Government accountability through web 2.0: A case study
This was originally posted on techPresident.
Last week, Special Envoy to Sudan Gen. Scott Gration sat down with representatives from Save Darfur and the student network STAND for an unprecedented live Q&A, webcast directly from the White House website.
The event served as the launch of an initiative the White House is calling Ask U.S., “an effort to reach out to the advocacy communities and to solicit questions on the U.S. Sudan policy from activists deeply and passionately engaged” around Sudan.
Save Darfur Coalition Executive Director Jerry Fowler and STAND Student Director Layla Amjadi were joined by Samantha Power — now the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs, but known more widely as the author of “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, a history of the United States’ response to mass atrocities from Armenia to Rwanda. Power herself was an inspiration for many of the anti-genocide organizations which exist today, including the two that participated in this online exchange.
Full disclosure: I was a co-founder of the Genocide Intervention Network, STAND’s parent organization, and worked there until 2008.
Calling for transparency, pushing for accountability
The webcast was notable not just for its interactivity — members of both STAND and Save Darfur were encouraged to submit questions, which were then asked directly of Gration on air — but for its accountability.
Some anti-genocide activists have been critical of the Obama administration for positioning Darfur and Sudan as a prominent human rights issue during the campaign, but taking little action since the election. Here was a chance for anti-genocide activists to put the White House’s point person on Sudan on the spot and demand answers.
The responses from Gration — Power, other than introducing and concluding the event, largely remained silent — were generally panned by activists watching the chat via TwitterTwitter is a social network built around short status updates — a combination of microblogging and instant messaging, with the ability to post from mobile phones through text messages. and FacebookFacebook is a social network encouraging real identity — each user has a single account under their full, real name. Facebook began among US college students but has quickly expanded to people of all ages around the world.. “In his opening remarks Gration said ‘we owe you answers’ — you still do,” said Will Fischer. “I respect the hell out of Sam Power but I’m not going to buy Gration’s vague answers just because she’s sitting there,” said Genocide Intervention Network Director of Membership Janessa Goldbeck.
Bec Hamilton, who is writing a book about the advocacy movement around Sudan and has worked with the Genocide Intervention Network, reported that the questions for Gration had to be submitted ahead of time, so it’s a little surprising his answers weren’t more sure-footed. Hamilton said a former official at the State Department had seen the event as a way to “manage” the “noise” of activists, but:
As it turned out, the shoe was on the other foot. Activists were given the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, and they pursued that avenue with such vigor that any fear of them being co-opted by their well-publicized access to the White House ceased to be a concern. What was a concern was the administration’s inability to provide concrete answers to the advocates’ questions.
If the White House was hoping the webcast would placate activists who had been critical of US policy on Sudan, it seemed to do just the opposite. Goldbeck, responding to Gration’s statement that “we know we are going to be held accountable by you,” Tweeted “Yes you will,” a message widely reposted by others.
Emily Diamond-Falk, a spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition, was more amiable about the exchange with the White House. “As much transparency as they can give us, they will do, without compromising their policy,” she told me. “He wasn’t able to disclose as much information as we asked, which is going to happen in these sorts of things. … It’s a very delicate line, so engaging policy behind the scenes will still be necessary.”
Making the online Q&A possible
Andrea Clarke, director of communications for the Save Darfur Coalition, pitched the idea of a “live online town hall” to Gration’s communications director in August. “We thought it would be something beneficial for activists to be directly engaged around the [Sudan] policy,” Clarke said.
After suggesting the idea of an online town hall to Gration, the special envoy suggested the student organization STAND be a part of the conversation as well. “The special envoy’s office was very committed to answering as many questions as possible, and the involvement of STAND was key to that process,” Clarke said. “It made for a greater diversity of questions, and we feel the activist community was very well represented.”
Gration’s travel itinerary made scheduling difficult, and in the end it occurred without much advance notice. Clarke said Save Darfur received at least 500 questions from activists for the special envoy, and “I think if we have more lead time we’ll have even more questions.”
As Micah Sifry wrote on Monday, the willingness of the State Department and White House to engage openly and publicly with advocates who are often critical seems unprecedented. Given the negative response to Gration’s responses, might this kind of transparency be short-lived?
Clarke said she had “no reason to believe there won’t be” similar events in the future as part of the “Ask U.S.” program. Gration “appears to be working very hard to get feedback,” she said. Gration himself wrote that the State Department is “eager to continue an active and robust dialogue with the advocacy community.”
Layla Amjadi of STAND lamented the lack of specificity in Gration’s answers, telling the Voice of America that activists “were really frustrated by how vague the policy review was on benchmarks and pressures and incentives.” She called for an approach involving bigger players than Gration alone — “Obama, Biden and Clinton” — and declared:
Now that we know that we’ve got their ear, let’s talk to them. They’re looking for us to hold them accountable. So let’s do it.
“There are certainly questions that activists who are voices for those who cannot necessarily be heard right now have, and it’s important that those questions are answered by the administration,” said Diamond-Falk. “The fact that [Gration] engaged the Save Darfur Coalition and the student movement … proves that activists have to have a voice on this issue and in this administration.”
The future of high-level advocacy?
“We certainly hope that this can be one tactic that other advocacy groups can use to demand accountability of the administration,” Clarke said. “I hope this is something that’s taken on board by communications departments of other advocacy groups.”
Most organizations may not have the political pressure necessary to convince public officials to host a live, online questioning. The broad constituency that has been active around Darfur and Southern Sudan for the past five years was a definite advantage to making the webcast happen, Clarke said, as was President Obama’s stated support on the campaign trail for resolving the crises in Sudan.
Gration’s willingness to engage activists on the issue, however, may have been the most critical element — it’s hard to imagine a live Q&A happening without a public official’s support. “Gration appears to be working very hard to get feedback,” Clarke said.
Engaging more than one organization made the proposal more attractive to public officials. Save Darfur asked for the event, and the special envoy’s office suggested a representative of student activists join as well. Gration’s office wanted the event to be seen as legitimately representing the entire Sudan advocacy movement, not simply a single pressure group.
Cautious criticism seemed to have paid off in helping make the dialogue possible. Many Sudan advocacy organizations including STAND and Save Darfur have been publicly supportive of the special envoy, while continuing to push for more transparency and specifics. Gration had been criticized by some activists as “naive” with some going so far as demanding his resignation, but responses from Save Darfur and STAND’s parent organization, the Genocide Intervention Network, had largely not suggested that level of displeasure. “I think that we don’t always agree with the special envoy’s office, but we maintain an open line of communication, and that has helped us a lot,” Clarke said.
As for the issue of Sudan, could pressure on legislators coupled with Gration’s limited responses provoke more Congressional action? The online event with Gration directly followed a conference for anti-genocide activists, including a full day of meetings with members of Congress. Diamond-Falk pointed out that following the student lobbying and live webchat, 44 members of Congress signed a letter to President Obama ahead of his visit to China, a major trading partner of Sudan’s, urging the president to make Sudan a priority in his discussions there.
Clarke said if a second online Q&A occurs, Save Darfur “will be pushing for questions that are extremely direct from those who are suffering on the ground,” suggesting the event can not only be a chance to connect activists to the administration, but survivors of the genocide and wars in Sudan as well.
Update: Bec Hamilton reported that a former State Department official had called Sudan activists “noise we had to manage,” and I mistakenly attributed it to current State Department officials; it’s been corrected in the text above.
Image credit Flickr user savedarfur