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Thoughts on the new WhiteHouse.gov

BY Michael Turk | Wednesday, January 21 2009

As Sarah noted yesterday, the White House website got a facelift at 12:01 yesterday as the typically stuffiness of the White House web site smacked headlong into the calming blues of the Obama campaign/transition sites.

I thought I'd take a moment and share some thoughts.

From a design and technical standpoint, the site is fine. It's fairly light on content (and it's all static), but they're less than 24 hours in, so what can you really expect.

Recognizing that the site is content light, and technically "adequate" what else is there to talk about before they add depth? Well, that leads to most of my discussion...As Sarah noted yesterday, the White House website got a facelift at 12:01 yesterday as the typically stuffiness of the White House web site smacked headlong into the calming blues of the Obama campaign/transition sites.

I thought I'd take a moment and share some thoughts.

First, I generally like the more modern feel. There may be people who want a "classical" feel for the site, I've always been a fan of modern design, so it appeals to me. According to SortSite (an accessibility checker), it has a few 508 issues, but nothing major. Adding a site map would improve their scores in both accessibility and SEO optimization.

To address the accessibility point, however, they do include this nice disclaimer:

Although the new WhiteHouse.gov is still in its initial stages, we are constantly updating our site in an attempt to make it as accessible as possible. To improve the accessibility of WhiteHouse.gov, the White House has asked users with disabilities to review the site and has also reviewed the site's accessibility with outside web tools. The results of these reviews have been incorporated into the website. The White House welcomes comments on how to improve the site's accessibility for users with disabilities.

From a design and technical standpoint, the site is fine. It's fairly light on content (and it's all static), but they're less than 24 hours in, so what can you really expect.

Recognizing that the site is content light, and technically "adequate" what else is there to talk about before they add depth? Well, that leads to most of my discussion...

The overwhelming feeling I have when I look at the site takes the form of a single unanswered question - what can they really do with it?

To answer that question, take a look at the blog. Flat. No comments. No interaction. Now, picture it with "more". More anything. More comments, more openness, more depth. It doesn't really matter.

Let's start with the blog and interactivity in general. I like the notion that the White House is "the people's house", but a lot of "the people" are rude, obscene, and can barely string a sentence together. If you apply a liberal (in a latitude rather than political sense) administration schema to weed out the garbage, you now have the White House sanctioning what can and can't be said by Americans - what is and isn't acceptable.

Yet, if you keep decorum by leaving a lot of the interactivity to a generic site like Change.gov and keep the White House "above the coarseness" of our politics, then the site becomes less than it could/should be as an interactive platform.

That same problem applies to their Twitter account. I'd like to see more use of @whitehouse_gov, but they're really limited on what they can say, and how they can say it.

What about the content? They can go the route of the transition site and ask for questions the administration can answer. That in itself is probably a remarkable step for our government, but how far down the path are they willing to go?

I'm a long-term kind of guy. I want everyone to be as far down the path as I can see, and I want them to be there right now. Unfortunately, most - not all - lawyers (and this town is full of lawyers) don't want anyone to be further down the path than they themselves have walked.

As a result, government places significant restrictions on the types of technologies that can be employed and the way they can be used. Services like Twitter, which are communications platforms, can easily run afoul of the government's need to control/regulate/restrict the ways in which the administration can communicate with it's citizens.

That creates a situation where we, as technologists, can see a future for which the lawyers (and government) are woefully unprepared. For proof of that, look no further than the news that Team Obama will be unable to rely on a simple tool like instant messaging. Record preservation laws dictate that IMs would have to be kept as part of the Presidential record. When I was at Energy, many agencies were wrestling with how to allow IM while complying with records laws.

As Smith notes in the IM artcile:

[T]he controversy over the Bush e-mails, and Obama's promise of transparency, make it unlikely that the new president and Congress will pass legislation lowering the veil of secrecy over new technologies. So for now, Obamas aides will have to cope with telephones and e-mail alone, a shift that will afflict Axelrod — whose habit of using punctuation and complete sentences in his IMs amuses young staffers — as much as any.

Asked by e-mail about the impending technological downgrade, he e-mailed: "I will reply to this by registered mail."

Axelrod was joking, but the US government is actually pretty close to being that arcane.

The result is a large, and unfortunate gap between campaigning and governing. It's possible that openness will be only one of the great unrealistic expectations that may be impossible for our government to actually meet.

Despite my party affiliation, I hold out hope that Obama will be the transformational leader his supporters suggest. I would like to think that four years from now our government will be better, rather than just bigger. I'd like to think it will be more open, rather than just "more".

I would like to see major, revolutionary change, rather than minor evolutionary change. While the look of WhiteHouse.gov has moved the needle, I hope to see a whole lot more.