Last Friday, President Obama hosted a townhall at the University of Maryland in College Park. At the end of his time on stage, he offered words addressed to the young students gathered in Ritchie Coliseum and those listening around the country:
…we’ve got a lot of young people here, I know that sometimes things feel discouraging. We’ve gone through two wars. We’ve gone through the worst financial crisis in any of our memories. We’ve got challenges environmentally. We’ve got conflicts around the world that seem intractable. We’ve got politicians who only seem to argue. And so I know that there must be times where you kind of say to yourself, golly, can’t anybody get their act together around here? And what’s the world that I’m starting off in, and how do I get my career on a sound foundation? And you got debts you’ve got to worry about.
I just want all of you to remember, America has gone through tougher times before, and we have always come through. We’ve always emerged on the other side stronger, more unified. The trajectory of America has been to become more inclusive, more generous, more tolerant.
And so I want all of you to recognize that when I look out at each and every one of you, this diverse crowd that we have, you give me incredible hope. You inspire me. I am absolutely convinced that your generation will help us solve these problems.
Unfortunately, one of my tweets on Friday reporting out the president’s words was missing two important words: “help us.” And, as it happened, that was the one that the White House chose to retweet to its more than two million followers. I corrected the quote and deeply regret the error, given the amplification and entrance into the public record. The omission changed the message in the president’s words from one of collective responsibility to shifted responsibility.
During the 2008 election, then Senator Barack Obama said that “the challenges we face today — from saving our planet to ending poverty — are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.”
As president, finding solutions to grand challenges means that Obama is looking again to the larger community for answers. Whether he finds them will be a defining element in judging whether a young Senator from Illinois that leveraged Web 2.0 to become president can tap into that collective intelligence to govern in the Oval Office.
In 2011, there are more ways for the citizens of the United States to provide feedback to their federal government than perhaps there ever have been in its history. The open question is whether “We the people” will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better.
The evolution of these kinds of platforms isn’t U.S.-centric, either, nor limited to tech-savvy college students. Citizen engagement matters more now in every sense: crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, crowdmapping, collective intelligence, group translation, and human sensor networks. There’s a growth in “do it ourselves (DIO) government,” or as the folks at techPresident like to say, “We government.”
As institutions shift from eGov to WeGov, their leaders — including the incumbent of the White House — will be looking to students and all of us to help them in the transition.