In June I moderated IT World’s Lac Carling event for senior government technology people. John Manley, former federal finance minister and candidate for the Liberal leadership in 2003, spoke about the use of social networking technology in his leadership bid. As an ‘early adopter’ he became one of the political pioneers of the use of Internet technologies for political campaigning. The internet has now become an essential political tool.
Barack Obama has used the internet in his campaign to become U.S. president to dramatic effect — more so than any of the other candidates. He expects to raise US$1 billion online — 12 times more than John Kerry in 2004. Two million people have been mobilised to work for Obama through his online activity and the Internet was used to get more people on the ground earlier than his opponents in the primary ballots.
This IT savvy approach to his political campaigning is reflected in Obama’s technology policy. He says he’ll appoint the U.S.’s first Chief Technology Officer who will be responsible for government infrastructure, policies and services as well as technology policy across the U.S. (Bush had one but his brief was solely around technology security). While these areas appear to be positively approached, there is one aspect of Obama’s policy that is particularly interesting — the creation of a “transparent and connected democracy.”
It states: “Barack Obama will use the most current technological tools available to make government less beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists and promote citizen participation in government decision-making.”
The policy goes on to say that more data will be available to citizens on the Internet, government meetings will be made viewable and “participatable” on the Internet and that cabinet officials will hold national online town hall meetings. Today, with declining numbers of voters and weak citizen engagement in politics, Obama’s technology policy should be welcomed as solid steps to improve the operation of democracy. Obama, if elected, will be the U.S.’s first technology-savvy president.
John McCain’s technology policy is, as might be expected, substantially less radical. It recognises the importance of making more information available to Americans on the Web but does not refer to the use of social networking tools as a tool to expand democracy and participation in government.
This divergence in policy between McCain and Obama may be based on the fact that they come from different generations — after all, McCain is 71 and Obama is 47 but I know plenty of elderly people who regularly use the Internet in creative ways. One of the most innovative teachers in the online MMSc that I manage at the University of Waterloo is 70. Rather, the difference in approach is based on different political beliefs. Obama is pursuing a new, more radical agenda that has at its core an increase in citizen participation in government through the use of the internet. This “new politics” would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, without the Internet.
Carr is director of the IT management program at the University of Waterloo.