A guest post from Foreign Policy contributor and human-rights activist Rebecca Hamilton.
Last week, the State Department partnered with two U.S.-based advocacy organizations (Save Darfur and STAND) to launch AskUS -- a web 2.0 initiative to connect the Obama administration with citizen activists.
More than 500 citizens emailed and used the Twitter hashtag #AskUS to submit questions on Sudan policy that they wanted Save Darfur to ask; students around the country voted online for the questions they wanted answered. The exercise culminated yesterday with a meeting, web-streamed live and cross-posted on the State Department's Facebook page. Leaders from Save Darfur and STAND asked a selection of the citizens' questions to U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Scott Gration and Director of Multilateral Affairs at the National Security Council Samantha Power.
The event was not quite as "live" as its billing implied. Advocates had to give the administration their questions in advance. One former State Department official I interviewed referred to Darfur activists as "noise we had to manage" -- and I feared that AskUS would be nothing more than a web 2.0 opportunity for the administration to "manage" a vocal and often critical advocacy movement.
As it turned out, the shoe was on the other foot. Activists were given the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, and they pursued that avenue with such vigor that any fear of them being co-opted by their well-publicized access to the White House ceased to be a concern. What was a concern was the administration's inability to provide concrete answers to the advocates' questions.
During the session, Gration explained that there are some aspects of policy that cannot be shared publicly, and presumably no one would disagree that the need to keep some material confidential is inherent in any nation's diplomatic activities. But Gration's backtracking caused confusion among advocates who had eagerly tuned in: Despite the AskUS initiative being promoted as a forum for open dialogue, the administration was cagey on some fairly rudimentary points about its new Sudan policy.
Indeed, the Obama administration's Sudan strategy, rolled out on October 19, focuses on calibrating pressures and incentives on the basis of "verifiable changes in conditions on the ground." Yet during yesterday's meeting, advocates were told that the benchmarks for measuring progress were "a process we're working through."
The best summation of the State Department's first foray into citizen engagement 2.0 is, appropriately enough, encapsulated in a tweet by TechPresident blogger Micah Sifry. Responding to the frustration advocates were expressing in real-time to the vagueness of the administration's answers, he wrote, "Whatever you may think about substance of Gration/Power's answers, State Dept just raised the bar on admin transparency efforts." Indeed.
It's not by chance that AskUS was launched around an issue that has such a strong U.S.-based constituency. Let's hope the next meeting sees activists on Congo, Burma, Sri Lanka, or any of the other many neglected crises, get an invite to the White House.
Rebecca Hamilton is the author of The Promise of Engagement, a forthcoming book on citizen advocacy in Sudan. She is an Open Society Institute fellow and a visiting fellow at the National Security Archives at George Washington University.