- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A friend of mine who regularly traverses the intersection of politics and technology recently pointed out an interesting coincidence: Last month, on the same day two world leaders on different sides of the globe — President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair — both made a public reference to the impact of technology on our lives by mentioning the same company. They both cited Google — one leader used it as a verb and the other an adjective — but together they underscored the growing role of technology in the political world and in every part of our lives. Mr. Bush said that Americans could now “Google” how their tax dollars are spent, while Mr. Blair noted the “Google generation” has transformed the way we work, moving us beyond the idea of 9-to-5.

The leaders’ remarks offer another reminder of how technology — and in this election season particularly, new media — is following a path we’ve seen before in our culture. Emerging technologies are usually adopted first by the private sector, move next to political campaigns, and then migrate to the lobbying world. The business world has alreadyembraced rapidly growing and popular technologies like YouTube, and social networking hubs such as MySpace and Facebook. These applications and others are also already heavily integrated into many political campaigns this year. Expanding these tools into lobbying and advocacy is already happening too, but a lot more is on the way.

The Personal Democracy Forum reviewed the new high-powered Web site upgrades recently announced by the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. The review notes that both political parties were influenced by social networking sites such as MySpace, as their new technological tools allow users to find like-minded individuals in close geographic proximity and encourage a host of activities beyond just giving money.

If history is any guide, use of new media in political campaigns will only grow in importance and at even faster rates. Mark Halperin and John F. Harris, in their recent book, “The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008,” argue that harnessing the power of the new media is a key to victory in the next presidential election. Whichever party and candidate solve this puzzle will have a major advantage. Messrs. Halperin and Harris argue Republicans did a better job of figuring out the new media in 2004, but the competition is up for grabs and will begin again in the next battle for the White House.

The same conclusion also pertains to lobbying. In the public-policy world, as with electoral politics, whoever figures out the best way to use new media and the Internet will possess a major advocacy advantage. Applying new media techniques more broadly to lobbying offers huge potential and is already well underway. Here is just one small example. We know that most citizens feel disconnected from Washington and the public-policy process. They lack information, motivation and knowledge about how to interact with lawmakers. Through social networking technology, interest groups could identify, recruit and educate potential citizen advocates. These new resources will not only help identify and recruit those most interested, but it will empower them with the information they need, helping overcome whatever experience they lack.

Another post last week on the Personal Democracy Forum Web site underscored this point. It highlighted a campaign by a group called Campus Progress, which is advocating more funding for college financial aid. Advertisements in the campaign urge students to help “make college affordable now” by text messaging the word “Debt” to a code that sends an automated response asking for their e-mail address and ZIP code. A subsequent e-mail tells them how to get in touch with their representatives (based on ZIP code).

Campaigns like this are just one innovative example of how new media technologies, which started with political applications, are now quickly migrating to the lobbying world. These new techniques are fundamentally changing the way citizens interact with the public-policy process and the way lobbying in America operates. Facebook probably won’t eclipse K Street anytime soon, but lobbyists may want to at least Google it to see what they might be missing.

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