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Some Thoughts on the Summit

February 25, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

On the surface, today’s health care summit didn’t change much of anything. No bipartisan agreement on how to move forward was struck. Members of Congress didn’t put away their talking points in exchange for an honest discussion. And, despite the summit being broadcast live on television, it’s clear that behind-the-scenes, un-televised negotiations will to continue to take place.

But, on another level, there was something fresh and even historic about what happened today. The summit brought with it some big developments on how the public can (and should) be interacting with national policy issues.

One of the big developments was technological — having to do with the form of the summit. This began with the White House’s decisions to invite television cameras into the room and to also stream the entire summit live over their own website. But what they did that was truly innovative was to provide embed code along with the video on their website so that anyone could easily host the live video of the summit on their own website. Obviously, for online video, this is not really a development at all. It’s standard. But for government dissemination of content on such a big scale to not only not impede re-use, but actually encourage it, this is actually a big step forward for openness.

The White House’s decision to the offer embed code put people in charge of their own viewing experience. On a basic level, it eliminates the problem of the viewer having to subject themselves to the editorializing of a couple television channels in order to get the raw content. With the code spread all over the internet and hosted on millions of websites (details here), television networks that chose to have pundits inject their “take” on the discussion ended up losing out. As College News reported, complaints about networks that were interrupting the summit to add there own spin was trending on Twitter throughout the day.

More importantly, though, the embed code gave people the ability to make the basic viewing experience better and more effective for their needs and interests. For example, on OpenCongress, we hosted the video along with contextualizing links on all the bills and votes that were likely to come up during the summit. Sunlight Foundation built out a complex, live interface that allowed them to put the campaign contribution and vote data of each summit attendee right next to the video in turn as the each spoke. “We’re putting actual facts next to the rhetoric,” Sunlight’s Clay Johnson explained on Google Buzz. It’s a really neat idea, and people loved it. According to an email from Sunlight’s Executive Director, Ellen Miller, it was, by far, Sunlight’s biggest day of web traffic ever.

What we saw today with customizing the government information stream was just the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible. It was awesome to see and really helpful for viewing the summit in context, but, of course, in a few more years it will be remembered as primitive first step. That’s exciting.

The other thing that struck me was more about perception and what was actually said — the content of the summit. After more than a year of the entire country obsessively tracking health care reform, your average, medium-informed citizen is getting to be pretty darn wonky on the issue. It’s starting to feel like enough people now know enough about health care policy that the typical talking points and political posturing, from both Republicans and Democrats, just aren’t working.

The mainstream media tonight seems to be fixated on the McCain-Obama dust-up, but I don’t get the sense that that’s where the public’s attention actually was. The media just thinks that that is the moment that had the best “hook.” What stood out and what most people will remember, I think, were things like Rep. Paul Ryan [R, WI-1] talking Medicare policy and bending the cost curve, Sen. Tom Coburn [R, OK] on ending fraud and waste from the health care system, and the general back-and-forth on consumer pool size and the function of the individual mandate. At this point, the American people are educated enough on health care to know what things are real issues — what serious people would talk about at a serious summit on a serious issue.

Conversely, when Rep. Eric Cantor [R, VA-7] pulled out his props to make his point that he thinks the health care bill is too long, it felt like an insult to the viewers’ intelligence. As if we don’t know that there are more important things to talk about at a crucial summit like this than the number of pages in the bill.

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