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    Got a Question? The Obama Transition Team has Answers -- and Plenty of Sunlight

    The Obama Presidential Transition continues to be one of the speediest ever -- this bodes well for the new president's ability to decisively govern in these chaotic times. While the team has tried to keep some things -- like the vetting of potential cabinet officers -- close to the vest, in other ways the transition process has been one of the most open and interactive in history. The Obama team is playing it smart, and converting their grassroots machinery from that of a get-out-the-vote operation to policy participation. This also bodes well for the new president's style -- because when it's all said and done, people just want to know they've been heard. Folks want a forum to vent, share ideas, connect -- and even if they are not happy with the end decision they are still much more likely to be supportive simply because they were part of the process. I expect this formidable machine will also soon be aimed at Congress -- in the form of constituent email and phone calls -- as the Obama administration seeks to implement some of its proposals.

    Have you been participating in the transition process? I have -- through work via many many meetings, but also personally through the website. My professional interactions with the team have been productive and useful. The Transition Team clearly wants to hear from constituency groups, and are interested in concrete ideas -- not rhetoric. I have found this to be very refreshing -- I don't have to prove to them there's a (healthcare, economic, housing, crime, education, etc,) crisis -- they know this already. What the team cares about are serious suggestions for righting the ship. These meetings are public, in a sense, because of the Your Seat at the Table feature. Here you can view information submitted to the Transition Team -- they post EVERY document they get, so much so that advocacy organizations are now careful about what they give the team in writing. At the very beginning of the transition process, some stuff that was intended to be confidential -- that details strategy and opposition research, for example -- was posted, much to the senders' chagrin. Still, is there such a thing as too much sunlight? People are adapting, trust me, and have figured out how to interact without giving away the farm to the rightwing.

    The agency review teams are also drawing to a close, and their work has been critically important. The reviews teams are responsible for essentially evaluating the agencies to see what is happening as well as what is NOT happening, including what has been discontinued, shelved, overly politicized, or just plain screwed up beyond all recognition. From the web site:

    The Agency Review Teams for the Obama-Biden Transition will complete a thorough review of key departments, agencies and commissions of the United States government, as well as the White House, to provide the President-elect, Vice President-elect, and key advisers with information needed to make strategic policy, budgetary, and personnel decisions prior to the inauguration. The Teams will ensure that senior appointees have the information necessary to complete the confirmation process, lead their departments, and begin implementing signature policy initiatives immediately after they are sworn in.

    Impressively, most of the folks on the review teams are volunteers. Highly connected, very experienced, committed volunteers. Many used to work for the federal government before the Bush administration scared away anyone who was even remotely progressive, cared about good government, disagreed with them or, god forbid, were "out" Democrats. Yep, openly blue Democrats were often ousted after witch hunts -- you think it only happened at the Department of Justice? If only that were the only case -- but these last eight years have seen the most severe, crippling brain drain and loss of institutional memory the federal government has ever experienced, brought to you by Bush/Cheney and their minions. Now, these good people on the agency review teams -- some Democrats, some not, but all part of a Democratic government in exile -- have returned to try to clean up the mind-boggling mess that has been left for Obama and company.

    You might already know that the Transition Team has also recently launched a new feature called Open for Questions. Thousands of people responded, asking more than 10,000 questions and voting nearly a million times on questions from others -- dictating which ones people most want the Transition Team to address. Now that the team has answered some of the most popular queries from the last round, the team is up for Round Two. You can ask whatever you like -- and are encouraged to go back to vote on the questions submitted by others. Answers to this latest round of questions will be posted after the New Year.

    You really should take a gander at the transition web site if you haven't already. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the open, interactive process that's been constructed. I think all this sunlight -- after eight years in the dark, being force fed fertilizer like a mushroom -- will make for a refreshing, productive change. But it only works if we take part.



    Welcome to Dag, ZR!

    I have been checking out the Web site regularly and have been mightily impressed. As far as I'm concerned, it's the first campaign promise--transparency in government--kept. It's a very good sign.

    Welcome #3. And go easy on the Kool-Aid. :) I'm glad to hear from someone involved with the transition that Obama is making good on his transparency promises. I felt that his emphasis on transparency was underappreciated during the primary and the general election battles, since it's not very sexy.

    Two questions for the expert, if I may: First, do you feel that the solicitations for input, like "open for questions" will have significant effect on policy or just provide a way for people to feel included? Second, the Clinton Administration was known for adjusting policy based on polling data and in response to the old "special interests." How does the new openness differ from prior political practices?

    Good questions, Genghis. Lemme see if I can do 'em justice. Here goes:

    Do I think that solicitations for input will impact policy, or is it simply a way to make people feel included?  Well, I do think it will have some impact... in moderation. Let's be clear that Obama has honed his ideas over the course of an almost two-year campaign. His policy platforms are pretty well developed -- and a lot of the volunteers who helped him develop those positions were on the agency review teams. So while I don't think you'll see wholesale shifts in policy based on this public input, there might be fine turning -- particuarly in the "how." This is where advocacy groups have not only come up with great ideas but developed roadmaps to make 'em happen (opposition research, as well as executive order, legislative, or regulatory langauge, etc.). This is a good thing, in many ways -- it will help the administration move much more quickly than if they had to develop everything from scratch themselves. I know special interests have gotten a bad rap of late, but the reality is that they can be useful to the process in this way -- and the administration will not adopt any ideas at face value. All these proposals will be filtered through Obama's own priorities, agenda, and moral compass.

    What I do think, however, is that all this input is a brilliant way to see how the public talks about the issues they care about -- it's like one ginormous focus group, and these comments can be used to hone the message and clean up any ragged edges. Now, I don't want that to sound overly cynical... I suppose one could dissect the input activity as simply a way to tell the people what they want to hear, to curry favor. But the other side of the coin makes more sense to me -- that the transition team is going to use the info to create messages that answer the most pressing, common questions that people have. In that way, the administration can more effectively sell its ideas and garner support -- by telling the public about what they've asked to know, rather than what the administration thinks they should know... two very different things.

    ...which leads me to the next question...

    Clinton admnistration was known for testing the winds and adjusting policy based on polling data and "old special interests" -- how does the new openness differ from prior political practices?  Hmmm... well, in all honesty, my experience in the Clinton administration was different, but then I came in after he'd already gotten elected. They certainly interacted with special interest groups, but more so to get them on board after the fact than in truly developing policy. That's not to say that the Clintons didn't listen to public or special interest input -- they did to an extent. But they did a lot of governing by polls, and we should never forget that triangulation was Bill's middle name. Then again, if they hadn't used the polls -- with a Republican Congress and scandals galore -- he might not have gotten re-elected. And truthfully, while Obama's team is more open, his team is also filled with past Clintonites who better understand the need to work with outside groups and the public to get things done, as well as the most innovative grassroots engagement thinkers in the country. Plus, the tools available -- e-advocacy, facebook, twitter, blogs -- have made Obama's effort to be more inclusive and transparent that much easier.  So yes, if Clinton comes out wanting in this comparison I would have to say some of the difference is mindset, but some is also simply know-how and ingenuity, and having the right tools for the job.

    Thanks for the detailed answers. I've suspected that the inclusion part of Obama's platform is a bit of a gimmick--maybe b/c I've received too many fundraising emails telling me that I'm part of the team--so I'm interested in hearing how your views evolve once Obama begins to govern. I'm more enthusiastic about the transparency aspect which I believe could help to limit government abuse and corporate influence. We had a big, unhealthy dose of such abuse under the Bush-Cheney regime. I really hope that Obama sticks to it and succeeds in institutionalizing it so that it carries through into future administrations.

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