Last Tuesday on Change.gov (the official website of President-elect Barack Obama), the transition team launched a public online discussion on the topic of healthcare. From the announcement on their blog:

Join the Discussion

Today we’re trying out a new feature on our website that will allow us get instant feedback from you about our top priorities. We also hope it will allow you to form communities around these issues — with the best ideas and most interesting discussions floating to the top.

The question they are asking:

What worries you most about the healthcare system in our country?

The site uses IntenseDebate, which — at a very basic level — is a threaded discussion forum (with a few added features, such as reputation points, comment ratings, OpenID support).

More than 3,500 comments have been posted so far.

One of the reasons this is interesting is because it may hint at a more participatory approach to government by the new administration, something for which a lot of people have expressed high hopes during the recent US presidential campaign. Accordingly, the initial feedback — from some in the web community, at least — has been very positive: Over on techPresident, Micah Sifry calls it “the beginning of a rebooting of the American political system,” and Eric Eldon of VentureBeat thinks of it as “a great early step in making government more open.”

I wanted to share a few initial observations, mainly with regard to process quality. How to best address some of these issues will be left for future posts but feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. For those interested in this discussion, there are a couple of threads going on on the NCDD main mailing list as well as on one of the groups at Democracies Online.

First off, though, kudos to the people behind Change.gov for experimenting with large-scale e-participation so early in the process (remember this is still just the transition, not the presidency). Despite the many challenges that have yet to be mastered in order to make it work at scale, I believe the opportunities for online dialogue and deliberation to help boost civic engagement and to improve public decision making at all levels of government are tremendous.

That said, a few things that immediately caught my eye:

  • No clear process model: Judging from the information available on the website, it is not entirely clear how exactly the comments will be processed, what impact realistically they may or may not have on any policy decisions, or what kind of follow-up and follow-through either the transition team or the new administration are willing to commit to. This can become a problem since it risks disappointing participants (e.g. when assumed impact doesn’t match actual impact and participants are left frustrated over the time and energy they spent in vain).
  • Lack of focus in the comments: Instead of simply answering the question (“What worries you…?”), many participants choose to share rich combinations of personal stories, experiences, concerns, assumptions, questions, ideas, solutions, values, priorities, resources, data etc.  While this shows just how much energy the participants bring to the table, it also tends to leave the discussion somewhat directionless. There is no process in place to further organize this input, nor does the forum software support participants in being more disciplined or structured.
  • Lack of organizer participation: I was able to spot one instance of comment deletion by the forum administrators, presumably according to their comment policy (screenshot). I may be wrong, but other than that the transition team does not seem to actively engage in the discussions (e.g. ask or answer questions, express agreement or disagreement, or otherwise facilitate the process or provide general community management etc.). I only looked at a few sample pages, though, so I may be wrong.
  • Overwhelming amounts of unstructured data: The discussion on Change.gov was off to a fast start, reaching 2,000 comments in the first 24 hours. As with many online discussion forums that reach a certain activity level, the amounts of content produced by the participants can be quite staggering. For example, total word count on this forum may well be approaching 500,000 words already (for details how I got this number, see my rough calculations). That means it becomes extremely time-consuming to keep up with even a small fraction of overall input (poor navigation adds to the problem). Moreover, the fact that this data is largely unstructured makes further processing very difficult if not impossible.

Again, this is an early assessment of a work in progress, and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if these issues will be addressed over time. The combination of a more demanding public (with regard to opportunities for meaningful e-participation) and a more interested and supportive administration (from what we’ve heard of the past year from some of the people involved) looks quite promising.