Obama Reboots Web Site

President Obama is trying, once again, to make use of Internet technology to engage the American people in a dialog about important issues. Once again, though, he's failed -- although I'm not sure whether the failure is his or ours.

Michael Hickins, Contributor

May 12, 2009

4 Min Read

President Obama is trying, once again, to make use of Internet technology to engage the American people in a dialog about important issues. Once again, though, he's failed -- although I'm not sure whether the failure is his or ours.There's no doubt, however, that his Administration's efforts to produce leading-edge, Web 2.0-conscious transparency has fallen short of the initial promise. The new Office of Public Engagement page on the White House Web site prominently displays a quote from President Obama's January 21 inauguration address that "public officials need to draw on what citizens know," and the implication is that here, finally, will be a place for give-and-take between an Administration and the People it's supposed to serve.

Think again. The new section on the site offers little that's different from the White House blog -- the names are different, but the inability to comment or offer feedback remains the same. The White House has also been slow to post transcripts of news briefings (something for which the Bush Administration would have been skewered) and not posting legislation for public commenting for five days before bills get signed into law, as Obama had promised during his campaign.

Beyond not building a conduit for citizens to provide meaningful feedback, the introductory posts from members of the office of engagement team are vapid beyond belief. David O. Washington (PhD? Really?), the associate director of the Office of Public Engagement, raises pandering to new heights:

I've always loved being a dot connecter and here that's part of my job as the public/private partnerships lead for our office: to help Americans from across the country not only connect the dots to their government, but also -- and here is the best part -- in the process, we help to shape the way our government works and do our best to make the lives of Americans, that much better... Every day is a new adventure, a lesson learned, and a blessing to serve the President.

Where is that bucket when you need it?

I have to assume the White House intentionally left out the ability to comment -- a feature of an earlier iteration of the site (change.gov) but which didn't make the "transition" to WhiteHouse.gov -- which begs the question of why. It certainly isn't because of voter apathy -- the "Open for Questions" page, which was used to cull questions for one of President Obama's press conferences, received over 100,000 contributions from over 92,000 people.

One reason could be that the Administration was afraid of being embarrassed, either by citizens pointing out obvious policy flaws, or of having to moderate the site constantly to ensure that obscenities didn't get posted and become associated with an official government Web site. Perhaps the Administration was afraid of the blow-back from opposing lawmakers criticizing it for hosting such language.

More likely, it was because of our tendency to shout at one another, especially when using Web forums to discuss politics. As illustrated by this forum (on a site for Obama supporters, no less), we don't hesitate to call each other trolls and shout IN ALL CAPS. That doesn't do a lot to help advance the agenda -- anyone's agenda.

It's a reminder -- one that reflects particularly poorly on us -- of how electronic media not only dehumanizes us, but allows us to dehumanize the person on the other end of our flame posts. It doesn't help that so many people use logos and cartoons as avatars, rather than photos that would remind us that we're dealing with human beings -- but I guess it's the price some are willing to pay for anonymity.

The technology exists that would let Obama's team parse hundreds of thousands of posts and identify some kind of consensus or pull out great ideas, which would strengthen our democracy, not just by allowing better ideas to surface, but by proving that anyone can make a difference.

That's why I'm eager for the White House Web site to be more open to comments and real interaction, but I find it impossible to lay the whole blame on the Administration when I know from experience that the fault lies also with us.

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