What was White House Director of New Media Macon Phillips doing on a conference stage at 4 PM Eastern today, hours before President Obama’s pivotal address to Congress on healthcare reform? It was a good question, lobbed by old media celeb Kojo Nnamdi (at right in photo).
Kojo was interviewing Macon armchair-style before an audience of 300 or so at the end of Day 1 of the Gov 2.0 Summit. “Well this is the place to be,” Macon replied. “The President makes a lot of speeches but there is only one Gov 2.0.”
Good answer with conference organizer Tim O’Reilly hovering behind stage and a rapt but slightly dazed audience still furiously Tweeting* after eight hours of back-to-back presentations. Five-minute speaking slots (brilliant) are a trademark of O’Reilly conferences. So we heard today from dozens of digital celebs, including Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Google Chief Economist Hal Varian and Internet pioneer Vint Cerf. I sat in the front row, where nobody seems to want to sit (hence the iPhone pic above).
What follows are the highpoints of the Q&A with Macon Phillips. Most revealing is his admission that it’s much harder to determine specific metrics for the success of the White House’s new media efforts through the blog and on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In contrast, he told Kojo, during the campaign “there were really clear objectives: to raise money, move message and get out the vote.”
(I’m an unabashed fan of WhiteHouse.gov so I’ll try to stifle my inner fangirl.)
In the campaign there were really clear objectives: to raise money, to move message, to get out the vote. (In the White House) there are goals but they are not as concrete.
– Macon Phillips, White House Dir.of New Media
KN: You’re on the cusp of change in the way government does business. What is your charge from the President?
MP: Well, three things. 1. To amplify the President’s message and work as part of the communications team. There’s a whole new type of conversation out there (and we want to be a part of it). 2. To open up the White House, to open up government to show how it works, to make it transparent. 3. To figure out ways for the public to participate in government, to communicate with one another and to communicate back to the government.
KN: Government 2.0 means citizens to citizens, citizens to government, government to government. What’s the main advantage of (the White House) being able to communicate with millions of citizens?
MP: Newspapers are still important but we need people to surface data and interpret it. Government will take a stab at that but the private sector can innovate faster. The advantage for people who are interested is that they can hold government more accountable. And also to make more people interested in government.
KN: What are the pitfalls in communicating with so many people?
It’s an input / output problem. There are only so many people inside the White House and there are so many people out there.
– Macon Phillips
MP: It’s an input / output problem. There are only so many people inside the White House and there are so many people out there. We’re constantly impressed by the amount of interest and input that we’re getting. But be careful what you wish for. You can seek to engage the people and it overwhelms you.
KN: What about issues of security?
MP: I’ve never been in a job where security was so important. Information security on our Blackberries, physical security. But I do think there is a problem with the perception of security. We see a lot of blanket resistance to new technologies. That gets back to the issue of culture.
KN: As director of NEW media, you’re in a process of discovery. How do you keep abreast of new developments? How do you do it on the fly?
MP: Half the people in this room (he looks at overflow audience of government Web geeks, policy makers and thinkers) have my email address. Well, I do think this community loves to talk. So we’re staying on the cutting edge of how to stay connected. For me, it’s a matter of filtering what’s most applicable to us.
Coming into government I was really surprised to find the Web content managers and CIOs who were participating in this, paying attention and already taking strides in making government more tech savvy, whether it’s GSA or the State Department. But there are cultural challenges to the loss of control, the loss of hierarchy. We’re demonstrating progress with that.
KN: What is the difference between the job you are doing now and the job you did in the campaign?
We’re still figuring out what the specific metrics are. We’re still figuring out how best to use our time.
– Macon Phillips
[Macon ran Change.gov, the new media program for the Presidential Transition Team and served as Deputy Director of new media for BarackObama.com, the President’s campaign site. Prior to that, he ran Blue State Digital‘s strategy practice.]
MP: A lot is different. Some things are better, some worse. In the campaign there were really clear objectives: to raise money, to move message, to get out the vote. Now (in the White House) there are goals but they are not as concrete. We’re still figuring out what the specific metrics are. We’re still figuring out how best to use our time.
I was hoping you’d ask, “What’s your biggest challenge?”
KN: … What’s your biggest challenge? (Love this guy; always pitch perfect.)
MP: Public speaking.
KN: What is the role of new media in healthcare reform?
Absolutely… new media has a role in healthcare reform.
– Macon Phillips
MP: Absolutely (it has a role). (The reform process) is full of stories and arguments and vigorous debates. (Ed note: great content for new media). But more importantly this is a new era of government with technology that can impact standards, that can use new media to achieve strategic communications goals, preparing for H1N1, for example.
KN: Do you see possibilities at Data.gov for everyone to create apps?
MP: When I look at the Web site I think about traffic and I think about the need for more. But we want more traffic from inside the building. There’s an expression: “eating your own dog food.” The more we can make our (new media) program relevant to everyone we work with (inside the White House) everyday, the more successful we’re going to be. And maybe I’ll work myself out of a job.
* Re live Tweeting at today’s Gov 2.0 Summit, a number of accounts, including Tim O’Reilly’s, mine and many others, were mysteriously suspended by Twitter during the night and then reinstated during the day. It was a big day for Twitter outage with Steve Jobs taking the stage for Apple’s Rock and Roll event. Follow the Twitter stream for coverage of the Gov 2.0 Summit at #g2s or #gov2events.