Good article in today's NY Times by Saul Hansell on President Obama's open government initiative, Ideas Online, Yes, but Some Not So Presidential.
On Jan. 21, his first full day in office, President Obama promised to open up the government, ordering officials to use modern technologies like Internet message boards and blogs to give all Americans a bigger voice in public policy…
…The experience so far shows just how hard it is to allow all voices to be heard and still have a coherent discussion. When millions of Internet users are invited to discuss every regulation, how can any real work get done? On the other hand, why bother opening up the government if views that are outside the mainstream — as defined by the usual collection of lobbyists and think tank scholars — are summarily dismissed?
The responsibility for sorting it all out falls to Ms. Noveck. She has permitted any proposal that was not abusive or repetitive onto the brainstorming site, just as the Obama transition team did not stop visitors to its Change.Gov site last fall from voting marijuana legalization as their top concern for the president-elect.
She argues that the experience of collaborative Web sites like Wikipedia proves that groups of users can police sites to keep small groups from spoiling things for everyone else. During the public brainstorming about rules for open government, the White House asked visitors to vote on the best ideas by clicking a thumbs-up or thumbs-down button, much as people vote on the most interesting news articles on sites like Digg.
I agree with Clay Shirky's statement:
“This is Obama’s Madisonian moment,” said Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University and the author of “Here Comes Everybody,” a book about Internet collaboration. Just as James Madison, the nation’s fourth president, argued during the drafting of the Constitution that the government must protect the minority against the tyranny of the majority, Mr. Shirky said that government must also prevent small groups of loudmouths from hijacking the public debate. [emphasis added]
It is amazing how small but loud voices, obviously in the minority but well-funded or well-organized (or both), can steer the conversation, sometimes to very frightening places.