The Trail: A Daily Diary of Campaign 2008


The Clickocracy


By Jose Antonio Vargas
So is making the grade?

A few weeks ago we wrote that, under the direction of Obama campaign veteran Macon Phillips, had hit
a few technical and bureaucratic bumps. Today, we begin a monthly feature that invites five thinkers across the online political and cultural spectrum to grade President Obama's

The panel includes: Craig Newmark, the Craig of, the online bulletin board; Andrew Rasiej, founder of the bipartisan Personal Democracy Forum, which covers the hub of politics and technology; Ellen Miller, head of the Sunlight Foundation, a major power-player in open government circles; Jon Henke, a consultant for Arts+Labs, a technology policy coalition, and a blogger at the conservative blog The Next Right; and David Weinberger, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and co-author of the prescient book "The Cluetrain Manifesto," which was published in 2000. Weinberg's work foresaw how the social, networked Web would change human relationships.

As the group sees it, has several goals. "The mission of is to act as a primary vehicle for the public to understand what the President is doing on behalf of the country," explained Rasiej. Added Weinberger: " is the central online presence of the President. It should inform and engage: Inform us about the President's actions, policies, and person, and engage us in sharing and developing ideas." To Newmark, who prides himself as a customer service representative for the very site he created, the role of is to serve its citizens.

And a "citizen," Newmark noted, "is a customer of government."

Their marks are based on three criteria, each a buzzword in online politics:

* Transparency. Save for genuinely sensitive information and activities -- say, nuclear weapons design -- is serving as an X-ray of the inner workings of the White House?

* Accessibility. Is the site, for all age groups, functionally and visually easy to navigate?

* Engagement. Is offering a two-way street? In other words, is the site talking at us, or with us? There's a key difference.

So far, the grades for range from a C to a B+. The average is a C+.

Newmark, an early Obama supporter, gave the highest grade. "They're off to a great start," he said, "particularly considering the anti-transparency bias of earlier White House technology. Also, they have to overcome a lot of bureaucratic inertia, that's the hard part."

The rest of the group, however, was only marginally impressed. Rasiej offered a ploaio old C, and Miller marked it a C+. "In the same way FDR was able to use radio 'Fireside Chats' to talk to the American public to understand his decisions and his vision leaving them inspired to subscribe to it and adjust their expectations accordingly, this President has the same opportunity with an exponentially more powerful medium to not only lead us to achieve his vision, but to invite us to help get us all there faster," said Rasiej, who served as an adviser to the Obama transition's technology, innovation and government reform group. In a way, Obama's innovative use of the Internet during his campaign set a high bar for what he would do once he occupied the Oval Office. As Miller explained, "When it comes to transparency and citizen engagement, it still has a long way to go to meet the expectations that the President himself set during the campaign."

Henke and Weinberger were torn, giving the site two grades -- the first grade for what the site is, what it currently offers, and for what the under Obama could be. That's a running theme among many technologists who've been following the site. Henke gave the site a D for what it could be and B for what it is. Look at the blog, Henke said. Though should be heralded for having a blog -- a first for the site -- it's "more of a White House PR Feed that what we generally think of as a blog," Henke said. Weinberger gave it C and a B. It's a B, he said, because Obama's is significantly better than Pres. Bush's But it's also a C because "compared to what Obama's wants to be, it needs room to grow."

For all the innovations of Obama's -- yesterday, officials announced that it will distribute tickets to the Easter Egg Roll
online -- online observers, a sometimes prickly, often exacting, let's-get-ahead-of-the-curve bunch, are left wanting for more. Take the issue of generating comments. Allowing comments on blogs is a given, nothing more than an online SOP. BarackObama.comand allowed comments. But doesn't--at least not yet.

Anxious to have some of kind of bottom-up, grassroots participation come out of the White House, Ari Melber, a writer for The Nation, has spearheaded "Ask the President," an online-based effort that allows users to post questions and vote for their favorite questions they would like to be able to ask Obama. Voting on the posted questions will stop a few hours before the president's scheduled news conference tonight, and credentialed journalists are free borrow the most-voted questions from the site.

A site called White House 2-- created in late October, before Obama won -- doesn't just invite comments and questions but brings public participation on a mock to another level. Jim Gilliam, a Los Angeles resident and Obama supporter, designed White House 2 as it if were run by the online masses. Users can create an account, post priorities for the country (such as "Replace the federal income tax with the FairTax," "Improve the quality and competitiveness of our students" and "Have the IRS audit all Politicians every year") and endorse a list of priorities.

Perhaps Phillips and his new media team -- which now includes Katie Jacobs Stanton, a former Google exec who joined the White House earlier this month as director of citizen participation -- are paying attention. As Phillips himself said, Obama's is "an ongoing experiment."

And it's only been two months and three days since it was launched.

What grade would you give

This is one in a series of online columns on our growing "clickocracy," in which we are one nation under Google, with e-mail and video for all. Please send suggestions, comments and tips to

Posted at 6:34 AM ET on Mar 24, 2009  | Category:  The Clickocracy
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What else did you expect?

Posted by: JakeD | March 24, 2009 6:17 PM

Citizen engagement (in the form of public participation) covers a whole range of activities from merely providing citizens with useful and timely information, to soliciting citizen feedback, to collaborative drafting of policies, and last but not least all the way up to granting citizens certain decision making powers.

First and foremost, this is about process: Where can participation be helpful or required, and to what degree? What promises are being made to the public at each level and phase of public participation and how can the organization leading the engagement effort make sure these promises are consistently being kept? Only then does the question of tools come into play.

Anyone serious about public participation must get these basics right for it to achieve the desired outcomes.

With that in mind, I seriously doubt that simply turning on comments on the official blog would qualify as meaningful participation. Worse yet, in some cases it might even be counter-productive to quality citizen engagement.

The experiments we saw on were definitely a step in the right direction. However, from a public participation standpoint there were many best practices the transition team did not yet manage to adhere to. Moreover, none of the tools that were used on (IntenseDebate, Google Moderator, Salesforce Ideas) were really built to scale (much less in a public participation environment), and they all struggled with the massive onslaught of user contributions.

So rather than getting impatient with the new administration, my advice to them would be to address the participation piece with great care and caution and to innovate one step at a time. Identify the most promising use cases and work your way up the ladder of public participation. Definitely continue in the spirit of experimentation that was visible on, but make sure you don't fail too badly too often as the participants' trust, once broken, will be hard to recover.

Posted by: tbonnema | March 24, 2009 6:04 PM

"Accessibility" has a specific technical meaning, and it doesn't involve someone's age.

As for "Ask the President", it's yet another in a long line of shams that will simply generate weak, filtered questions:

Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | March 24, 2009 3:04 PM

"Accessibility" has a specific technical meaning, and it doesn't involve someone's age.

As for "Ask the President", it's yet another in a long line of shams that will simply generate weak, filtered questions:

Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | March 24, 2009 3:00 PM

I give it a C, which is "average," which is way below what I expect from an Obama web team. I assume/hope they're continuing to work on it.

Your experts are right, although it pains me to say that the Bush WH had a better, or at least more useful, website.

I cannot understand their stinginess with photographs, either. They post slideshows of some events, but not so much as one still shot of others. We get more photo content out of Daylife than

Posted by: LadyWesley | March 24, 2009 11:49 AM

I agree with KanDaShan--it used to be easier to look up daily activities and all press releases and press conferences. What really prompted me to post today is my frustration with the lack of proofreading before publishing. Jose--please proof before posting or ask someone else to glance at the text first. It's not just you--this morning my frustration just reached the tipping point. Do we really want to continue to have to decipher phrases such as "Rasiej offered a ploaio old C" and "and credentialed journalists are free borrow the most-voted questions"? This wasn't breaking news that couldn't wait a few minutes for a quick review for typing mistakes.

Posted by: reader171 | March 24, 2009 8:38 AM

My main criticism is that, unlike the Bush page, the Obama site is selective about content to display. Bush's page had everything filed under the 'News' headline, including daily appointments with the official one paragraph bio of a new staffer or Ambassador, and a broad range of photos from each day.

The Obama WH can use the main page to highlight its key message and focus stories. But the important little decisions occurring each day should be in one easily searched page. This is the only area where I find Bush superior!

Posted by: KanDaShan | March 24, 2009 8:17 AM


It's not an information dissemination point about the White House or the Executive Branch. It's difficult to navigate and the 'slickness' inspires a lack of trust and a feeling of manipulation. 'Look at what I want you to look at' is my feeling after I see the site. I would rather read the incredibly dry but easily informative Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents than shiny glossy thing I just get an eerie propaganda feel about.

Posted by: idiparker | March 24, 2009 7:57 AM


Posted by: JakeD | March 24, 2009 7:38 AM

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