Defensive Activism

Why President Obama needs a responsive, interactive government.

On Sept. 9, President Obama stood before Congress, braved the catcalls of one angry House member, and tried to make a last-ditch case for comprehensive health care reform-possibly to include a "public option" that would greatly expand the government's role in the nation's health insurance system.

In the process, he felt compelled to offer a not-exactly-ringing defense of government in general.

"Our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem," Obama said. "They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited."

The president's "on the one hand" rhetoric showed that when it comes to the government's role, he is, if not a reluctant activist, at least a defensive one. He knows he's already way out on a limb in terms of federal spending, and has used a great deal of political capital, too, on government interventions in the economy.

That helps explain why Obama is eager to demonstrate two things about the government he's now responsible for managing: It will be responsive, and it can be trusted.

In our cover story this month, Jill R. Aitoro explores how that in turn, has led the president to a deep commitment to using Web 2.0 tools to bridge the gap between agencies and the citizens they serve. From wikis to blogs to YouTube, Obama wants his agencies to much more actively engage the public in what they do. It's all about changing the perception that the government, is, as Eric Kansa of the University of California, Berkeley, puts it, a series of "black boxes making arbitrary decisions."

But that means overcoming some significant barriers in the federal sphere. And while the technological hurdles can be high-particularly when it comes to figuring out exactly what social media software you need and where you should buy it from-such barriers often are not the biggest problem. After all, government doesn't really need to be on the cutting edge just to take advantage of technologies that have proven value.

The bigger issues tend to be government's layers of management and federal managers' fear of losing control over employees and processes. Tackling those is an age-old challenge that involves hard, relatively thankless, work. As Don Burke, who's on the cover of this issue and helped spearhead the Intellipedia project at the CIA, tells Aitoro: "People want some magical formula to innovation, but it's not that predictable. They just need to fight like hell."

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