New partnership with Microsoft and Bing lets citizens Skype the White House


For almost five years now, the Obama administration has encouraged the American people to ask or answer questions over the Internet. On Wednesday, December 11th, we’ll see a new wrinkle: the White House is using a collaboration between Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, and Skype to enable people to ask questions from their house.

The occasion is a conversation on immigration reform with Vice President Joe Biden and the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Muñoz. In addition to questions posed on Twitter at #AskTheWhiteHouse (virtually old hat in 2013), people will be able to use Skype to record short messages, as campaign manager Lucy Woolfenden explained at Skype’s blog. According to Woolfenden, “a select group of questioners” will also connect to the White House via live Skype Video Calls. (The criteria for their selection was not disclosed.)

That the use of real-time online video links between elected officials and Americans isn’t exactly a groundbreaking of technology in government in late 2013, which says something about the world we live in. It’s hard to believe that almost two years ago, President Obama joined a Google+ Hangout in January 2012, followed by many more Hangouts from the White House by members of his administration.

Even with the rampant cynicism and historic lows in public trust in government, however, there’s reason to hope for something interesting to come out of the event. The first Hangout with the president featured real, tough questions from citizens that made news on the use of drones. Earlier this year, an unexpected question on “patent trolls” posed to Mr. Obama by Adafruit founder Limor Fried led to a series a series of executive actions in June.

That isn’t to say that recorded questions or the live Skype conversation tomorrow will lead to executive action on an immigration issue, like deportation policy, or even make news. It does mean the livestream at and tomorrow may be a bit more interesting.

While this is a novel use of Skype, the context for it is much the same as past efforts, where the Obama administration is trying to use its bully pulpit and social media prowess to engage the public to put more pressure on Congress on a given policy agenda. (In this case, it’s trying to move stalled immigration reform legislation forward. It’s not at all clear whether the effort will change any votes in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.)

There’s one other new media angle teased by Crittenden last week to watch: “for greater interactivity, live polls will map public engagement with the conversation in real time.”

We’ll see how that goes, but the fact that Bing is being used to host the conversation and analyze engagement is something of a coup for Microsoft’s public sector team, which has not been a major part of the mix of this administration’s digital public engagement strategies, as the White House has tumbled further into social media over the years.

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