Yes We Can…Use Comments, Web Services on Government Web Sites


For years, government web sites have avoided comments and third-party Web 2.0 tools for fear of confusing user contributed content with official content and violating various policy and compliance rules. What if a user comment posted dropped the f-bomb or stated inaccurate information about a government program? What if an embedded visualization did not conform to section 508 accessibility requirements?

Yesterday, in one small blog post for a web site, but one giant web page for .gov web sites, demonstrated how government sites could begin to join the rest of Web 2.0-kind.

1. Blog.  Simple content management with many features baked-in.

2. RSS. An open standard for making a web page machine readable for easy syndication.

3. Call for participation. Asking people to contribute. This post is itself a response to 3,500 comments made on earlier blog post.

4. Embedded YouTube video. Free video services like YouTube are a part of the Web 2.0 infrastructure. Government should use this infrastructure freely in the same way it uses email, HTTP, and public highways.

5. Alternative media formats. Single vendor endorsements and platform exclusivity is easily addressed by links to the video available on alternative services and formats. It’s the web, people.

6. Wordle tag cloud. This beautiful data visualization of the top 100 most popular words in the 3,500+ user comments on healthcare is auto-generated by a third-party tool, probably Many Eyes. Also free.

7. User comments. First, it’s user comments. Second, it’s powered by a third-party service, Because one of IntenseDebate’s feature is the ability for the account owner to export all the comments, there are no lock-in or availability or document archival issues. In fact, the wordle tag cloud was probably generated by dumping the content and putting it copying and pasting it into the wordle generator.

8. RSS. For users to follow the comment thread when not at the web site. Follow the all comments, or just particular threads.

9. Identified users…with reputation points. It’s optional. And while many have been wringing their hands on how to perfectly do identity and reputation systems for interaction with citizens, choice of a third-party commenting system to removes any government involvement with identity–save existing subpoena authority–and leaves it to the market to sort the issue out.

10. Wisdom of the crowds. Participants vote comments up or down in order to help popular content rise to the top and off-topic stupidity sink to the bottom.

11. Group monitoring. Trust participants to flag content for inappropriateness. Errors will happen, but the vast majority of the crowd means well and will sort out bad apples quickly.

12. Simple, threaded discussion. Adds a minimal but important organizing principle to thousands of comments. (Obviously, managing comments requires new techniques, but that will come, too.)

13. Ajax-based threading. Out with Web 1.0 clumsiness and in with Web 2.0 rich interaction without page reloading.

14. Submit a comment. It’s right there, for anyone to use. Three simple fields. Obviously, people have figured out how to use it.

15. OpenID. An embrace of another open standard, this one for identity management, where users ultimately control portable identities online allowing people to use the same identity on different .gov sites regardless of vendor.

16. Comment Policy.’s comment policy is half a page: stay focused, be respectful, tell the truth, no spam. “We retain the discretion to determine which comments violate our comment policy. We also reserve the right to remove violations. We expect all contributors to be respectful.”

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  • I am, however, convinced that peak resource extraction and utilization is a major problem. ,

  • Great idea, but will this work over the long run?

  • Hi Greg, I didn’t save the original to the gallery, but it looked a bit like the one at

    It is a great way to see what is on the collective mind.

  • HHSFed

    While DHS and other agencies are leveraging social media and engaging online communities, many other Federal entitites within HHS have been left behind. I wonder if the new Administration’s interest in transparency will lead to a more open and collaborative government culture. Daschle’s appointment gives me hope, but as it stands now most communication professionals at HHS are blocked from utilizing and accessing many social media venues, e.g. Facebook, Second Life, youtube, not to mention the stifling clearance procedures at many agencies that put a stranglehold on timely and pithy communications.

  • Gwen,

    Thanks! Your links takes us to site. Can you share with us your wordle from your blog or was it internal?

  • Anon:

    Yes, the wordle tag cloud is useful here. Remember, this visualization is created from 3,700 distinct comments by individuals, not a statement by Obama transition team. The big words in the text does not surprise a great deal because most of us share the same concerns. We are not surprised that “insurance” is the most used word–and probably most on people’s mind–when discussing a thread on “healthcare” on a government site.

    Also oddly appropriate to the times, one has to search for the word “doctors” clearly outsized by words about the system.

    Of course, we cannot expect simple visualizations to do more than assist us in our way toward deeper analysis and rich insights. But a tag cloud does provide a cursory, factual, gist of thousands of comment we otherwise might not have time to review.

    The technology behind counting words can also be extended to cluster the sentences and comments containing those words helping us (a) find patterns and (b) uncover additional information.

    Personally, I find the presentation of such an emergent graphic better represents the cacophony of such conversations than a five point summary issued by a single author. In other words, look at is a start. Not the end solution.

  • “This beautiful data visualization of the top 100 most popular words…”

    It may beautiful but is it really useful? Consider the top words: “health”, “insurance”, “care”, “system”, “heathcare”, and “medical”. What does that tell you: zip. There are no big insights here. These are all the buzzwords one hears in the campaign speeches and any cursory debate of the subject. If one is going to do any meaningful analysis of the comments, one needs to dig a little deeper.

  • What an exciting (and fast) ride this evolution of info-democracy is!

    Thank you for sharing the info and the technology behind the new commenting system. Last month I was a bit disheartened to see the comments capability turned off for President Elect Obama’s first “YouTube Fireside Chat”. It seemed a daunting task to try to overcome the negative, rude and inflammatory commenting that caused this sort of limitation to communication. Leave it to the world’s best democracy to let the freedom of web 2.0 and Digg-style comment popularity to take care of it.

    Now to pass the torch and ignite involvement in our eDemocracy!

  • Thanks for a good and thoughtful post. I especially like the idea of crowd sourcing the monitoring of comments. We would have to learn to live with the F-bomb on a government website for at least a few moments–I know I could but…

    Also, wanted to give some information about It is a visualization tool like manyeyes, but with a focus on making word-frequency clouds. It’s not quite the same as a tag cloud in that you are not tagging the copy but actually measuring word frequency in text.

    I used wordle to visually display what our Department was talking about in our blog. Very powerful.

    Thanks again for mapping out the possibilities.

  • A giant step indeed …
    The question is whether it is sustainable in its current form.
    Receiving extensive and important input by citizens is great as long as you can handle it. 3700+ posts is great and I am sure they contain very important information too. Do you think someone really read through these, skimmed the essence, structured the arguments to produce the type of information Ministers or aides can read??
    Really? All that over thanksgiving??
    I really doubt hey have 50 high level policy analysts to spare over the weekend to do this job.

    The idea of using web 2.0 is great. I just wish they could tap on the expertise that does exist both in the US and in Europe, in many other places and online communities in particular to create a real public dialogue tool.
    A blog with comments is a good tool. But not the kind of tool that will enable meaningful citizen participation and engagement.

    There are bold experiments out there from which the Change team should learn. There are real edemocracy / eparticipation / policy transparency experts out there that have done it before and in many cases successfully.

    I believe this is an area where the Change team has to invest in seriously. Create a powerful eDemocracy team that will bring in the experts and connect with these communities.

    Using existing tools such as blogs and wikis can get you to a point. From there on you need to think hard and deploy the needed tailor made solutions.

    Yes you can!

  • Very cool first step. Fantastic that Tom D. himself was in video, acknowledging the feedback. Making the tag cloud clickable would really help organize the comments and help people review them.

    Biggest question is whether this kind of interest can be sustained over the inevitably slow pace of legislation.