Love him or hate him, US President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter has ushered in a new phase of democracy, one we’re still coming to grips with, according to the man who pulled the digital strings for Barack Obama.
Tom Cochran, who had a six-year stint at the White House, now runs software-as-a-service company Acquia’s global public sector business from Boston, and he’s excited by the ease with which the US President can now connect with the public, completely bypassing media gatekeepers.
“That’s something that didn’t exist 10 years ago,’’ Mr Cochran said. “That’s a remarkable feat, and something we should applaud in terms of technology opening doors. The question is what do we do with that power?
“We’re in a very early adolescent phase of figuring out what are the rules of engagement here.”
Mr Cochran, whose firm Blue State Digital started work for Mr Obama when Mr Obama was a “senator from Illinois with a funny name’’, said his signature achievement in the White House was We the People, a system in which everyday citizens could petition the White House, and force a response if 100,000 signatures were received in 30 days.
“It was the first time the White House was really connected on a one-to-one level and a one-to-many level with citizens and the world,” Mr Cochran said.
“There are a lot of cynics who say it’s just fluff but these are people who have no understanding of how difficult it was to get from point A to point B.”
For Mr Cochran, building a digital pathway for a petition system that’s enshrined in the first amendment rights of the US constitution was a unique privilege and the project had to be open source from the start.
“It’s important to give whatever it is you’re doing back to those who are actually paying for it,” he said.
As for the petitions that made it to the White House, Mr Cochran said in the US five or six years ago people did not have the right to have their mobile phones unlocked, until a petition came about.
“Consumers were frustrated and there was groundswell support for this issue, which ultimately ended up with congress passing a bill to allow people consumer choice,” he said.
Mr Cochran said the We the People petition system was proof the government could be human, too. “We’re humans just like everyone else and we do have a sense of humour,” he said.
The Australian government has become somewhat synonymous with tech fails of late: Centrelink, the Australian Taxation Office and the census are examples of large-scale debacles, but Mr Cochran said it was all about how the projects were approached at the beginning.
“Technology is fast, and it’s about risk-taking, which are two things that are the opposite of government,” he said. “In government I try to do it in small, bite-sized components, like a lot of tech companies do, and that way we’re more likely to succeed.
“Failure in government is not unique to Australia. It’s a global problem. There are many projects in the US, the healthcare.gov initiative being a prime example of a giant disaster, but the key is to start small and then scale from that small-project mentality.”
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