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How Do You Make a Wired Government Go Dark?

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, April 8 2011

The moment last January when President Barack Obama sent his very first tweet. Don't worry, though -- the POTUS is considered an essential employee; photo credit: the American Red Cross.

We've talked about the general guidance OMB issued agencies yesterday about what to do with their websites in the event of a government shutdown. And we've talked about the dilemma Twitter poses for federal employees who blend their professional and personal tweets. But the bigger context is that there are conversations happening throughout a federal government that's looking at the current situation and trying to figure out what it means to "shutdown" a government that functions so much online.

Over the last two days, I've been hearing bits and pieces of conversations that are happening within agencies, and the picture emerging is that of a government that isn't quite sure how to handle things. That's not surprising; this is, as has been mentioned plenty of times elsewhere, the first (potential) U.S. government shutdown in the social media age. These are in-the-weeds questions: some folks are wondering, for example, whether auto-posting to social media sites would violate the Anti-Deficiency Act. I'd be doing more and deeper reporting on this, I promise, if I weren't up in Boston at the National Conference for Media Reform, where I had moderating duties this morning. But O'Reilly's Alex Howard keeps the conversation going with a look at the current state of things.

One takeaway is that while these decisions are being made rather in a strikingly ad hoc way, there are attempts to provide some structure so that the federal government's digital response to a shutdown doesn't look like so much of a hodgepodge.

According to an email sent to the Web Managers Council, for example, federal CIOs were scheduled to talk this morning, and there's discussion happening around coming up with a centralized list showing which federal websites and resources are still up and running. (Question: would that act of aggregation be an essential service?) Language is being worked out for a central landing page that agencies could point to explaining the situation. And other provisions are being made. "We expect it to be a list of options that you might consider -- for example, instructions on how to 'unpublish' your agency Facebook page," reads the email to federal web managers.

That, like with 'unpublishing' Facebook profiles, some of these takedown operations would actually consume more time and energy than just leaving these properties up has sparked some complaints that hitting a 'kill switch' on federal web assets is more about drama than legality. But there are implications to doing business online, even passively, that aren't always obvious. I mused on Twitter, for example, about why it'd be necessary to pull down federal Facebook pages that are already up and presumably not costing anyone anything. Someone responded with the insight that leaving a page up introduces the need, possibly, for someone to actively curate the comments on said Facebook page.

There's irony in the fact that plans are being made to pull the U.S. federal government off the Internet at the same time that online government resources might be most useful. Again, this isn't something that the U.S. federal government has really had to consider in the past, and there's a good chance we'll see some updating of the protocols for this sort of thing to include government's digital component. Until then, Uncle Sam muddles through. Again, if you're a federal staffer trying to make sense of a furlough's impact on the digital side of your job, do get in touch.