After President-elect Obama nominated Tom Daschle for health secretary, Obama’s team–in a first for a presidential transition– invited people to post comments regarding health policy on his Web site, change.gov, attracting more than 3,700 responses. Then they had Daschle and a policy aide to record a video earlier this week to directly answer those citizen comments online.
It’s a small taste of a Web-centric communications strategy to come. With about six weeks to go until Obama’s inauguration, more Web feedback efforts are in the works, and the Obama team is planning to release a kind of digital campaign yearbook. They are also sketching out the administration’s new-media strategy. While the details of that strategy are unknown, the president will have at his disposal databases of unprecedented size and sophistication on his supporters–and voters generally–including their views and their past efforts as pro-Obama volunteers.
In the near term, the public can expect more features on change.gov, says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, cofounder of Blue State Digital, the company that built that site and the campaign’s online social-networking tools. “One of the things the transition team was keen to do was open the site to the best ideas that were out there, in terms of technology,” says Franklin-Hodge. IntenseDebate, for example, supplied the commenting tool used for feedback forums such as Daschle’s. “There are a few other [third-party tools] coming that are likely to get integrated into the site.”
The administration is also planning to release a digital paean to supporters. Shortly after Obama won, change.gov invited people to share stories from the campaign’s front lines. “They will be packaged and used as part of the inauguration–stories showing the value of the lone organizer,” says Thomas Gensemer, managing partner of Blue State Digital. “You can imagine almost a yearbook. [Obama’s people] are collecting a ton of really personal content, so it makes sense to have an archive of it online.” This will be one of the ways the president-elect tries to maintain online ties to his supporters–reachable through an email list 13 million strong–the biggest in U.S political history.
In the longer term, if Obama wants to turn these celebrated lone campaign organizers into a collective cudgel to influence policy, what’s clear is that an arsenal of tools awaits. Lists of voters–once consisting of spreadsheets of spotty accuracy–are now updated and refined digital assets available through new online interfaces. Much of this overhaul was accomplished in the past couple of years by Voter Activation Network, in Somerville, MA.