Building Government 2.0
By Christina Huntington ’96
Last February, the Rhodes community buzzed with news that one of our own—Katie Jacobs Stanton ’91—had received an appointment as the first-ever White House director of Citizen Participation.
“I feel like I have a front-row seat at history, because every time we do something, we’re the first ones,” said Stanton when she chatted with students and faculty at Rhodes in September.
Despite her imposing title, Stanton has an easy-going, approachable manner that seems consistent with her years at Yahoo! and Google. And to hear her speak with enthusiasm about her current job is to believe that working in government isn’t that different.
Stanton describes the eight-person New Media team on which she serves as “the ultimate start-up with the greatest brand,” staffed with talented people from a range of industries. Along with supporting the White House Communications Office, the group works with cabinet-level agencies and some smaller ones to help them communicate in new, effective ways.
The team’s mission is clear, as it came from the top. On his first day in office, President Obama issued a memorandum stating, “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.”
“We try to take that directive very seriously in everything we do,” says Stanton.
Everyone plays, everyone wins
If you’re going to be transparent, you need to reach as many people as possible. So the team invested in the most popular medium on the Web—online video. They upgraded the president’s weekly radio address to a video format on Whitehouse.gov. More important, they also posted the videos on hugely popular sites like YouTube and Vimeo. For the first time, presidential messages left the confines of an official site, mingled with public content and invited responses. Think of it as a virtual town hall meeting.
And since the Web is global, what potential might video have for international relations? The team found out during the president’s first trip to Cairo in June, when they live-streamed video of his speech. It garnered 1.2 million views from 179 countries.
Reaching out to Muslims was a priority, so the team distributed a video of the president’s address to Iranians on the holiday of Nowruz—the first day of spring. It received 610,000 views, with more hits coming from Tehran than San Francisco.
And video is just the beginning, because the Web supports more than just broadcasting.
“Technology is enabling unprecedented levels and types of collaboration,” says Stanton. “It’s not necessarily the government talking to people, it’s talking with people. And the Web enables so many more people to participate.”
Even before Obama entered the White House, his transition team began developing channels for mass participation. Through Change.gov, citizens were invited to submit questions and vote on the ones they deemed most important. (In fact, the site’s voting platform ran on Google Moderator, and Stanton led its implementation. She credits that association with her eventual White House appointment.)
More than 100,000 people made submissions, casting 1.8 million votes. The Obama team answered the most popular questions. The Department of Defense now uses a similar structure for gathering questions and concerns from troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
New media can amplify a broadcast, and it can give citizens a way to talk directly to government. But shouldn’t there be more to a lofty term like “Citizen Participation”? There is.
“We believe if we gather all these people together, they’ll find the resources and means to help improve their community,” explains Stanton. “This is where I spend a lot of my time, and I personally find it really fascinating.”
When the H1N1 flu became a concern, Stanton and her team looked for ways to educate the public about prevention. The solution, like the illness, was viral.
In July, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a video PSA contest on flu prevention. The top 10 videos were posted on YouTube, and the public voted on the overall winner.
Stanton says the contest yielded more than 200 great entries, many of them humorous.
“It allowed people to be creative about the flu,” says Stanton. “Who knew the flu could be that interesting and funny? But it was.”
The total cost for the project was $2500—prize money for the winning auteur, a rapping physician from Long Island.
“It was a low-cost, effective way to get people talking about the flu,” explains Stanton. “It’s not just the government talking, but it’s people talking to one another: ‘Hey, did you see this funny video on Flu.gov?’ Or ‘Hey, I heard you’re sick, check this out, it might help you.’”
Citizen participation may get a jump start from technology, but its critical effects extend far beyond the Web. Online conversations lead to offline actions, whether it’s getting people to educate their friends and family about the flu, or mobilizing citizens with the help of a site like Serve.gov, which matches volunteers with community service projects.
From Rhodent to Googler
As a college student around 1990, did Stanton ever anticipate a job in technology?
“Never in a million years,” she laughs. “I took an intro to Computer Science class and let’s just say, it didn’t come naturally to me. But I was fascinated by the first opportunities to do instant messaging.” (Other ’90s alums also fondly remember the “Phone” function of the VAX platform at Rhodes.)
Originally from Cortlandt Manor, NY, Stanton was a reluctant Rhodes student—at first. Rhodes was her backup college, and she gave herself permission to transfer if she didn’t like it.
“But when I got there, everyone was very friendly; it was very warm. I loved it so much that I wanted to stay.”
Stanton majored in Political Science, with Plough Professor of Urban Studies Mike Kirby as a mentor who encouraged active learning. Stanton recalls a project for Kirby’s class in which she worked with the Shelby County Department of Corrections.
“Getting real-world experience and injecting it into the classroom, making it relevant, was really important,” Stanton says. “And one of the best things I did was go abroad.”
Stanton went abroad twice through Rhodes—first to the American University of Paris, and later spent a thought-provoking summer with the Great Lakes-Jerusalem Program studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also held a summer internship with Sen. Edward Kennedy in DC.
Later, as a Jacob Javits Fellow at Columbia University in New York City, Stanton earned a M.A. in International Affairs. The program included time working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She jokes that she must be the only person to have worked for both Jesse Helms and Barack Obama.
After grad school, Stanton settled in New York City to work for Chase Manhattan Bank. It was her first foray into technology, as a researcher in emerging markets. When she tired of banking she decided, “Whatever I did next, I wanted to be able to sit next to a stranger on a plane and be really proud of what I did.”
Stanton began her job search on Yahoo! and quickly realized it was just the kind of employer she wanted. Her finance background paid off, and she was hired to help develop Yahoo! Finance.
She moved to Yahoo!’s northern California headquarters, where she stayed for three years.
“Yahoo! was my first professional love, but I left it to spend more time with my greater loves, my newborn twins and toddler,” she says. “When I was ready to go back to work, I wanted to go somewhere that could possibly be as good as Yahoo! or even better. Google was the only company I could even think of, and I wasn’t disappointed. I was really proud to be a ‘Googler.’”
Stanton spent six years at Google, most recently as a principal in New Business Development involved with the OpenSocial platform. Before that, she worked on syndicating Google search and ads and later managed products including Google Finance, Blog Search, Google News and Google Moderator.
Stanton admits the move to DC from northern California, an environment she had grown to love, was daunting, but the transition has been relatively easy.
“This is such a wonderful opportunity for all of us, and I felt honored to serve this president and our country,” she says. “My husband was super-supportive and the kids were excited, too.”
Stanton has relatives in the DC area, so her children, now nine and seven, have been building new family ties. Her husband, Patrick, works for OPOWER, which provides rate comparisons to customers of participating utility companies as a way to encourage responsible energy use.
White House hours are long, and Stanton remains mindful of the constant balancing act.
“It’s hard as a working mom. When you’re working, you feel like you should be with the kids, and when you’re with the kids, you feel like you should be working.”
But discipline keeps family and work running smoothly. Stanton leaves the office by 6 p.m. every day.
“I want to have dinner with my family every night,” she says. “I want to help with the homework, and if the world for some reason crashes—which it doesn’t—between 6:00 and 8:30, everyone knows how to reach me.” Once the kids are in bed, she wraps up work from home.
And there’s always plenty of work. When the worlds of new media and politics collide, change happens fast. Just a few weeks ago, Stanton embraced yet another transition—this time to a new role at the State Department. She’ll continue using new media tools to support diplomacy around the world, a practice she describes as “21st-century statecraft.”
In a (characteristically abbreviated) Twitter post announcing her move, she described it as “Same playground, difft sandbox & new friends to meet.”
Wherever the shifts in technology and priorities take her, Stanton will navigate with self-assurance and curiosity. Her take on the family’s transition to DC sounds a lot like her approach to work: “Everyone’s always up for an adventure.”