Seat at the Table

by Sebastian Benthall

The Obama-Biden Transition Project has some really excellent branding and PR.  Its name along makes me think of some kind of jazz fusion supergroup.  But it also appears to be making true progress towards government transparency, which is encouraging.

I just learned about the Project’s “Seat at the Table” Transparency policy, which is summed up in this public memo:

MEMORANDUM
From: John Podesta
To: All Obama Transition Project Staff
Date: December 5, 2008
Re: “Seat at the Table” Transparency Policy – EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY

As an extension of the unprecedented ethics guidelines already in place for the Obama-Biden Transition Project, we take another significant step towards transparency of our efforts for the American people. Every day, we meet with organizations who present ideas for the Transition and the Administration, both orally and in writing. We want to ensure that we give the American people a “seat at the table” and that we receive the benefit of their feedback.

Accordingly, any documents from official meetings with outside organizations will be posted on our website for people to review and comment on. In addition to presenting ideas as individuals at http://www.change.gov, the American people deserve a “seat at the table” as we receive input from organizations and make decisions. In the interest of protecting the personal privacy of individuals, this policy does not apply to personnel matters and hiring recommendations.

This is obviously great stuff. But I’m just as struck by Obama’s team’s continued mastery of PR and marketing. It’s like he’s still campaigning. The memo is addressed to “All Obama Transition Project Staff”, but it’s also clearly written for the public audience, opening with a reminder, in case you hadn’t heard, of “the unprecedented ethics guidelines already in place,” and then following through with an enforcement of the branding of the policy as “Seat at the Table.” And then it comes with a video commercial!

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not bothered by this. I am more amazed by Obama’s continued attention to his public image. It will keep people mobilized around him, and keep him a rock star in the public eye. And it’s because he’s got a lot of great, talented marketing experts working for him.

During the campaign, I was concerned about the role of money and technical expertise in politics. There is a democratic ideal that is is based on a fantasy of equal access to resources, an ideal with which I cannot fully part. But I spoke the other day with a friend who worked in the Obama campaign as a field organizar, and asked her what she thought legitimized an elected official. Her answer was telling, and maybe more relevant to the times: people being excited and mobilized and willing to pitch in for the candidate. If that norm of legitimacy is the standard across those touched by the Obama campaign and administration, then this sort of branding is exactly what he should be doing.

Thanks to Josh Bronson for the heads up on “Seat at the Table.”

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