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21st Century Statecraft

Kim Hart

The phrase was used frequently today by Alec Ross, a senior advisor on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to describe new tools for diplomacy. Ross said the government needs to go beyond talking about just how governments engage with other governments. Governments need to engage with people, and allow people to influence diplomatic policy.

Ross was speaking on a panel at the Center for American Progress with privacy expert and law professor Peter Swire, technology book publisher Tim O'Reilly and Faiz Shakir, research director for The Progress Report and ThinkProgress.org. It was one of Ross's first speaking engagements since taking over his new role at the State Department. Before that, he was a founding director of OneEconomy, which advocates for more widespread access to broadband and to end the digital divide.

The panel discussed a topic that is quite popular these days: How to incorporate Web 2.0 tools--such as online videos, social networking and blogging--into the federal government. While the Obama administration made a name for itself by infusing those tools into the presidential campaign, infusing the White House with the Web 2.0 culture isn't an easy transition. For one, new media staffs are smaller, Swire said. And staffers who interface with the public--whether it be responding to online comments or answering citizen questions--face much larger repercussions for giving the wrong answer or not providing the "official" response on an issue.

In his less than two months at the State Department, Ross has been pushing to increase citizen involvement with department activities. For example, he and his staff set up a text-messaging short code for citizens to use to send money to help refugees in Pakistan. By texting "SWAT" to 20222, $5 will be donated to the refugee relief fund.

Mobile technology will be the best way to include people around the world in conversations, he said, mostly because mobile devices are a primary mode of accessing the Internet in many countries. "We can't wait for ubiquitous (broadband) access for the government to get out there," Ross said. "But it's still a personal priority of mine to increase access."

O'Reilly said the government should take advantage of the real power of the Web 2.0 movement--letting as many people as possible participate in all angles of government, and "harnessing their collective intelligence." Shakir advocated two-way conversations in which the government can take the lead and set the agenda, in order to engage with citizens but also have more control over the discussion. Shakir also suggested that the government reach people on news sites and blogs by breaking news there and giving readers more access.

But should an individual working within the government be allowed to participate in the conversation as an individual, or should they remain a faceless staffer, Swire asked. O'Reilly said allowing people to reveal their identities and personalities online is key.

"If individuals in government cannot act as individuals, government will never be successful," he said. "This is all about individuals connecting with individuals."

Ross, while enthusiastic about many of the possibilities, raised practical points. He said he's encouraged by the young, Web-savvy talent that is coming into the government ranks to lead some of these projects. And ideas are getting off the ground quickly; the text message short code for refugee donations was accomplished in four days. But it will take time to find the right balance of Web 2.0 throughout the government.

"There are different levels of openness that are appropriate for different areas of government," he said.

By Kim Hart  |  June 1, 2009; 1:59 PM ET  | Category:  Kim Hart
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To watch the video primer, please go here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qplAFVy_Hqk

Posted by: CAP5 | June 1, 2009 5:35 PM

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