Among the inaugural festivities, the official web site of the White House underwent a transition of its own. The site is now built around a central blog, which is a presidential first and a definite sign of the times. The first post lays out the purpose of the blog in detail:
Just like your new government, WhiteHouse.gov and the rest of the Administration’s online programs will put citizens first. Our initial new media efforts will center around three priorities:
Communication — Americans are eager for information about the state of the economy, national security and a host of other issues. This site will feature timely and in-depth content meant to keep everyone up-to-date and educated. Check out the briefing room, keep tabs on the blog (RSS feed) and take a moment to sign up for e-mail updates from the President and his administration so you can be sure to know about major announcements and decisions.
Transparency — President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history, and WhiteHouse.gov will play a major role in delivering on that promise. The President’s executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review, and thatâ€™s just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government. You can also learn about some of the senior leadership in the new administration and about the Presidentâ€™s policy priorities.
Participation — President Obama started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he saw firsthand what people can do when they come together for a common cause. Citizen participation will be a priority for the Administration, and the internet will play an important role in that. One significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.
We’d also like to hear from you — what sort of things would you find valuable from WhiteHouse.gov? If you have an idea, use this form to let us know.
I think that the key here is that the WH website remains an irgan of Executive Branch government and is not just another blog in the standard, political/technology sense. The Communication role is of course obvious, but the Transparency and Participation are also key. Posting executive orders to the web site is a great start, and allowing the public to review and comment on legislation before it gets to the President’s desk is going to really open the legislative process to the public in an innovative and rigorous way.
It’s interesting to see that a lot of technology experts don’t seem to understand the civic context of the purpose of the WH blog. For example, Dave Winer complains,
The White House should send us to places where our minds will be nourished with new ideas, perspectives, places, points of view, things to do, ways we can make a difference. It must take risks, because that is reality — we’re all at risk now — hugely.
I don’t advocate a blogging host like the Obama campaign website. There are already plenty of places to host blogs. But I do want the White House to be a public space, where new thinking from all over the world meets other new thinking. A flow distributor. A two-way briefing book for the people and the government.
We need the minds of industry, education, health care, government, people from all walks of life, to connect. It doesn’t have to be whitehouse.gov, but why not, why wait?
I think this critique is unfair – partly because by publicizing executive orders and legislation, the public minds Dave talks about will have unprecedented access to the inner workings of the executive branch. By using the blog as a central distribution point, it already is the two-way briefing book he talks about.
What the WH site should not be, however, is a “public space”. The two-way flow needs to be of absolute highest SNR, which anyone who has spent even ten minutes online can attest is fundamentally incompatible with an open forum. The flow of information in both directions must be structured and controlled for maximum efficiency. If instead WH.gov becomes another home to the constant stream of garbage that spews over most public fora on the web, then one, the public will not be well-served by having to wade through the muck to find the information of genuine civic interest; and two, the very concept of an open and transparent portal into the inner workings of government will be discredited, and that we above all must not allow to happen. WH.gov is a courageous experiment and we must not let it fail.
It should be noted that the official WhiteHouse YouTube channel does allow comments. Since YouTube is not a government site, there isn’t the same requirement of decorum and civic sensibility, so a free-for-all can be tolerated.
Related – see Patrick Ruffini, Ars Technica, and TechCrunch for further comments on the WH.gov blog from a technological perspective. Also see Democracy Arsenal and Open Left for brief commentary from a political perspective. Finally, Read/Write Web has a nice 12-year retrospective on the evolution of the WH.gov website through the past several Presidencies.