News, views and what I choose to dos

What does a truly democratic Q&A format look like?

Category : General, ICANN, Internet, Technology · by Feb 8th, 2010

Internet thinker and political operator David Weinberger has posed an interesting question: how do we design a question-and-answer format for politicians that is truly democratic?

Weinberger’s blog post was noted by Andrew McLaughlin on his Facebook page – Andrew is the White House Deputy CTO and the man more than any other that could make a democratic Q&A system a reality.

And so I figured I’d have a stab at designing something since this is an area where I have a fair amount of knowledge and experience both as a journalist and as ICANN’s general manager of public participation. Here then is a rundown of a system that I think would broadly work:

Let’s start with some assumptions about what this system would need to do and how it would work. It would have to:

  1. Be online – the Internet’s gift for communication and computers’ ability to parse information is the only reason we are even considering a fully democratic Q&A.
  2. Be open and scalable, with limited need to register to use the service. Otherwise it will never get off the ground
  3. Be resistant to efforts to fix the results – which would be inevitable in a political environment – on both sides
  4. Produce useful results that could be built upon – otherwise, what’s the point?
  5. Be manageable from the staff perspective – get the balance right between resources expended and useful results or the process will eventually be dropped as a “useful experiment”

This the idea I have come up with, presented from the perspective of the user, which I’ll then dig into.


Subject: An answer to your question

Thankyou for your recent question to the White House about the Economy.

A response has now been posted on the White House website, where you will also be able to see responses to other questions on the same subject and from people in your state.

If you are interested in learning more about this aspect of the economy, we have also provided links to those individuals in the administration that have day-to-day responsibility for these areas, and you will be able to follow them as they work through the issues.

To see the response to your questions, please click on the link below:

Thank you,

The White House

You click the link:

Monday 8 February 2008


Click on the plus [+] sign to expand the question box to provide the answer

[+] Q1: Why does America have such a large deficit?

[+] Q2: What does it mean that China owns a huge number of US Treasury bills?

[-] Q3: What are you doing to get the country out of recession?

We are doing a number of things.

Firstly, there was the Stimulus Package that was approved in February 2009. That package provided $787 billion in funds to get the economy back on track. Roughly one third each was spent on the following three things: tax cuts and benefits; education and healthcare; and federal contracts, grants and loans.

You can follow how all of this money is being spent online at:

Secondly, the President announced a freeze on federal budgets for three years so we spend less as a government. This is not a simple task and will require significant assistance from Congress to make it happen.

If you are interested in following debates on the subject of the Federal Budget Freeze, please go to:

Thirdly, we are working on a Jobs Bill that will be designed specifically with the aim of creating more jobs and getting people back into jobs. The Bill was passed in the House of Representatives in December 2009. It will now pass to the Senate through the normal procedures before appearing before the President to sign.

We hope this process will be completed in the first half of 2010. To follow progress of this Bill, please go to:

To find out more:

One of the President’s main economic advisers is Cecilia Rouse. She often contributes to the White House’s economy blog at:

You can find out more about Cecilia and other members of the Council of Economic Advisors at:

[+] Q4: How do decisions get made over the economy?

Sign up here to be emailed with a link to future questions.
Or ask another question yourself at:
You can also find this service on Facebook and Twitter.

The most popular ten questions asked about the Economy can be found at:

So that’s the user experience. You’ll note that the answer above is answered by an anonymous, albeit friendly, third party, rather than by the President of the United States himself.

That is because of a number of aspects that I think would have to form part of any realistic system. Some of these below, along with what I think would be likely wrong approaches and assumptions in making such a system.

1. The bulk of the Q&A system would be done by and presented by staff. The reality is that the President is too busy and that if you only answers questions through one person, you are creating a system that will always disappoint the majority of the users.

You could have a rule of thumb for actual Presidential responses: minimum of three responses. One to cover events of the day (read: political fight); one a broader, larger topic (try to get above party politics); and one lighthearted to stop process from being dull.

2. Keep responses short. Under 250 words each time. Nothing is gained and much is lost with longer responses.

3. Always provide a link for further information on each separate topic. And if a suitable page doesn’t exist, it points to the fact that one needs to be built.

4. Avoid the sexy. Day-to-day governing is pretty dry and time-consuming. The key is to keep it light and short. Chasing the sexy aspects in the hope that will make it interesting will create a skewed system that worries more about perception than information, ultimately undermining the idea of a democratic Q&A. One example of the sexy is: the inevitable drive to find the perfect person to ask the perfect question. Say, a good-looking widowed black army mother who has lost her health insurance but will be saved through a clause in a new Bill going through Congress.

5. Don’t diss journalism. Both Weinberger and McLaughlin have a critical view of journalists. This is a very common habit among people on the inside of organizations trying to get things done, and it’s because journalists don’t care about difficult things are, and they don’t care about the hard work put in – they just want to know the end result and then get it out to people who care even less than the journalists.

Why is taking a critical view a bad idea? Because the process of journalism, for all its flaws, is the end product of a long history of the struggle for providing information. You shouldn’t seek to *replace* or reach over journalism. You should understand that it is the edifice shaped by years of weather. Understand it and then seek to shape it. So to design a democratic process without embracing and building on the current process is a surefire way to fail.

So while a particularly irritating habit of political journalism at the moment is to be “balanced” to the extent that bad ideas are propagated, and back-and-forth criticism takes the place of rational analysis, you can expect the exact same pressures to exert themselves on a democratic Q&A.

Likewise, chasing headlines, rather than providing a more in-depth perspective, is exactly what will entice people into a democratic Q&A system. Very few people are interested in all the work that goes into something – unless they are an intrinsic part of that process.

The ultimate success of this theoretical democratic Q&A would be to see the broader media report on its results.


So the five assumptions:

  1. Be online
  2. Be open and scalable
  3. Be resistant to efforts to fix the results
  4. Produce useful results
  5. Be manageable from the staff perspective

You allow people to send in questions in as many ways as possible. Online, Facebook, Twitter and possibly an iPhone app.

What you need to do is get people to tag questions themselves. And limit questions to a workable length (140-200 characters). That way you can break up the questions and provide their analysis to different people – cutting down on the overall time taken and reducing the gap between question and expert.

People typically overdo categories online. Any more than five and people start getting lost. That doesn’t mean though that you can’t have five options within five (although you would probably need to make the second five optional).

So, using the question above: “What are you doing to get the country out of recession?”

In a browser you would type this questions and then be prodded to put it into one of the five categories: Economy / Healthcare and Education / Security / Technology / Other. Under Economy, you are presented with a further five options: Budget / Jobs / Legislation / Recovery / Taxes.

The same menu and sub-menus can be repeated (and changed) across all platforms and also be used in the presentation of responses.

So, for example, using Twitter, a questioner would send to @whitehouseqa: “What are you doing to get the country out of recession? #economy #recovery”

You also get people to provide their email address or Facebook name or Twitter name to allow for responses and interaction.

And you get them to say which state they are from – which enables you to reflect back to people what people in their state are asking, and also helps provides a breakdown of issues by state, flagging up what may be regional issues.


Now, here’s the crucial part – how do you process all this information?

My thoughts: you work on a weekly basis and expect a week turnaround. You have one person dedicated to each of the five main areas. They triage the questions as they come in: delete nonsense; add secondary subject tags; attach internal tags (answered previously; repeat question; current; broad; light-hearted).

Then you have a different person working on each sub-category. They should be able to discern the threads of questions coming in – and start clumping them together e.g. What are you doing to get the country out of recession? would be the accumulation of 20 questions all broadly asking the same thing: where is the stimulus money?; what are you doing about unemployment?; I’ve lost my job – what are you doing to fix the economy?

If you have an ID for each question, you can start putting the questions into different boxes, or appending different tags (like how Google does with Gmail).

Then the sub-category person can present a number of headline summarizing questions, with the actual questions asked produced underneath and then send them back up to the main category editor who goes through, makes edits where needed and sends them back down.

The sub-category editor then starts approaching people within government to get answers. Over time, they should start building a pretty good compendium of people who can answer questions on the basis of who gives the best answers; clearest answers; fastest answers. That way you factor in human intelligence at the right level – and at a sufficiently low level that the fears and perceptions of political minds don’t touch the process at the crucial information-gathering point.

You would need 30 people in this process – five of them more senior. But not dedicated staff, an add-on to existing staff or interns. Why would they do it? Because they get to speak to everyone in their area, across government – an enormously valuable opportunity to network and get to know people.

The experts – from wherever they are in government – could be encouraged to produce in-depth answers and post them elsewhere (on their own blog for example) knowing that the question is going to be highlighted in a formal White House Q&A. That way you start building a depth of information on giving subjects, allowing people to dig in deeper themselves, but without putting all the editing and decision-making on the shoulders on a few people.

The sub-category editor then sends up the information to the category editor, and then when it is all compiled, the category editors send the results to someone high up in the chain, who can then pick through the result to see which questions could be given specific Presidential attention i.e. a personal address.

All the other questions still get answered, and all the information is built up, but extra attention is then given at the top to a few hand-picked questions.

If there is sufficient effort put into answering a particular question by a number of experts across government, then the ability to adjust the question itself would be limited. Likewise, the category and sub-category editors would have an incentive to make the questions themselves as fair and straight as possible as they would be sending them out to lots of people. The idea is that this process would limit the ability for the Q&A to be bent significantly at the top, so limiting political interference.


And then – the absolutely crucial part of the whole system – feedback to those that asked the questions.

They need to know that their question was read, and they need to be given an answer. The likelihood is that their exact question will not receive an exact answer, but if you have intelligent editors in the process, they should be content with the broader response.

If someone isn’t happy, then could ask the same question again. With luck, the editors would see if the same sort of questions kept coming in week after week and would be in a position to work on an answer.

What would be very important in feedback to the question-asker is that the response is written in plain language, free of jargon. And that links are given to further resources. The answer should assist people in finding out more information; the assumption should be in every case that the person has a right to ask the question and that they have a genuine interest in the answer.

And the last piece of the jigsaw is to allow people to give feedback on the feedback. Allow people to rate the usefulness of the answer they received – and then have that overall feedback summed together and sent to category editors so they can evaluate their sub-category editors.

You also allow people that have sent in questions and received answers to login and rate questions and answers – using those votes to produce a top ten of all questions and of category questions. Since you are asking people to rate questions that have been through the process, there is limited usefulness in people gaming the system.

Over time, this whole approach should help build valuable and threaded information about the process of government and the work being put in to solve various issues.

It uses Internet technology; it contains almost no barriers to entry; it is scalable; it is broadly resistant to fixing and gaming; it should produce useful results (so long as category editors strive to be clear and straightforward); and it spreads the work so should prove manageable.

So there you go – my idea for the democratic Q&A system.


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