President Obama’s Message of Hope
By C. Naseer Ahmad

 

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the image of President Obama on the tee shirt of a Nigerian man said a lot. We are in a “New Era” since January 20, 2011, the image suggested.

The man was headed for church on a Sunday on Arnouville's Platform 2 in France. As a friendly conversation took off while waiting for the train, it became clear that the message of hope engendered by President Barack Obama and his staff did travel thousands of miles away. The man's beautiful little daughter listened attentively as he explained why he was so hopeful about America.
In this new era, sometimes just an email address is sufficient to be connected and be engaged. Depending upon one’s interest and the issues of priority, citizens now have access to all levels of government – assuming of course some basic education.

Starting at the local and state level, one can read what is on the mind of movers and shakers. For example, Virginia’s State Senator Chap Petersen blog (http://oxroadsouth.com) provides an interesting glimpse of how public engagement is evolving in this new era. His blog entries of September 16, 2011 (Small Business Summit at the George Mason University) and June 26, 2011 (Religious Freedom) inform us about the type of issues on the mind of the public.

The daily digest bulletins from the US Department of State on a number of issues contain useful information on countries around the world. An example of the new era is the speed at which these updates arrive in the inbox. Just as I was typing came an update from the State Departments “Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs: J William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board Welcomes Four New Members”. The email then provides a background of the new members nominated by President Obama.

Change in any society does not happen in isolation. There is a process involved and federal and executive level of the government has a role. One thing refreshing about this administration is the eagerness to move the process along and to elevate the level of discussion.

Several times during the day emails will arrive from the White House, for those who register their email addresses with the website. These updates contain valuable content to be able to form an informed opinion and to participate in the public engagement – which is meant to be a process which brings people together to address issues of common importance and to solve shared problems.

With the wonders of technology in this new era, it is possible to hear directly from the President of the United States on you Blackberry or iPhone – whether you are at the Arnouville train station, the Piccadilly in London or right here at the Vienna Metro stop.

And, just as a proof the new era below is an interview conducted remotely with the White House Office of Public Engagement (OPE).

CNA: Is Public Engagement conflicting with Public Diplomacy? Are there any overlaps and how are you handling any overlaps and conflicts?

OPE: The mission of the Office of Public Engagement is to ensure the American public is well-informed about government policies and programs and how they can utilize these resources. We also aim to ensure that we are hearing from the public about how those policies and programs can serve them better. Public diplomacy is generally focused on an international audience and there is overlap in that many Americans are very interested in learning about our policies with respect to other nations or international developments in general.

CNA: What are the challenges faced in either setting the terms of reference or increasing participation by various interest groups?

OPE: One challenge in engaging communities that haven’t traditionally worked with the federal government is that there isn’t an organizational chart to show who’s truly representative of a particular community. Even if there was we understand that no single person or organization can fully represent the diversity of views in any given constituency. This is why it’s important for us to focus on being the “front door” to the White House to any and every American who wants to be involved. Sometimes more recent immigrant communities may be initially be unsure of our goals or intentions in working with them based on prior experiences with the governments in their countries of birth. We make it abundantly clear that our efforts to engage are non-partisan and simply seek to empower them with information and available resources which often helps address their concerns.

CNA: In his recent remarks at the National Press Club on his book "Keys to the Kingdom" Senator Bob Graham lamented that secrecy is hindering the public's right to know. Does secrecy hinder the Public Engagement process?

OPE: Without commenting with respect to any specific book, there is an enormous amount of information related to the operations of this government that is freely available. The President has also gone beyond previous administrations in keeping his commitment to an open and transparent government. It’s important to bear in mind that the vast majority of government operations are available to anyone that’s interested.

CNA: Has the debate on the debt ceiling impacted Public Engagement?

OPE: The Office of Public Engagement worked diligently to share objective information on the outlines of the debate. A failure to raise the debt limit would have affected every community and constituency and OPE extended a great effort to respond to a broad range questions and concerns from stakeholder groups interested in how this issue would impact them specifically.

CNA: Do you feel that you are succeeding?

OPE: We continue to make great progress in connecting with community leaders that have not previously engaged their federal government. The Community Leaders Briefing Series is a good example of success that we have achieved in convening 150 different grassroots leaders from various communities every Friday to share a full day of policy briefings as well as spend some time simply experiencing the White House. But in many ways there is so much more work to do.

CNA: Has Public Engagement helped increase interest in volunteerism? Are there any success stories?

OPE: OPE has helped to support the President’s call for increased volunteerism and community service. The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act that the President signed into law in 2009 provided a framework for us to encourage all community groups to tap into in their work to support neighbors in need. We recently received an overwhelming response on a conference call with the Corporation for National and Community Service and members of the Muslim-American community to encourage their participation in the 9/11 Day of Service to mark the tenth anniversary of those terrible attacks.

CNA: Are there any lessons learned?

OPE: There are certainly best practices that have been gleaned over the past couple of years. These range from logistical lessons as well as a gradually evolving understanding of the communities we seek to serve through engagement.

CNA: How has social media assisted in Public Engagement?

OPE: Social media has been a crucial asset in reaching a broader range of Americans who aren’t able to visit Washington, DC on a regular basis. For example, www.whitehouse.gov/aapi provides an overview of the President’s initiatives with respect to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. The White House also maintains a presence on Facebook and Twitter in order to communicate with the millions who use it to receive updates and connect with friends. The President recently hosted the first-ever town hall with Twitter and answered questions submitted to him in real time from Americans around the country.

CNA: What are the challenges faced in using social media for Public Engagement? Is the volume of communications messages/emails etc. overwhelming?

OPE: Social media is an imperative tool to use in reaching as many Americans as possible; however, it cannot be a substitute for actively seeking to engage all Americans, many of whom do not use the Internet or social media in their daily lives.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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