Macon Phillips, Trinity '00, spoke about how to use technology to engage people in politics in a talk at the Sanford School of Public Policy Wednesday evening.
Phillips was the digital guru behind President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, and he launched many of Obama's digital initiatives in the White House—including Change.gov. and WhiteHouse.gov. He also introduced "We the People," an online platform launched in 2011 to enable people to petition to White House and get a response if their petition reaches a certain amount of signatures.
“It’s based on the idea that if a lot of people care about something, it’s probably in our interests to talk about it, and that you can’t control what people are talking about anymore,” Phillips said. “It’s probably something obvious to all of you, but it certainly was a new concept among the big cheeses in the White House.”
Phillips now works as the coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs in the U.S. State Department, where he helps expand engagement with foreign audiences. The Sanford talk—titled “From Change.gov to Twitter Diplomacy: Technology and Citizen Engagement”— was part of the "Connect 2 Politics" speaker series sponsored by the new Center for Politics, Leadership, Innovation and Service.
“Macon is the perfect speaker for the Connect 2 Politics program as he has done a fascinating job in using new ways to connect ordinary people to politics during his career,” Frederick Mayer, director of POLIS and professor of public policy, said in the opening remarks.
Phillips started the talk by explaining his role in Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign—which he described as “a once in a life time experience”.
He explained that Obama’s experience of being a community coordinator in Chicago and knocking on doors to connect people to community issues was very valuable and the real innovation of the campaign was to build a database of every possible voter so that people working for the campaign could call them.
“You can sum up the strategy for the Obama campaign from how do we build an army to get votes, how can technology allow us to find allies and to grow in terms of our resources,” Phillips said.
Phillips also described his responsibilities in the White House as helping the president amplify his message, opening up the work of the White House to make it more accessible to the public and giving people meaningful opportunities to participate in government.
After five years of working in the White House, Phillips decided to leave the White House for a new position in the State Department, where he said he would be better able to connect to people outside of government.
“I realized that working in the government is incredibly isolated. I couldn’t keep up with things going on in private sectors and couldn’t bring non-governmental perspective,” Phillips said.
In his new role, Phillips works to communicate with foreign audiences about policies and issues like climate change and trade agreements.
He introduced the project he has been working on called "Young African Leaders Initiative Network," which provides online resources for young African leaders to foster change in their communities and their countries, in addition to giving them the opportunity to travel to the U.S. and work with people in the State Department.
Phillips also gave advice to students who want to work in government at the end of his talk. He encouraged students to not undervalue themselves as they are “digital natives” and have mastered technology skills that can be very valuable to institutions in the information age.
“The thing you should keep your eye on is how people relate to institutions as you are thinking about politics and government,” Phillips said. “The heart of being a communicator for government or any other institution is to develop the networks and allies and technology make that process more effective.”
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