By Jose Antonio Vargas
So is WhiteHouse.gov making the grade?
A few weeks ago we wrote that WhiteHouse.gov, 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 WhiteHouse.gov.
The panel includes: Craig Newmark, the Craig of Craigslist.org, 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, WhiteHouse.gov has several goals. "The mission of WhiteHouse.gov 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: "Whitehouse.gov 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 WhiteHouse.gov 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 WhiteHouse.gov 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 WhiteHouse.gov 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 WhiteHouse.gov 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 WhiteHouse.gov 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 WhiteHouse.gov 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 WhiteHouse.gov is significantly better than Pres. Bush's WhiteHouse.gov. But it's also a C because "compared to what Obama's WhiteHouse.gov wants to be, it needs room to grow."
For all the innovations of Obama's WhiteHouse.gov -- 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 Change.gov allowed comments. But WhiteHouse.gov 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 WhiteHouse.gov 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 WhiteHouse.gov is "an ongoing experiment."
And it's only been two months and three days since it was launched.
What grade would you give WhiteHouse.gov?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted at 6:34 AM ET on Mar 24, 2009
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