Sunday, February 15, 2009

Information Underload: Washington's Ways Are a Barrier to Interactive Government

Adapted from my "Futurist" column in the Feb. 16 issue of CQ Weekly.

Ron Sims' move from one Washington to the other may change his online world, too. The nomination of the Seattle-area county official to be deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development could make Sims one of the highest-ranking federal officials on Twitter if he's still allowed to use the free Web-based, mass-messaging service.

The King County executive told his local public radio station he was aware that "the rules" of Washington could mean he'd have to log off from his online social networking. Sims said he'd wait to gauge the new administration's "comfort zones with my Twittering and my Facebook."

Unfortunately for Sims, the capital's comfort zone took a hit just after he was chosen two weeks ago. That's when Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra began sending short Twitter posts during a congressional trip to Iraq. "Just landed in Baghdad," the House Select Intelligence Committee's top Republican told his followers. "Moved into Green Zone by helicopter. . . . Headed to new U.S. embassy," he said in another Tweet.

Hoekstra dismissed complaints that his postings endangered the Iraq delegation as a "Twitterversy." But the incident, paired with last year's debate over whether lawmakers could use Twitter on the House floor, also underscored the challenge of using the Internet to promote a more interactive and transparent government: Can Washington safely and smartly harness the same online tools that helped propel Barack Obama 's presidential campaign? And does it really want to?

It's not that Washington is afraid of the Web. The Federal Web Managers Council estimates that the government has launched 24,000 Internet sites. Many departments and agencies host blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds and even ambitious virtual worlds on Second Life. But many also strictly limit staff access to the same services they are using to reach out to the public.

See these recent reports and white papers from the Federal Web Managers Council (all are PDFs):

Some of the roadblocks the Web managers have documented are substantial. The "terms of service" on commercial sites that ordinary users might click right past are often at odds with what federal agencies can legally accept -- a challenge best illustrated by the complex seven-month negotiations between the General Service Administration's Office of Citizen Services and YouTube on that very issue. (A note on the U.S. government's Web Content Manager's Forum last month summarized the key points in those talks; Government Executive's NextGov reported last week that the feds were "on the verge of reaching an agreement" with YouTube and its corporate parent, Google.) Other legal and regulatory barriers include procurement laws, which possibly limit how the government may use free online tools, and other rules that constrain how officials may collect feedback and track online behavior.

Technological and managerial concerns include fears that giving federal workers less fettered Web access will create security vulnerabilities and sap limited network bandwidth. And perception problems abound, from posting government information on sites that display advertising to worries that employees will waste time "friending" college roommates and old flames.

As Obama's campaign team shifted to governing mode, it seemed to recognize some potential perception problems, too. A week after the election, The New York Times obtained a questionnaire asking candidates for senior positions to provide not only "any posts or comments on blogs or other Web sites," but also "all aliases or 'handles' you have used to communicate on the Internet" and any electronic communications that might "be a possible source of embarrassment." The seven-page form -- subsequently posted by the transition team -- also sought addresses for "any Web sites that feature you in either a personal or professional capacity (e.g., Facebook, MySpace, etc.)."

Despite this sudden skittishness, the transition team continued to actively post its own YouTube videos and solicit public input. And on Jan. 20, the White House Web site rebooted with a prominent blog. At the same time, the new staff chafed at strict online security rules and struggled with outdated computers and software. In a Washington Post story two days after the inauguration, White House spokesman Bill Burton said that the adjustment had been "kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari."

Those frustrations strongly echoed the grumblings from another White House transition, 16 years ago, when Bill Clinton's staff arrived to find aging, user-hostile computers and communications systems -- as I recalled in a previous Blog post. And one of the senior White House aides I mentioned in that item, Clinton first media director, Jeff Eller, told me last week that the Obama team's initial struggles sounded familiar to him, too.

Those struggles did not ultimately dampen the Clintonites enthusiasm for the potential of the novel new technologies that they had used in their campaign. When I spoke to Eller in 1993 -- in an electronic interview using CompuServe, a popular online service at the time -- he had speculated about how this thing called e-mail would someday "allow us to make information from the White House more readily available to the general public." That's just how Obama's staff views the social media tools of today. But Washington, a town in which even government spokesmen insist on being quoted anonymously, has ways of keeping its secrets.

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