said that if you are one who says, "I believe in human rights for all people, except for..." then you really don’t believe in human rights or equality. To believe in equality and human rights is to believe in it for all people. If you don’t, then you are, according to the Reverend, creating an oxymoron and certainly not standing up for equality. He said no matter what race, color, religion, creed, sex, gender OR sexual orientation... we are all deserving of human rights, civil rights and equality. The Reverend said he "sometimes wonders about people who are so homophobic." Quoting Hamlet, he said, "Me thinks you doth protest too much." The audience responded with laughter and applause. He continued, "If a person is a secure in their sexuality, they have no time to waste on sneaking around to see what you are doing."

[...]

At the end, during the Question and Answer period, I rose and walked to one of the available microphones not to ask a question, but to thank the Reverend for what his message had meant to me (you can hear this on the audio). As a gay man in American, it meant more than I can describe to just sit and listen to such a great and wise Civil Rights leader like himself affirm me as a human being and affirm me as an American citizen. Thank you, Reverend Lowery.

To this, Reverend Lowery responded: "God didn’t call us to judge. He called us to love... and when you love, you have no time to judge. The Bible says that when you judge, you will be judged. With the same measure you judge, you shall be judged and none of us wants to live with that."

I Wanted to Respond to Al

I've been taking a break but just read the response. I don't agree with the drug policies of incarceration, but like I said I believe people may have different priorities, esp right now. You were being critical of how Obama responded to the questions and I was offering my opinion as to why I think they were replied to in that way. I have no idea really.

We're forced to pay for many crappy policies that the gov't forces on us because we haven't successfully negotiated out of them. One thing we can take responsibility for is fostering our minds and our choices. It's illegal and there are consequences for violation. It's not fair but that's the way it is - for now.

Some people do get to have relief for medicinal purposes and they should have access. I can't help but think how damaging that episode of Entourage was in making light of those who have a real need for its use as opposed to those that would get over on the system. Fiction it may be but it may speak to underlying reasons why some are not supportive.

And I don't consider my opinion anywhere near the evil of McCarthyism because I am an individual with little political currency.

Those people who think it's an important enough issue need to organize better to have their agenda addressed. If they'd take the curt response as a closed door and give up how willing were they to fight and how prepared were they for a long effort? They can and should make every effort for the causes they believe in. 

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About Al Giordano

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Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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