Updated at 5.30pm, 4 June 2009
WHEN Barack Obama first became the US president, he issued a memo to his team, saying the government should be transparent, participatory and collaborative.
Demonstrating his commitment to at least the participatory bit, Obama had his first virtual town hall on 26 March 2009. During the event held at the White House, he tackled some of the questions that the public sent to the White House’s website.
The questions say a lot about the people who asked them and what they were concerned about. The virtual town hall, meanwhile, says a lot about the president’s efforts to be open and responsive to questions from the ground.
Despite its limitations, it looks like an initiative that can be adopted in Malaysia, where a transition of power is under way and the nation will soon have a new prime minister.
Open for Questions
The questions for Obama, in text and video, were submitted via the Open for Questions section set up on the White House’s website on 24 March. A total of 92,937 people submitted 103,996 questions and cast 3,603,622 votes for the most popular or important questions.
“This is an experiment but it’s also an exciting opportunity for me to look at a computer and get a snapshot of what Americans across the country care about,” Obama said when announcing the initiative.
“We may not always agree on everything but this way I can get a sense of your concerns and give you some straight answers,” he was quoted as saying in an AFP report.
The virtual town hall was streamed live on the internet. The White House also put up a video and transcript of it on its website later.
The questions were on various topics, such as the budget, financial stability, health care and employment.
“Why can we not have a universal health care system like many European countries, where people are treated based on needs, rather than financial resources?” asked Richard.
It was voted one of the more popular questions. “I actually want a universal health care system; that is our goal. I think we should be able to provide health insurance to [Americans] that they can afford and that provides them high quality,” Obama replied at the virtual town hall. He said there were various ways to do this and find an “optimal system”.
But the most popular question — at least in the green jobs and energy, financial stability and budget sections — was whether the Obama administration would legalise marijuana. “Would you support the bill currently going through the California legislation to legalise and tax marijuana, boosting the economy and reducing drug cartel related violence?” Anthony asked.
Cannabis bud (pic by Ryan Bushby, source: wikipedia.org)
The issue’s popularity was not lost on Obama. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” he joked. “The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy — (laughter) — to grow our economy.”
During the press secretary Robert Gibbs’s daily briefing later, the media picked up where the citizen questions had left off, said a report by The Nation. At the briefing, Gibbs also attributed the deluge of questions on legalising marijuana to interest groups. He may not be entirely wrong. This CNET article noted that Marijuana.com and The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws had asked their visitors to go to the White House’s website and “get our cause to the top page again“.
Ask the President
Obama’s promise of a participatory government has also prompted various organisations to see how far he would go. On 19 March, Personal Democracy Forum teamed up with The Nation and The Washington Times to launch “Ask the President”. The public can submit any question they have for Obama and the two publications’ reporters will try to ask the most popular questions at the president’s press conferences.
Visitors to the website may submit questions in text or video, view other people’s questions, and vote for questions they think are most important. At 7pm on 30 March (Malaysian time), 50,471 votes had been received from 6,915 voters. No answers were posted yet though.
NBC News and CBS News also invited Americans to pose their questions to Obama via their respective reporters.
Ask the PM?
Do Malaysians want their prime minister to be just as open in responding to their questions? What would these questions say about the people who raised them, their concerns and what they think of the prime minister? What would the answers from the prime minister say about the person holding this important office?
These questions should be directed at Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who is now Umno president and, by convention, will become prime minister when he is sworn in on 3 April.
For a start, Najib has demonstrated some degree of openness to embrace internet technology to disseminate his views and garner feedback. We’re not sure if he is just as open to embrace the online media though — he did not intervene when Umno leaders denied media passes to the online media covering the party’s recent general assembly.
Najib’s website, 1 Malaysia, has his articles, photos, speeches and schedule. The website also includes Najib’s blog, which publishes moderated feedback from visitors.
Critics may dismiss 1 Malaysia — or Obama’s Open for Questions for the matter — as nothing more than a public relations exercise. But there is a clear difference between how the two leaders respond to questions or feedback from the ground. Obama set up a Q&A initiative through Open for Questions. It was near impossible to answer all the questions raised but he did try to answer those rated as most popular.
I may be mistaken but it does not look like Najib responds to specific questions or issues raised on his blog. However, he does acknowledge that feedback from visitors on certain issues has helped to keep him in touch with people’s concerns.
This in turn has helped him prepare policies, such as the mini budget announced on 10 March. “For many of you who have shared your thoughts and suggestions, thank you once again. Some of them have indeed been incorporated or included as a hybrid from your original ideas,” he said in a blog posting.
Using the blog to glean feedback is a good start — at least it looks more interactive than the dormant Warkah untuk PM. The next challenge is to have some kind of two-way participatory initiative, like what Open for Questions and Ask the President tried to establish, and to provide acceptable response.
Najib at the Umno general assembly (pic courtesy of theSun)
Do you have any burning questions you want to ask the new prime minister? Send them to [email protected]. Unfortunately, we don’t have the human or financial resources to set up and manage anything that allows visitors to vote for the most important questions. So e-mail will have to do for now. (Note: The e-mail addresses will not be revealed to any third party. You may sign off with a pseudonym if you wish to.)
Submission — in text, video, podcast or any other format that can be clearly understood — is open from today till a month after the new prime minister officially takes office. A report on the questions received will be the topic of this column after that. The Nut Graph will also try to present the three most-asked questions to the prime minister.
(Note posted on 4 June 2009: We’re sorry but there won’t be a follow-up story as there were no questions e-mailed during the one month period.)
Cindy Tham is interested in how different people and organisations promote their ideas, brands, products and services on the internet, whether for commercial or non-commercial reasons.