Yesterday was Big Block of Cheese Day. For those of you who don’t know what that is, here’s a potted history:
In 1837, in the foyer of Andrew Jackson’s White House, was placed a 1,400lb block of cheese. All who were hungry were invited to come to the White House and take a piece, regardless of social status. In the fictional (and, by the way, excellent and never-since-surpassed) drama The West Wing, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry espouses this egalitarian spirit and opens up his White House once a year for Big Block of Cheese Day. On this day, senior staffers devote their time to meeting people who normally wouldn’t have a hope of a meeting with the White House – advocates for “less visible” issues such as UFO research, wolf protection and cartography standards.
Three years ago, the Obama administration decided that this was a fantastic idea and held their own Big Block of Cheese day for the first time. Although they can’t actually visit the White House, members of the public can put their questions to members of the administration on various social media platforms, using the hashtag #BigBlockOfCheeseDay.
What’s this got to do with Public-i? Well, we love The West Wing and we live and breathe engagement. Yesterday, people were able to put their questions to Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi (Minority Leader of the House of Representatives), Vice-President Joe Biden, The National Security Council and Tom Perez (Labour Secretary), among others. Lots of great conversations were held – ranging from long-term economic plans to the ever-present issues around gun control. Importantly, a lot of these questions were actually answered.
Big Block of Cheese Day is a fantastic example of engagement. Members of the public feel like they’re having a real conversation with those who make decisions without the intermediary of the ballot box. Equally, decision makers are able to take the temperature of the public in a way which polling data cannot; it’s dirty, unfiltered and a far-cry from the clinical sampling of pollsters. In an election year, I am sure that is a particularly useful endeavour.
If all that wasn’t enough of a reason to love Big Block of Cheese Day, the whole thing has an air of light-heartedness about it which helps to make it even more approachable. There were many charming photos of senior politicians wearing cheese-shaped hats. There are also some really groan-worthy cheese puns floating around official White House communications – which we think is really gouda. (Get it?)
In the UK, there are already some similar examples taking place, albeit on a smaller scale. We’ve got #AskBoris – a weekly Twitter chat where people can ask Boris Johnson questions about London policy (and also direct a fair amount of ridicule in his direction). Our friends in Bristol hold “Ask George” – a question and answer session with the City’s first elected Mayor.
Social media and digital technology is making it easier than ever for decision makers to close the gap with citizens, and we at Public-i would like to see more of this. Engagement with the public makes decision making more robust, brings about better policy and makes democracy stronger. We think it’s brie-lliant. *groan*