In 2021, We the People need a Public Chair to ask the White House public questions and pose petitions

Today, the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the White House is open to bringing back the “Skype seat” again and to taking questions from it. Psaki noted she took Q’s on Twitter — she then replied to them in a video posted online, and implied that the White House will soon ask the American people questions on YouTube.

The problem with this frame is that the “Skype Seats” that the Trump administration created in 2017 were not a democratic innovation designed to bring in tough questions from remote reporters in a pandemic or far-flung correspondents around the United States.

While substantive exchanges did come out of the measure — before the Trump administration gradually phased out and ended the daily briefings that were once a hallmark of American democracy – these four Skype seats at the daily briefing were an illiberal innovation marked by a shadowy selection process that crowded out tough questions from reporters present who could press for followups.

The initiative came wrapped in the rhetoric and imagery of a more open, participatory press briefing, but in practice may well have diminished the necessary (but insufficient!) transparency provided by a press secretary taking questions from journalists in front of broadcast, cable, and online cameras — along with the American people and the world — about the official stance or policies of the United States government.

Adding chairs where virtual reporters can ask questions could be a valuable way to extend the briefing to a distributed press corps, but if the White House does so, it should ensure that the entire process of choosing independent journalists who ask questions is open, transparent, and ethical. (Skype is also a technology from the 2000s; it still has a hundred million monthly users in 2020, it epitomizes a platform from the past.)

The White House Correspondents Association and its members should be thinking long and hard tonight about whether adding virtual chairs will be better or worse for generating trustworthy public information and the transparency these briefings are supposed to provide the public.

If not, what governance process would create the best online forum between reporters and the secretary?

Should there be a public queue of questioners the secretary draws from?

Should correspondents make an agreement to ask someone else’s question if they lose a connection or the Secretary ignores it?

In response to Psaki’s indication that the White House is open to the idea of a Skype chair, I’d propose a “yes, and: yes, add some virtual seats where credentialed reporters who can’t be present due to pandemic… restrictions can pose questions.

…but also add a Public Chair, where there’s a question directly from the American people posed by a different credentialed reporter present each week.

Let the public ask questions and then vote for the questions we most want to be asked. If the Press Secretary commits to answering the top question, it will create an incentive for people to participate.

We can assume that people on the Internet will ask President Biden about legalizing marijuana, just as people asked President Obama about pot in 2009 when he took questions online, but that we’ll also see popular questions that the credentialed journalists covering the White House, immersed in the politics and dysfunction of Washington, might not ask.

That was the part of the original vision of the Skype seat, but like so much of the past years, that vision was built on Potempkin promises and left a corrupted foundation.

If the Biden White House wants to take a big swing on rebuilding a public compact between the White House and all of the American people, giving us more of a voice in government, and then showing us they’re listening could be an investment with long-term returns.

It could connected the old and new by rebooting the White House e-petitions platform that President Obama created, and commit to having ones that get 100,000+ signatures posed to relevant officials at the podium by the Public Chair, up to and including the Vice President and President. Remember, White House petitions really do work sometimes! The Trump administration’s malign neglect of the platform doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a powerful tool in the hands of public servants who believe in democracy and the consent of the governed.

Taking more risks online can and will also at times tip into the absurd or surreal, as we’ve seen from snowmen posing questions in YouTube debates, random pseudonymous accounts getting amplified by a president, or misinformation merchants inserting conspiracy theories into official records.

It may be too much of a risk for a young presidency that doesn’t want to cede an official platform to people operating in bad faith, which argues for adding a layer of participatory governance in the process, but “building back better” should mean improving on the foundation of administrations past built online, after clearing away the debris and mistakes of the recent present.

Ultimately, every single new feature, website, order, disclosure, or policy this White House adopts or discards as it rebuilds the White House as a nonpartisan institution of, by, and for the all of the American people is an opportunity to optimize for trust.

In 2021, our union is divided and weakened by a mismanaged pandemic. Our body politic is diseased by an advanced state of truth decay. Less than a decade ago, a President took real questions from the Internet, and answered them. A Public Chair in the White House that raises our voices in government might be a good seat of government to rebuild trust upon.

Original Image Credit: CGTN News

One thought on “In 2021, We the People need a Public Chair to ask the White House public questions and pose petitions

  1. Pingback: Supporting: Letter to Biden White House on open government | Indiana Coalition for Open Government

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