Change.gov vs. Change.org

If President-elect Barack Obama and his transition team are looking for a model that uses the power of social networks and citizen democracy to open up government, they ought to bring their own homepage – Change.gov – and replace the g-o-v with a little o-r-g.

Online social activism portal Change.org, whose origins predate (by just a little bit) the theme of the Obama ’08 campaign, has opened up a super-connected suggestion box on national policy – and if they’re smart, the new Obama Administration will dive right in. I can almost picture a Capraesque scene in the Cabinet Room come January: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel dumps a huge hamper of Change.org suggestions on the big, shiny and table and calls on the startled Secretaries to “dig in” as President Obama nods in approval.

Not that you’d divine that sort of attitude from the dot-gov side of the Change domain spectrum: Change.gov is a handsome, well-designed billboard with a light Obama agenda, the latest transition news, and the ability to apply for jobs and send in suggestions. It’s the polar opposite of the much-lauded MyBO site of the campaign, where the campaign allowed organizers to – well – organize publicly using the Obama team’s digital plumbing. And no, your once-prized MyBO log-in and identity won’t work in the Office of the President-elect.

I don’t think you can fault the transition team of Change.gov, especially given the campaign’s track record on balancing real online collaboration with total control over the big brand messages – and I can see some of the wisdom in its skeletal “no drama” approach.

But man, imagine if they’d gone with the Ideas section of Change.org?

I was hanging out over there earlier today and the breadth of the suggestions for the Obama Administration – most of them pretty clear from Obama supporters, as least in the general – was pretty amazing.

The site throws Barack Obama’s quote on open government right up top – both an as encouragement and as a not-so-subtle challenge: I will open the doors of government and ask you to be involved in your own democracy again.”

The ideas number in the hundreds and they’re divided up by causes – economy has the most suggestions, followed by energy, government reform and education. The suggestions are voted on by Cause.org members – high vote-getters include: closing Guantanamo Bay, gay marriage initiatives, fighting global warming, and legalizing marijuana. Yeah, it’s a young liberal crowd on the whole. But there are some really interesting ideas – I was taken with the suggestion of Michael Kleinman, who describes himself as an aid worker from L.A.:

The most effective reform would be to establish a new cabinet-level Department of Development, with the power to coordinate US foreign assistance across and throughout the Government, while also implementing a long-term, strategic approach. USAID, as a sub-cabinet agency, lacks the ability to play such a role.

There are a lot of efforts out there to keep the super-wired organizing work that came to life around the Obama campaign alive – and even grow it into a real national movement that transcends a mere election campaign for a single politician. What Al Giordano is attempting with his network of Field Hands is a good example of the post-election “keep-it-going” mindset. It’s light on any unity of policy yet, but as Giordano points out, people are talking actively about their own roles as participants in democracy – something that is, frankly, a pretty new concept for a lot of Americans. And that’s what the Change.org transition site alternative is all about – a potential complement to the Change.gov side, the “outside” to the politician’s “inside.”

“I see it as parallel attempts to get people involved in civic life again — one through the public sector, the other through the private,” said Josh Levy, editor-in-chief of Change.org in an email. “I think they can work together.”

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