Obama's Cheap and Dumb Campaign to Delete "Pointless and Stupid" .Gov Websites [UPDATED]
BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, June 15 2011
Remember when the White House thought the internet was cool, and made sure we all knew that President Obama was pressing government agencies to use the web to be more open, embracing social media (look, he's posted his first Tweet!), and fighting to keep his personal Blackberry from being taken away from him? Well, now they want us to know that he's opposed to "pointless waste and stupid spending that doesn't benefit anybody" and in particular, that he's committed to eliminating duplicate and unnecessary government websites. Indeed, he is promising to shut down half of the estimated 24,000 government sites and subsites, as part of a larger "Campaign to Cut Waste" that was announced on Monday, and he's frozen the creation of new .gov sites for the next 90 days.
Poster child Number One in this new campaign: The Fiddlin' Foresters, a .gov site devoted to a group of current and retired forestry staff known as "the official old-time string band of the U.S. Forest Service" who through "lively and entertaining musical performance,  provide conservation education, enhance employee morale and communicate the value of public service and federal land management in a new century of service," as they said on their now defunct site. NextGov quotes one member of the group as estimating the annual cost of maintaining FiddlinForesters.gov at $125 a year. Obama singled them the FiddlinForesters' website in his video as a prime example of "pointless" and "stupid" government spending, and his new media director Macon Phillips echoed his words, dismissively blogging that "our government doesn’t need a website dedicated to foresters who play the fiddle," as if there's no value at all to using the web to share the work of a simple group of current and former government employees who have won many awards for their work celebrating a great American folk tradition while illustrating the importance of natural resource conservation and public land stewardship.
I'm all for making sure the government makes smart and careful use of our tax dollars, and I'm also sure there's some waste to be identified in duplicate and unnecessary government websites. But this "campaign" strikes me as cheap, dumb and cynical, the Obama equivalent of Ronald Reagan's attack on "welfare queens." Redundant government websites probably cost the taxpayer a fraction of what we spend on military bands, let alone what we spend on duplicative and unnecessary government websites promoting the Army's, Navy's, Air Force's, Merchant Marine's, Naval Academy's, and Coast Guard's bands' websites! (According to NPR, the Marines spend $50 million a year on their bands, and the Army $198 million.)
And if you are really serious about eliminating stupid and pointless spending, then you'd be pushing for laws to strengthen protections for government whistleblowers (instead of going an stupid and pointless rampage to prosecute them!), since insiders know where the real waste is hidden. And you'd be expanding government use of the web to shed light on who is trying to influence it and obtain special favors from it, say, by creating a "centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format," as some guy who ran for President in 2008 promised back then. The fact is, with Monday's video attacking pointless and stupid government websites, President Obama has spent more time personally going after Fiddlin' Foresters website than he has in pressing for an Ethics.gov website, despite his campaign promises.
Of course, if he wanted to show that he really was going after pointless and stupid spending, he could get rid of those special White House M&M boxes. Do they serve any purpose?
UPDATE: A wise friend in DC adds: "How much was spent tracking down the Fiddlin' Forresters website to use as a prop in Obama's speech? I'm guessing someone compiled a list of silly government websites (maybe an unpaid intern), but then someone higher up vetted the list, considered the different examples...probably the speechwriters kicked around several other "Fiddlin' Forrester" type sites. And what were the advisers who came up with the "Let's prune the number of federal websites to close the $14 trillion debt" paid, and how many other ideas did they vet? I'm guessing to shut down a $125 a year website, they probably spent thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars in salaries alone, if not more."