This week I discovered a very important email in my inbox: Good afternoon,
You are receiving this email because you signed up at WhiteHouse.gov. My staff and I plan to use these messages as a way to directly communicate about important issues and opportunities, and today I have some encouraging updates about health care reform.
For me, the importance of this email had nothing to do specifically with the issue at hand - health care, in this case. What made a profound impression on me was how much progress has been made by the Obama administration in rewriting the engagement model of democracy and the governing of our nation. Since the presidential election, political pundits and electoral historians have been quick to point out how the current administration had leveraged the Internet - especially with respect to social networking - to catapult themselves into office. With President Obama's virtual town halls gaining prominence among the populace, we are witnessing a giant step forward in the use of Web-based technologies to better support and enhance the democratic process of the U.S. Most political commentators now expect the strategic use of virtual town halls to increase by orders of magnitude and be applied to an ever-growing portfolio of governance opportunities. Political content aside, President Obama's virtual town halls have received overwhelmingly successful reviews and accolades for their technical execution and level of sophistication, not to mention their reinforcement of U.S. democratic values.
The first virtual town hall in the history of the White House centered around a small gathering of citizens that congregated in the building's East Room. This was augmented with a full video Webcast, which helped foster a true sense of community and enhanced the forum for all. For those who attended the live (in-person) president's town hall, a pre-scripted meet-and-greet was arranged. Five questions were chosen at random from the attendees, none of these questions took the president out of his comfort zone. However, when it came time to take questions from the virtual participants, the discourse became much more interesting, complex and lively. A good portion of these questions were culled from the White House's "Open for Questions" Web page, which provided all citizens with a simple platform to voice their concerns and complaints about a host of current issues, from education to the economy. More than 100,000 questions were submitted by approximately 93,000 people; what is more, 3.5 million people voted for the questions they liked best. These numbers reflect an impressive level of participation and willingness of voters to listen to one another's opinions. From a single point of entry, Open for Questions got people talking and linked into the issues that affect their lives. (After the conclusion of a presidential town hall, the universe of unanswered questions remains entrenched on the Internet so that they can be revisited at a future date, provided that there is still relevance and momentum around the issues they address.)
The White House's virtual town hall strategy has given corporate America an outstanding example on which they can build a better employee-engagement model. In the corporate world, senior management (specifically C-level leaders) would be wise to learn how to leverage the virtual town hall model to address their most vital constituencies - their employees, shareholders and the communities in which they do business. In the current global business climate, mistrust and misunderstanding of business executives run rampant. CEOs and their respective board members are realizing that they must better engage their rank-and-file employees in two-way dialog that has meaning and vitality. Compared to government-sponsored ones, town halls in the private sector will attract much higher levels of attendance. Participation becomes a lot more crucial and discussion much more energized and animated when people's livelihoods are concerned. As would be expected, the most unpopular questions with senior management will be the most popular with their employees; therefore, CEOs must come to the discussion prepared to hear tough questions on outsourcing, downsizing and other not-so-rosy areas of employee concern. Employees want to feel that they are truly in an environment where they can control their own destiny and actualize their potential, as well as that their work provides a high degree of value to their firm.
The Obama administration has pointed the way toward the future of governance, attempting to better socially network citizens and get them more involved in the political process by making the means of participation much easier and more friendly. Important new steps have been taken to achieve more open and transparent interactions between the federal government, its citizens and the national media (that has often served as a bridge between the two). The movers and shakers of the corporate world need to take heed of these developments. While conducting an enterprise-wide town hall with their employees may not be as attractive as an ego-feeding appearance on CNBC or an interview in a top business magazine, a virtual meeting with the great mass of workers they manage may ultimately have more value. Corporate governance experts should accept the fact that they may be lagging behind the public sector when it comes to new modes of bilateral communication, and they should take steps to catch up.
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