Archive for the ‘Public Engagment’ Category

Infrastructure for the “National Dialogue”

May 4, 2012

Now that we have software which can handle robust conversations, we’ve been focusing on novel ways to use it.  As we continue to develop business in existing markets, it looks like our next flagship project will be on finding ways to improve the “national dialogue”.

Currently the “national dialogue” exists largely in sound bites, and that is problematic.  There is much potential for blending online and in-person discussions, distributed across the country.  We’ve had some exciting conversations over the past few days with potential partner organizations in Washington, DC.  If this is something your organization would like to be involved in, please drop us a note.  We will be taking an iterative approach toward creating the conditions for productive conversations by experimenting with different online tools.


Empower Your Base

April 25, 2011

I had a good discussion with a local political organizer near DC this evening.  The discussion was about why he wouldn’t consider using Web 2.0 tools to empower his base but instead uses them in a traditional style for one-way broadcasting of information.

He mentioned that the most pressing need is to generate content for his base to read.  My closing thought to him was that he could relieve that pressure on himself by letting his base generate some of that content.

Tools like AthenaBridge can help, because they let campaigns ask key questions and then invite voters to the table to discuss these questions.

Campaigns should empower their voters with an opportunity to be heard, and then campaigns should prepare to be surprised– yes some of the content will not be worthwhile, but a tremendous amount will be valuable, providing new insights and strategies that can bubble up into the campaign’s official talking points and strategies.

Web 2.0 offers a way to more fully harness the intellectual capital that volunteers bring to the table.  When these volunteers know they are being heard and not just talked to, they’ll step up and be your biggest advocates.

NASA and Local OpenGov Innovation Summits

March 18, 2011

Recently, we’ve been involved with two great initiatives to increase transparency, public participation, can collaboration in government:

Later this month we are facilitating the remote participation process for the NASA Open Source Summit at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA.  If you’re interested in open source software or changing government policy to accommodate open source software, please do sign up.

Also, under the banner of, we also began preparations for 100+ local summits where members of the open government community could help their local public officials navigate the waters of public participation and transparency.  We found local organizers in 40 cities in a dozen countries, but that didn’t reach critical mass of 100 cities.  We are adjusting the plan and will launch the next iteration of the plan with some additional partners in a few weeks.

It’s wonderful to see the energy across the open gov community.  Here is a map of the locations where organizers did sign up (click to see details and zoom in):

The American Townhall on National Politics

June 23, 2010

We’re running the American Townhall on National Politics at AmericanTownhalls.Org from June 23-27, 2010.  This is an experiment to blend several formats for participation: blog + Twitter + YouTube + AthenaBridge + BlogTalkRadio + + Olark chat + Email.

There’s probably too much going on, but hopefully we’ll learn enough from this model to see what works and what doesn’t.  Check it out and please feel free to join in!

The Importance of Civil Debate

June 11, 2010

President Obama on the importance of civil debate at the University of Michigan commencement speech (source: Huffington Post):

The second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate. These arguments we’re having over government and health care and war and taxes are serious arguments. They should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everyone to join in the debate, with all the rigor that a free people require.

But we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.

Again, we have seen this kind of politics in the past. It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth.

The problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized.

The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning – since after all, why should we listen to a “fascist” or “socialist” or “right wing nut?” It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what can we do about this?

As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash and burn politics isn’t easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.

But civility in this age also requires something more.

Today’s twenty-four seven echo chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before. It has also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most of America used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows.

This development can be both good and bad for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we will become more polarized and set in our ways. And that will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country. But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.

This of course requires that we all agree on a certain set of facts to debate from, and that is why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Still, if you’re someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.

So too is the practice of engaging in different experiences with different kinds of people. For four years at Michigan, you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars; professors and students. Do not narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with some who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your race or your ethnicity or your religion, broaden your circle to include people who’ve had different backgrounds and life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and in the process, you’ll help make this democracy work.

The last ingredient in a functioning democracy is perhaps the most basic: participation.

I understand that one effect of today’s poisonous political climate is to push people away from participation in public life. If all you see when you turn on the television is name-calling; if all you hear about is how special interest lobbying and partisanship prevented Washington from getting something done, you might think to yourself, “What’s the point of getting involved?”

The point is, when we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders; when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day; when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused. That’s when the most extreme voices in our society fill the void that we leave. That’s when powerful interests and their lobbyists are most able to buy access and influence in the corridors of Washington – because none of us are there to speak up and stop them.

Participation in public life doesn’t mean that you all have to run for public office – though we could certainly use some fresh faces in Washington. But it does mean that you should pay attention and contribute in any way that you can. Stay informed. Write letters, or make phone calls on behalf of an issue you care about. If electoral politics isn’t your thing, continue the tradition so many of you started here at Michigan and find a way to serve your community and your country – an act that will help you stay connected to your fellow citizens and improve the lives of those around you.

It was fifty years ago that a young candidate for president came here to Michigan and delivered a speech that inspired one of the most successful service projects in American history. And as John F. Kennedy described the ideals behind what would become the Peace Corps, he issued a challenge to the students who had assembled in Ann Arbor on that October night: “…[O]n your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country…will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can.”

This democracy we have is a precious thing. For all the arguments and all the doubts and all the cynicism that’s out there today, we should never forget that as Americans, we enjoy more freedoms and opportunities than citizens in any other nation on Earth. We are free to speak our mind and worship as we please; to choose our leaders and criticize them if they let us down. We have the chance to get an education, work hard, and give our children a better life.

None of this came easy. None of it was preordained. The men and women who sat in your chairs ten years ago and fifty years ago and one hundred years ago – they made America possible. And there is no guarantee that the graduates who will sit here in ten or fifty or one hundred years from now will enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that we do. America’s success has never been a given. Our nation’s destiny has never been certain.

What is certain – what has always been certain – is our ability to shape that destiny. That is what makes us different. That is what makes us American – our ability at the end of the day to look past all of our differences and all of our disagreements and still forge a common future. That task is now in your hands, as is the answer to the question posed at this university half a century ago about whether a free society can still compete.

If you are as willing, as past generations were willing, to contribute part of your life to the life of this country, then I, like President Kennedy, still believe we can. Congratulations on your graduation. May God Bless You, and may God Bless the United States of America.

Three Great OpenGov/Participation Events in DC

March 30, 2010

As federal agencies near the April 7th deadline to release their implementation plans, there’s no shortage of energy surrounding the Open Government Directive.

There are three great events in DC that you won’t want to miss if you’re within driving distance: ParticipationCamp on April 17th and 18, and the half-day April Open Government Directive Workshop on April 28th.  Both events are using the Open Space method.  You’ll also see information below about a discount to the Politics Online Conference April 19-20th.

ParticipationCamp and Politics Online Conference Discount

The purpose of ParticipationCamp is to advance the conversation about open government so that it begins to evolve past data transparency and dive deeper into the various forms of in-person and online participation.  It’s critical for our field to be a part of the conversation about open government; there is time to shape the foundation while the concrete is still drying.

No one makes money from ParticipationCamp– the registration fee of $20 merely covers expenses.  It’s amazing that unconferences such as these self-organize in the first place.  Wayne Burke of the Open Forum Foundation has taken the lead this year in putting it together.  ParticipationCamp was renamed from eDemocracyCamp which NCDD member Tim Bonnemann started in 2007.

If you sign up by April 6th, you’ll be able to purchase a ticket for the Politics Online Conference at the significantly discounted rate of $150 (details are emailed to you after you register by the 6th).  I’ve attended the Politics Online Conference for the last three years and I’m always impressed at pace of innovation in politics.  This conference is tech-heavy, so if you’re not into tech and want to be, this is a great way to jump in.

April Open Government Directive Workshop

I am one of the co-organizers of the monthly Open Government Directive Workshop Series.  The November workshop and January workshop with the Department of Transportation were facilitated by NCDD member Kaliya Hamlin and the February workshop with the General Services Administration was facilitated by NCDD member Alexander Moll.

For April through November, we are transitioning to half-day workshops to make it easier for higher ranking officials to attend without missing too much work.  This senior-level buy-in is critical to achieving the cultural shift that is required to change business processes.

We are using a hybrid online/offline model to make the best use of everyone’s time.  The main event is the open space dialogues on April 28th.  We’ll use discussion forums prior to the in-person workshop to get a head start on the conversation.  We’ll use the wiki at the OpenGov Playbook to publish and refine the notes after the workshop.

We'll use an online/offline hybrid model of participation.

Of course it’s critical to start with a blank agenda wall for open space, so discussions that were already started online do not necessarily have to be chosen as sessions during the workshop.  To encourage federal employees to take the lead vis a vis contractors, we’re giving them the responsibility of choosing all sessions and creating the agenda.  Topping out at about 135 participants, the workshop will have an equal number of participants from the public and private sectors.

Of course, it’s ideal to devote far more than a half-day to open space, but we can compensate for this weak point in the design with increased frequency and continuing to hold these workshops on a monthly basis.  If you have any suggestions for improving the process, please let us know in the comments section.

Here is a link to register for the April workshop.  We hope to see you there!

Evolving Beyond Two-Way Dialogue

February 24, 2010

This article is written for non-profit organizations and government agencies that are having difficulty transitioning from a broadcast model of communication to one that is participatory and engaging.

Your organization is probably better at organizing its members and its public rather than empowering them, and that’s understandable– after all, that model has been successful for a long time!

But culture change is running deep and wide across our economy; entire industries are being reshaped by the decentralized nature of the Internet.  These trends reveal an opportunity for you to connect with the public and authentically empower them as partners in solving the problems that your organization set out to solve.

There are three generations of organizational communications: one-to-many, two-way, and many-to-many.  If your organization has resisted the trend toward two-way dialogue of recent years and currently uses a one-to-many model, there’s still time for it to catch up and perhaps even leap ahead of its peers.

Just as many developing nations skipped the era of land line telephones and jumped straight to mobile technology, your organization can skip the growing pains associated with two-way dialogue and ease right into a more resilient, networked model of many-to-many communication.

Three Models of Communication

One-to-many communication includes TV ads, speeches, and brochures. Two-way dialogue includes Facebook pages with limited discussion capabilities. Many-to-many communication involves large conversations with advanced forum software, just one of which is AthenaBridge.

Each form of communication is useful for different purposes, depending on the level of engagement you desire and whether you are seeking convergent or divergent thinking:

We’re definitely not saying our software is the only solution; we are saying that methods involving many-to-many communication offer significant advantages over two-way communication:

  • It’s easier (and more cost-effective) for your organization to listen to 500 people converse with each other than it is to respond to 500 individual emails.  After listening, you can engage your network with the benefit of learning where they stand and hearing what they are prepared to do to help you.  After all, every person you hire to respond to emails and Twitter messages is a person you could have hired to help you directly with your mission.  However by effectively tapping the network, your communications staff can create a disproportionately large and positive impact on your mission.
  • Many-to-many communication empowers your network to embrace your mission on a deeper level; it’s easy to forget that you are not alone– the public, your public, cares. Members of your public are eager to help you accomplish your mission at their local level while these large conversations help you flex your network and prepare for focused and synchronized action at the national level.
  • As more people engage, the value of the conversation increases while your workload does not.  Larger audiences provide balance and serve as more resilient filters and quality control.

Successful communication is work, and many-to-many communication faces the following obstacles:

  • More often than we’d like to see, non-profit organizations are afraid to lose control.  They fear that if they empower their members to speak, then the ensuing conversation will reveal internal divisions.  Solution: This shouldn’t hold you back; a diversity of opinion makes your organization more resilient and relevant by injecting vital ideas into your decision-making cycle.  Healthy discussion is essential.
  • Government agencies and non-profits are understaffed and are not enthusiastic about handling waves of public comments.  Solution: Rather than relying on a channel for two-way communication and collecting isolated and conflicting comments that your staff will have to process, enable a conversation among your network.  It’s far easier to take a listening role, have your network sort out their disagreements, and filter out the best ideas for you.  Once you’re at this stage, you will know exactly how to reach and inspire them to action.

There is no easy path, and many-to-many communication takes significant work to get right.  Fortunately, it’s less work than two-way dialogue which often gives the public the unreasonable expectation that you can respond to every email with a unique and personal note.  Here are some of the key elements for successful many-to-many communication campaigns:

  • Trust your public.  Harness the best of their energy and expertise.
  • Stay engaged and curate the conversation.  A little structure and guidance up front can provide significant returns on investment down the road.
  • Demonstrate that you’re eager to learn and not afraid to innovate.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the trends are becoming increasingly clear: the transformative organizations of the next decade will embrace a networked model of openness and mass collaboration.

You may also be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.

Current Statistics about the Field of Dialogue and Deliberation

February 23, 2010

Caroline Lee and Francesca Polletta recently completed a remarkable survey on the field of dialogue and deliberation.

We at AthenaBridge have been big fans of this field for years and it’s great to understand its demographics on a deeper level.  This survey is definitely worth a look!

Data about Anonymous Online Comments and Citizen Participation with Government

August 9, 2009

Whether they may or may not be well-founded in reality, people have very real fears about what government does with private information. If the White House moves toward requiring real names during online dialogue, it will exclude too many voices from the national conversation.

To test this hypothesis, we decided to do a small scientific experiment with a random sample of 50 American tourists in front of the US Capitol yesterday morning (it would be wonderful to see this survey repeated on a larger scale).  We asked whether they are more likely or less likely to participate in a national online conversation about health care if they were required to provide their real name.  Here are the four questions we asked:

  1. President Obama and Vice President Biden may be holding a national dialogue online about national health care.  Would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name?  A lot or a little?
  2. If it was four years ago and President Bush and Vice President Cheney were holding a national dialogue online about the Iraq War, would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name?  A lot or a little?
  3. How would you describe yourself on the political spectrum?
  4. How often do you comment on blogs, news articles, or similar discussion websites? (never/rarely/sometimes/often)

These were the results:

  • 38% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Obama/Biden Administration if they were required to use their real name
  • 40% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Bush/Cheney Administration if they were required to use their real name
  • 48% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name
  • 26% changed their mind depending on which administration was in charge

We find the last statistic particularly important.  26% of the sample population would change their mind depending on who is in charge.  Unfortunately when we make a policy, it doesn’t change as easily as the public can change its mind.  That’s why we must make a policy that all Americans are happy with, regardless of which administration is in power.

The resiliency of our democracy comes from our institutions, and such policies form the foundation of our institutions.  The new administration has fortunately established a precedent which gives equal weight to anonymous comments on the White House website.

The survey allowed people to label themselves however they like or to decline to state where they stand on the political spectrum.  We aggregated the self descriptions into the following broad categories:


  • 53% of people on the left are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 28% of people in the center are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 47% of people on the right are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 50% of people in the other categories are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.

For the purposes of this survey, we didn’t want to force people in categories so we let them use any words they wanted to describe themselves.  Here is the above chart broken down by self-described categories:


On the flip side of the discussion– in support of anonymity, 24% would be “more likely” or “a lot more likely” to participate with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name, some stating that they would “really like to tell them what they think” by signing their real name.

One unexpected benefit of doing the survey was that we interviewed a few officers from the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.  One of them mentioned that their job prevents them from joining political conversations about health care and another from the group disagreed with him.  They had a back-and-forth conversation and concluded that the regulations weren’t clear.  Regardless of what the regulations actually allow, they intimidate health service officers from using their real name in online conversations.

We suspect that the situation above might be more common than we think in many other industries where people aren’t forbidden from stating their opinion, but they surely wouldn’t want their boss to know their political opinion, especially if it goes against the official position of their employing organization.

So we stand for anonymity on the principles of fairness and inclusion, even though it may reduce the quality of discussion.  We also stand against “separate but equal” status for anonymous commenting– our position is that if the instructions in encourage using real names but allows anonymous comments, those making anonymous comments will be relegated to second-class citizens, and their ideas will not be given full weight.

More data about our survey population:

  • 36% female, 64% male
  • 100% American citizens or residents
  • 100% tourists from outside DC with enough time and money to travel to visit the US Capitol building– this indicates that they would probably also have the time to comment on the White House website in a national dialogue; more data is necessary from people that do not have that luxury to find out how they can be included.
  • frequency of commenting online:


If you’re interested in playing with the raw data it is here.  We’re interested in diving into this in a deeper way, so please contact us with your critiques and suggestions.

UPDATE: Here is another post which specifies reasons why anonymous comments must be protected.  Also see Ken Gilligren’s extension of these concepts to include

  • The public case for anonymity in the context of participation
  • The private case for anonymity in the context of mutual respect
  • The corporate case for anonymity in the context of innovation