and Open for Questions

by has released another ground-breaking feature.

This time, it’s “Open for Questions“, a digg-like feature for voting up questions for the administration-to-be.

Somewhat similar to the example set by the British, No. 10 Petitions, Open for Questions is part petition, part comment thread, and part internet press conference.  By allowing anyone to submit questions, and then allowing votes on the best questions to rise to the top, the transition team is experimenting with one answer to the question “What are you going to do with all of those comments?”

This is a real question, since the healthcare conversation, as of this writing, has racked up over 5,000 comments.  A reporter asked me today how one can possibly benefit from an overwhelming number of comments.  My answer was that it can be a challenge, especially as the response increases.  More important than initially designing a perfect system, though, is to experiment with what might work.  Expertise and knowledge are distributed throughout the country, and no matter how extensive the team’s outreach efforts, tapping into all of the ideas is impossible.

Tools like Open for Questions are at least one step toward solving that problem, of creating more meaningful interaction between citizens and government.

As Sunlight consultant Micah Sifry wrote on TechPresident this morning,

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the lesson of the story is we collectively need much better tools for mass collaboration than we now have. How do we scale up relationships of trust and accountability? Are we bound by what our brains are capable of–face-to-face relationships with a few hundred peers at best? Or can we develop effective communications and reputation systems that would enable much larger groups to connect effectively?

While the answers won’t always be obvious, addressing them can only happen through measured experimentation.  We’re happy to see another step in that direction.

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  • I suspect you misinterpret our intentions.

    Meritorious questions, be they embarrassing or not, is precisely the sort of citizen input we’re hoping to see empowered.

    The best setup to sort large quantities of comments and questions is certainly something worthy of measured debate, since this is a complex issue, and online fora use a number of procedures to sort and prioritize input. Reddit, Digg, and discussion fora offer different algorithms for recognizing notability. One could even credit Google’s initial success as coming from just such a well constructed algorithm, applied to the whole web.

    Whether the system you propose is the best measure would be an interesting discussion, and falls squarely within the question I link to, suggesting that “better tools for mass collaboration” are exactly what we need, and are exactly what we’re suggesting.

    My post is laudatory, yes, but because the questions tool is an invitation for dissent, not because it’s transparency theater, which we’re keen on the government avoiding.

  • Normally, one visiting a site called the “Sunlight Foundation” I’d expect them to know the difference between a desert noontime summer sun and a cloudy day in a NH winter.

    However, apparently there are some problems in that regard. In an earlier comment on this site, I said in regards to a Sunlight proposal about Obama putting his videos on Youtube “Allowing Youtube visitors to vote their favorites will simply result in ObamaGirl asking all the questions.” (

    That still applies: using a popular vote will result in weak setups being voted up, not the “best” questions by a long shot.

    The only way something like this could work is outlined here:

    Somehow I don’t think we’ll see the Sunlight Foundation pushing that plan, as it would actually cause the real questions to rise to the top, and that might prove embarrassing for those who have to answer those questions.

  • I’d be amused to see it go to a karma-based system like Slashdot. Their reputation system does a pretty good job of filtering the wheat from the chaff, and the “ask a famous person”-type submissions generally end up with some good questions.

    That, and the Slashcode source is Open Source. Can’t get much more open than that, can you?