Grading WhiteHouse.gov, Round Two
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Is WhiteHouse.gov, the online hub of the American presidency, getting better?
We've assembled a bipartisan group of five online political observers to regularly grade WhiteHouse.gov. Their marks are based on three criteria: transparency (without jeopardizing national security, does the site reveal the inner processes of the White House?); accessibility (is it easy to navigate?); and engagement (does it offer a two-way line of communication?).
The group's average grade on first assessment in March was a C+, far from the mostly glowing early reviews of the Obama administration. As one of the graders summed up, Obama's WhiteHouse.gov "still has a long way to go to meet the expectations that the President himself set during the campaign."
In this second report card, the site's grades range from C to A-, with the average grade rising to a solid B.
BarackObama.com and WhiteHouse.gov may not play by the same rules, but online observers do. Via e-mail and Facebook, people have weighed in, asking for the opportunity to score the site.
So we've decided to add a guest grader. The inaugural guest is David Almacy, who knows from experience how WhiteHouse.gov works. For two years, Almacy served as President Bush's Internet director.
Led by Macon Phillips, a veteran of the Obama campaign, the White House's new media team earned praise for adding new features. Recently, the White House announced its presence on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. (President Bush, it must be noted, was the first president to have a Twitter account.) In late March, WhiteHouse.gov hosted an online town hall, where, in less than 48 hours, more than 92,000 people submitted 103,978 questions and cast 3.5 million votes. President Obama answered the top vote-getters on the Open for Questions page, even indirectly and jokingly addressing the questions about legalizing marijuana.
"The online town hall was very impressive, especially considering the short amount of time they had to organize it," said Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist.org. As with the first report card, Newmark gave WhiteHouse.gov the highest grade -- an A-.
David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, was impressed by WhiteHouse.gov's blog, which is the centerpiece of the site. In recent weeks, the blog has posted photos, videos and invited senior officials to blog, and he appreciates its more casual tone. Dr. Jill Biden, a long-time educator who teaches at Northern Virginia Community College, blogged about welcoming the recipients of the 2009 Teachers of the Year award. "I hope someone reading this post might even be inspired to become a 2010, 2015, or 2020 Teacher of the Year," Biden wrote in the blog. "You won't regret it and our country needs you."
"The blogs are getting better. 'Better' means less PR-ish and more human," said Weinberger, who gave the site a B+. "They did a nice job live-blogging Earth Day, and they're letting people inside the White House occasionally post about what it's like to be there."
Some graders, however, had mixed feelings about the direction of the site.
Take the WhiteHouse.gov's use of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.
The good news?
"I've been to the Facebook page a half dozen times already and find the activity there pretty engaging," said Ellen Miller, head of the Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based group that advocates for greater transparency in government.
The not-so-good news?
"If you can comment on Facebook regarding posts from the White House blog there, why not allow comments directly on Whitehouse.gov?" wondered Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, which covers the hub of politics and technology.
Both gave WhiteHouse.gov a B-. If they were to grade the site on the basis of transparency alone, they would have given the site a C-.
Ticking off a list of criticisms, Miller explained: "The budget is presented as a series of unsearchable PDF files. The page listing nominations has not been updated and there are no links (or easy access to) the personal financial disclosure statements of those nominees. Do citizens get even a glimpse into the president and vice-president's daily schedules? Nope."
Added Rasiej: "On transparency, WhiteHouse.gov has yet to demonstrate any significant implementation other than reiterating that President Obama is committed to it."
As Jim Harper of the libertarian think-tank Cato Institute pointed out last month, WhiteHouse.gov has repeatedly broken Obama's campaign promise not to sign any non-emergency legislation until it's been posted online for five days. Though politicos of all stripes are tracking evolution of WhiteHouse.gov, Republicans in particular are closely keeping tabs at the site.
Jon Henke, who writes for the conservative blog The Next Right, pointed out that it's been more than two months since pages containing presidential speeches and appointments have been updated. "I'm pretty sure Obama has given a speech since February 27th, and he's made plenty of appointments since February 12th. So why are the transcripts and appointments not updated the same day?" Henke asked. He gave WhiteHouse.gov a C.
Almacy, Bush's White House Internet director, also gave the site a C. That grade, he said, is based on what he views as the primary mission of WhiteHouse.gov. "I believe every American should have access to the activities of our president on any given day," Almacy explained. "For those looking beyond the sound bite to learn more about what is said and done on their behalf, the site serves an important role as a digital archive for unedited transcripts, photos, audio and long-form video of public events and press briefings."
Perhaps too much attention has been placed on the blog, he said, that not enough is being paid to make sure that all parts of the site are updated.
"Simple things that were standard on President Bush's Website such as daily press briefing video (which is on YouTube now, but not embedded or otherwise available on WhiteHouse.gov), Cabinet member photos and bios and RSS feeds for all remarks, weekly addresses, briefings and other releases (not just selected items) all seem to be missing," Almacy added. A blog posting on a press conference held on March 24, for example, linked to a full transcript from "Top of the Ticket," the political blog of the Los Angeles Times. After a few attempts on WhiteHouse.gov's search engine, Almacy said he eventually found the transcript.
"I don't want to come across as having sour grapes here, since I worked for President Bush," Almacy said in a phone interview. "But, as a citizen, I just want to figure out what's going on in a specific day in the White House."
If you'd like to be the next guest grader, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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