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Analog Laws and 21st Century Statecraft

stylized image of the White House with text White House 2.0One Thursday in May, a State Department staffer suggested a simple idea to get U.S. citizens involved in the government’s relief efforts in Pakistan. The following Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a simple text donation program. Sending the word “Swat,” the name of a valley in the relief area, to 20222 sends a $5 donation to the United Nations High Commission fund for supplies for refugees caught in a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Alec Ross, senior adviser on innovation to Secretary Clinton, explained the mobile-powered donation project in a conversation about New Media and public diplomacy at the Center for American Progress yesterday. Outreach efforts like these are “going to expand and enhance the way the U.S. government and its people can interact with a wider world,” Ross said.

Ross joined Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Faiz Shakir, research director for ThinkProgress.org, and CAP Senior Fellow Peter Swire to discuss Web 2.0 and the federal government.

Standard procedure for State Department initiatives now includes asking what New Media outreach can support the administration’s foreign policy work, Ross said. But he also explained this is new territory for a government that lost ground on innovation over the past eight years. “Innovation is in our DNA,” he said of the new administration.

O’Reilly applauded the creative use of technology in government outreach and went back to his earliest definitions of “Web 2.0″ to describe what he saw as crucial next steps. Pointing to the success of online communities like Craigslist.com, he said the key approaches are “harnessing collective intelligence” and “building systems that get better the more people use them.”

“How do we use technology to bring people together to do things we can’t do alone?” he asked.

Shakir described New Media as a tool for creating a “two-way conversation that government leads,” pointing to the Nowruz video President Obama recorded earlier this year as a public diplomacy effort to engage with the citizens of Iran.

Conversation also circled around the thorny issue of using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to offer direct communication between citizens and government officials. “If individuals in government can’t act as individuals, social media will never be effective in government,” said O’Reilly, “The authenticity of a conversation is central for social media.” To this, Swire repeated the cautionary warning from his papers on Web 2.0 policy: in the federal government, clearance is very important, as complex issues like foreign relations don’t always lend themselves to rapid-response blog posts or friend messages. On the campaign trail, a careless talking point gets lost in the news cycle and forgotten, he said; but in governing, a slip up, in the worst-case scenario, could send missiles flying from a temperamental dictatorship.

But in areas where it makes sense to collect and absorb public comments or input, the panel did point to policies that make it hard to harness citizen ideas and expertise. Ross described the lack of legal framework for implementing many Web 2.0 tools as part of government operations. There are “analog age laws that are attached to things we’re trying to do in the 21st century,” he said. “A lot of my friends in New Media spend more time talking to lawyers than they spend talking to geeks.” Hence the utility of Swire’s analysis.

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