Take aways from the Future of Local Politics and the Web panel

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A panel held by Refresh Philly on the Future of Local Politics on the Web at the Comcast Center in Center City Philadelphia Nov. 2, 2009. From left: Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce CEO Rob Wonderling; pa2010.com contributor Benjamin Barnett; Young Philly Politics contributor Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg and myself who moderated. Photo by Sean Blanda

Whether Web technology and social media can have a major impact on local politics in a place like Philadelphia or if they remain secondary tools, became the major topic and a divided one at a panel that served as the November Refresh Philly meeting.

The hour-long panel discussion, which I moderated, was entitled the Future of Local Politics and the Web.

  • Panel member Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg, a co-founder of progressive policy online forum Young Philly Politics, seemed dogged in his assessment that the Web remains a supplementary tool to traditional campaign field operations.
  • Panel member Benjamin Barnett, the micro-blogger for statewide campaign news site pa2010.com spoke about the role the Web could have in boosting the profile and followship of otherwise limited candidates, most notably citywide Republican candidate in heavily Democratic Philadelphia.
  • The third panel member Rob Wonderling, the new CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, was careful not to overstate the role the Web can play on a municipal level but split somewhere in the middle by noting its role in championing transparency and responsiveness of government.

While that discussion remained most present during the event, there was plenty more to be had. Below some other take aways, video of the event and questions I didn’t have time to ask.

“You first have to convince people that the election matters and then you’d also have to convince them that you’re a candidate worth choosing over the other guy,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said in dismissing that a Republican candidate, like city controller candidate Al Schmidt who won a perhaps surprising endorsement from the Philadelphia Inquirer without much of a murmur online, could use the Web more aggressively and overtake a machine backing of incumbent Alan Butkovitz.

“But someone like Al Schmidt has no other option,” countered Barnett. He should be cultivating ever voter he can online, in addition to the face-to-face interactions he’s been chasing during civic association meetings all over the city, as I’ve seen in the Northeast.

OTHER PERSPECTIVES

Wonderling seemed skeptical about the use of the Web to overcome challenges local campaigns face.

*Below, I ask him if a candidate needing to drum up support — like, say, the Philadelphia Republican city controller challenger Al Schmidt example from above — could more heavily rely on the Web to reach more voters.

Below watch a small snippet of Wonderling comparing his use of social media and the Web in his two campaigns — in 2002 and then 2006. “Technology:” Wonderling said, “it is a tool, a communications tool.”

“My 16-year-old son will never buy a TV when he is old enough buy one,” Wonderling added. So campaigns need to find other ways to bring their message to voters of that demographic, he continued.

Wonderling shares two fun tidbits at the event

  • Notorious former city mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo was an originator of social media in the 1970s. “He was one of the first Philly politicians to get on this new fangled thing called talk radio,” Rob Wonderling said.
  • “He’s still trying to find out how many printers he has,” Wonderling said. He was speaking about Allan Frank, noting that in innovating the technology culture of local government the city’s CTO has to first control a mainstay of bureaucratic culture. Once you get a little spending money, you buy a printer so you don’t have to share one. “Printers run amok,” he said.

OTHER QUESTIONS

Despite the platform, the time and what seemed like a genuinely engaged audience, I had to leave aside some questions I wanted to discuss:

  • Is the political social media and otherwise Wed-backed movement overblown entirely? Pres. Obama is credited with revolutionizing online campaigning, but he’s also known for a massive, engaged and organized field operations team. Are the two connected?
  • How might the 1999 mayoral campaign of Sam Katz — a progressive, business-centric Republican who lost by fewer than 9,000 votes to Democratic black machine candidate John Street — be different in today’s climate of Web tools for promotion and organization?
  • Are municipal campaigns ignoring the potential to build their own audience, and bypassing the media, as shown to be powerful nationally by Sarah Palin’s near personal derailing of the health care debate with her “death panels” Facebook note?
  • Can the transparency proclivities of the Web overcome the fracture or altogether loss of the city’s trustee media?
  • Can the Internet get more people involved in the electoral process?
  • Shouldn’t the Web used a great deal more in government and administration if not policy and campaigning? (This is was partially answered, with nods given to the idea that the political establishment in the city doesn’t want to erode its power by unleashing that power.)

MEDIA AND TRANSPARENCY

Below, watch Wonderling give a sense of some value to how the Web might force candidates and their campaigns to be more responsive and attentive to voter reaction online. “It creates an environment, I think, in campaigns in the future where there will be greater transparency,” he said.

Part of Barnett’s answer: “There has to be room for this,” he said of Web-based niche news.

Review of my major take aways from the event

  • Serious doubts persist about whether local elections yet provide enough of a Web base to make the additional effort worth it.
  • This is a tired political conversation generally, but many questions persist locally.
  • Mobile Internet penetration is an enormous element of where this conversation goes in the future.
  • Possible candidate uses for the Web: bypassing media; constituent services and outreach; volunteer organization; responsiveness and transparency, voter outreach; brand-building and more

“I don’t think you can replace local media with volunteers,” said Urevick-Ackelsberg.

PBS Mediashift has a timely post on political use of the Web to bypass traditional media.

CRITICISMS OF MODERATION AND CLOSE

I pledged to limit my blathering and let the bright panel do the heavy lifting. While I did that to some extent and tried to sum up points as the conversation wore on before moving on elsewhere — as I tried in the above video — I did find myself expending too many words to ask a question.

After Wonderling speaks in the above video, I ramble for at least 40 seconds before asking Barnett a fairly straight-forward question: is there a comparison to be made between campaign transparency in the future through the Web and a devotion to openness that many tried news-gatherers devote themselves too?

I think the best moderators say, likely, the fewest words, so that’s a big area in which I need to develop.

I was pleased with the conversations that were brought up, but a few topics didn’t make it due to time constraints — we finished by 7:45 p.m. in respect to the pivotal game five of the World Series, which may have done its part to keep the crowd to a modest 35-40 ,out of more than 60 registered.

Here’s to many more events like this in the future and the continued hope we can all learn something and improve our city and our country and our world… or something like that.

Many thanks to Roz Duffy, Refresh Philly, the panelists and the audience.

*All video taken by Sean Blanda.