Building better White House policy through online citizen engagement

Cammie CroftCammie Croft, former deputy director of new media at the White House, is taking on a new challenge as the director of new media at the Department of Energy.

In her new role, Croft will be upgrading elements of the IT infrastructure at an immense federal agency to enable her and her team to implement the digital tools for online engagement that she applied during the presidential campaign and the new administration’s first year in office. The Department of Energy has IT infrastructure challenges that exist within many government bodies at all levels, from an outdated content management system (CMS) to difficulties supporting blogs or commenting.

Net Generation D.C.

When I met Cammie Croft, she was typing rapidly into a friend’s new iPad in a coffee shop, transcribing notes and glancing at a buzzing BlackBerry on the table next to her. At first glance, she looked cast directly from the contemporary mold for young Washingtonian professionals in the spring of 2010: chic business casual, constantly-connected through multiple devices, and thoughtful about the changing relationships between government and citizens due to technological innovation.

After I solicited her opinion of the iPad’s utility for web work — she’d adapted rapidly, though missed a keyboard — our conversation about her work revealed both a wry sense of humor about Washington politics and a deep understanding of the commitment required to create, manage and sustain online engagement strategies.

Then again, Croft is no ordinary web worker. She’s been in the new media trenches at the highest level of government, from the real-time presidential campaign to the rapidly-changing platform behind the White House’s online communications.

Rebooting WhiteHouse.gov

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010Croft explained it took 10 months for the White House new media staff to progress to the IT infrastructure they wanted for WhiteHouse.gov. While the new media team did relaunch WhiteHouse.gov on January 21st with a new blog, it was hosted on a different CMS. Eventually, WhiteHouse.gov was relaunched on the open source Drupal platform — but it took many months to get there. “We’d like to open up comments on WhiteHouse.gov,” said Croft, “but we’re wrestling with how to make it a constructive online community. We like to say: ‘How do we avoid getting to the place that YouTube comments are?'”

The new media team came in with lofty goals for applying online tools. Confronted with older IT equipment, they needed to rethink what the basic requirements were to get the job done. “A big part of what we needed to do in those first nine months was to build infrastructure for new media tools,” she said. “The biggest change in decades” was incorporating a new media team into the White House proper, which required the cooperation of multiple stakeholders in the legal, IT, cybersecurity and policy realms.

Making the @WhiteHouse social

Getting a Facebook presence established, for instance, took four months. The White House is characteristic of many places in government: serious security arguments needed to be addressed. “Also, because Facebook is a third-party site, we had a need to tell our audience that they were leaving WhiteHouse.gov and that they were subject to other Terms of Service. We had to set up a license agreement with Facebook to make sure privacy concerns were addressed.”

Those security concerns mean that no one in the White House had access to Twitter or Facebook, at least on the internal networks. Staffers could (and did) update accounts using smartphones. Now, said Croft, there are specific computers in the new media department that are configured to provide secure access to social networks. “After building a foundation that we could use to launch a Facebook presence and @WhiteHouse Twitter account, we could use the same policies for Robert Gibbs, Bill Burton and Macon Phillips,” explained Croft.

Other new media platforms present different issues. “To get access to YouTube and post to YouTube without having a cookie issue was tricky because of privacy concerns,” she said.”You can’t just go post, and post there alone, either. We also had to create our own video player with captioning for Section 508 compliance.”

All of the White House new media accounts have to adhere to another specific requirements beyond security, privacy and accessibility: the President Records Act. “We needed to archive anything of importance or official business,” said Croft. Work that was done online also had to be preserved, which meant that we had to figure out how to handle comments. That then meant we had to let people know that a selection of Facebook comments would be archived but that it would not be used in any other way.” When asked whether comments that hinted at violence or other negative action toward the administration were a concern, Croft noted that “Secret Services operations are completely separate.”

PBS Newshour filmed a special segment on the White House new media team, embedded below:

Shifting from campaigning to governance

So why didn’t the IT infrastructure to support new media engagement exist when the new administration entered the White House in 2009? “There wasn’t a success story to justify building a team around online communications yet,” Croft. “It took the 2008 presidential campaign to be the catalyst for that move.”

New media was a key component of how they won, said Croft, as it allowed the campaign to convey messages broadly and rapidly. “Our central thought was that anyone was capable of accomplishing extraordinary things if given the way to do so. One way to empower people is through online tools. Our idea was to take the same principle to see if we could change the way government works.”

Croft and the rest of the White House new media team found, however, that governance and campaigning require different strategies for online engagement. “It’s important to separate the DNC [Democratic National Committee] from what the White House does,” she said. “Governance steps away from advocacy. You’re trying to move people up a ‘ladder of advocacy’ on the campaign, vs public service in office.”

In the White House, “you’re working on behalf of the public,” said Croft. “It’s incumbent upon us to make each transaction as efficient and effective as possible. One reason I’m excited to move into an agency environment is that that’s where things can really be improved by better infrastructure and technology that can increase services.”

Croft posited a potential example of e-government from the other “DoE” – the Department of Education. “Consider college, where you fill out a FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid],” she said. “It’s an awful experience that doesn’t have to be. You can see the potential in things you can build that will tremendously enhance many transactional functions. Consider DMVs [Department of Motor Vehicles] and registration or renewing licenses.”

Integrating online engagement with offline action

In either campaigning or governance, Croft emphasized, online engagement doesn’t occur in a virtual bubble. “Any campaign will be more effective if it’s integrated,” she said, pointing to her work at FightTheSmears.com, the Obama campaign’s effort to get out ahead of the news cycle to frame factually-false claims and provide supporters with tools to spread that message on and offline.

“We noticed that email smears were getting traction during the campaign,” said Croft. “When I came on board, the site already existed. The trouble was that it was doing a better job promoting smears than facts. We did a lot of thinking about redesign, in terms of showing visitors how to find a smear and leading with the truth.” Croft said that they added options to share by email or print a flyer, along with integration with My.BarackObama.com. They also began to watch the site traffic for trends. As a result, the new media team was able to figure out if smears were “going hot” from audience searches and act to highlight an issue before it became a news story.

Working from within the White House, Croft pointed to other areas where online engagement was coupled with offline action. “For example, we hosted a live chat with Secretary of Education [Arne] Duncan about loans and affordability,” she said. “It was one of our most successful chats because it was coupled with reaching out prior to the event with email, including partnerships with other organizations. When we met with groups, we’d let them know it was coming.”

Measuring online engagement effectiveness

Croft observed that online engagement isn’t always quantifiable along standard metrics for success. “I don’t like to use page views, since they always spike around hot news. I watch, them but don’t live and die by them. Consider the health care summit: there were many livestreams but I don’t think that something else that didn’t get the same huge pickup unsuccessful,” she said. White House director of new media Macon Phillips tweeted that the healthcare reform summit was streamed 3.9 million times, including many embeds of the video.

Croft pointed to a number of other ways that the White House new media staff has used digital tools to influence policy making. “Consider the Greengov Challenge or the SAVE Award,” she said, “where we asked the federal government community for ideas on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or save costs. The top ideas were incorporated into plans and will be implemented.”

For online engagement to be effective, Croft suggests that it has to go in two ways, with both an intuitive way to get feedback and an accessible mechanism for knowledge sharing. Whether it’s Google Moderator (used for the Open for Questions “virtual town hall”), IdeaScale, Facebook or some other tool, making sure it’s intuitive is crucial. Otherwise, “you’ll just get a lot of questions about how to use it.”

One thing that didn’t work as well was a live chat that Croft moderated about the innovations budget. “Innovation is a hugely expansive term which we had just 45 minutes and four policy experts there to address. We learned that it was better to keep a program to 2-3 people, including the moderator, and make the topic much more specific. The situation made it very difficult to get beyond the surface.”

When a strategy for online engagement does work, and the audience knows that someone is really listening, it “raises the stakes,” said Croft.

“One of the key things we’re trying to do is be more open and provide information that we can open up and engage people around. You shouldn’t just have engagement for the sake of having engagement, either. If you ask people for time, you have to have respect for their time and then to use that information to influence your next steps and be transparent.”

Croft will be speaking about building online communities through citizen engagement at the upcoming Gov2.0 Expo in Washington, D.C. on May 25.

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  • Arvind

    I was trying to reach Ms. Croft, Alex. Is there anyway for me to connect with her on email?

    Tx,
    Arvind