BOB GARFIELD: With Obama’s election came the promise of the first Web 2.0 White House, one that would employ digital tools across the executive branch not just to inform citizens but to involve them in the process of governance. It’s a noble goal, but, as reporter Evan Ratliff writes in the current issue of Wired, easier said than done.
EVAN RATLIFF: The federal government is notorious for being unable to update things. From what I understand, past White House website operations have been about, you know, maybe five, six, seven people, so there’s just the basic problem of getting enough people in there, and then, once they have the people in there, it’s sort of figuring out what kind of equipment they have and how they can use that equipment to accomplish whatever it is that they think they're going to accomplish.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so antiquated hardware and [LAUGHS] software, the history of insufficient staffing, but more to the point, it turns out, a whole bunch of regulations and executive orders and statutes that prevent the Obama administration from doing what it has promised to do.
EVAN RATLIFF: Well, one of the most basic tenets of Obama’s plans for using technology is to not just provide information about what the administration is up to but to also enable some sort of participation from the public. And they did that a lot on Change.gov, and they could sort of do whatever they wanted with Change.gov.
BOB GARFIELD: That was the sort of quasi-official website used during the transition period.
EVAN RATLIFF: Correct, but it was never actually clear if it was really covered by the same rules and regulations that normal federal websites would be covered by. But now that they're actually in the White House, there’s the Paperwork Reduction Act, which is a law that was, sort of ironically, passed during the Clinton Administration, obviously to reduce federal paperwork. And one of the tenets of that law is that a federal department cannot survey more than 10 people without going through a rather rigorous approval process for that survey because surveys generate a lot of paperwork. So if you want to do something like solicit the public’s input on something, you know, maybe set up some sort of social media site that the public can vote on different issues or suggest issues, there’s a question of whether or not that is covered by that particular law, whether that law would need to be changed. Those are the kinds of things they're having to figure out now that they're in there, how they can either get around those, change them or maybe just ignore them.
BOB GARFIELD: One of a number of red tape obstacles they've encountered so far. Give me another prominent one.
EVAN RATLIFF: There are very specific amendments to laws that cover how the disabled can access federal websites. If you post something on a federal website, it should be accessible to the disabled in real time, meaning if it’s a video it should have closed captioning in real time. Now, it’s not clear how well that’s enforced, but, I mean, that’s a big issue. If they want to do a lot of new media type of applications, they're going to have to figure out how they can make all of those disabled-accessible in at least relatively real time to meet the spirit of that kind of law.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me, what was the state of the art for federal websites before the Obama Administration took over?
EVAN RATLIFF: There are actually over 24,000 different federal websites, which is part of the problem when it comes to revamping the federal Web strategy, and some of them are extremely useful. But the general state of affairs is that people in those departments put up the websites to sort of supply information about what they're up to and what the person in charge will be doing next week. But there’s very little consumer sort of oriented information. People come to get their passport or to find out something about their taxes, and they go to federal websites to find that information, and generally that information is obscured by a sort of larger purpose that these departments have of sort of conveying their own agenda.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so in the transition from sites that are mainly informational to those that are actually interactive, what does the Obama team have in mind?
EVAN RATLIFF: They had sort of success with that on Change.gov. They had a place where you could suggest issues, and they would get voted up to the top and they would go into what they called a briefing book, and that got a lot of participation. A lot of people went there and suggested issues. A lot of people voted on them. But the top issue actually ended up being legalizing marijuana, which most likely is not the top issue on Obama’s agenda when he entered the White House.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that raises an interesting question. I mean, you can have all the technology you want, but if it just becomes window dressing, what have we achieved?
EVAN RATLIFF: I think that these technologies are just another way for the Obama Administration to just sort of keep a finger on the pulse of what people are thinking. It doesn't necessarily mean that if people comment on a policy that the top-voted comments will somehow change that policy. [BOB LAUGHS] I mean, that seems almost impossible. It can't hurt to have more channels of communication and also to make people feel like the government is listening, that they're not shut off and just waiting for the next election. That’s the next time you get to voice your opinion.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Evan, thank you so much.
EVAN RATLIFF: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Evan Ratliff wrote the piece titled America Online in the current issue of Wired.