Reality Check: There Will Be No Wiki White House, Dan

A friend of mine sent me an article in the Huffington Post today entitled It’s Time for a Wiki White House.There are some things that are somewhat visionary, but other things in this article that are just plain wrong.

Its author, Dan Froomkin, first takes a swipe out the outgoing President:

On that day, the Bush administration’s stodgy, wheezing version of whitehouse.gov will be carted off to the National Archives in its entirety, leaving precisely no legacy – and no limits.”

Dan then waxes poetic about what President-elect Obama way well be:  the first Internet President:

If he and his team truly embrace the paradigms of the modern Internet — as defined by blogs and YouTube, Facebook and Google, instant messaging and crowdsourcing, wikis and reader comments — Obama’s whitehouse.gov will bring unprecedented accountability to the White House. It will offer a vastly better way for the American people to relate to their government — and maybe even learn to trust it again.”

This is all fine and good.  President-elect Obama was voted in office to affect change.  But here’s where the starry-eyed look gets in the way of the story:

Imagine a White House Web site where the home page isn’t just a static collection of transcripts and press releases, but a window into the roiling intellectual foment of the West Wing. Imagine a White House Web site where staffers maintain blogs in which they write about who they are and what they are working on; where some meetings are streamed in live video; where the president’s daily calendar is posted online; where major policy proposals have public collaborative workspaces, or wikis; where progress towards campaign promises is tracked on a daily basis; and where anyone can sign up for customized updates by e-mail, text message, RSS feed, Twitter, or the social network of their choice.”

Sorry to burst your bubble, Dan, but I work in Washington at a fairly high level in government.  Here’s what is NOT going to happen:

  • Blogs: White house staffers may, in fact, be allowed to have their own blogs, but they will be so watered down by legal concerns that I fear that they might turn into a Twitter feed: “Just went out for coffee.  Tastes burnt.”  In a town where secrets are coveted but leaks like a sieve, there would be little compelling news to keep a blog fresh, but more importantly, interesting.  The lawyers will do what they do, which is lawyer things to death.
  • Streamed meetings: Only the most vanilla meetings will be streamed.  There is a reason why reporters are kicked out of the room when the real stuff happens.  Anything else would be staged like a FEMA press conference.
  • Daily calendar. The President’s Daily Calendar would have to omit outside appearances, which would gut its effectiveness, because of Secret Service prohibitions.  And why tell the opposition party that you are meeting on something that you might want to keep in-house.  To do otherwise would be stupid.
  • Policy wiki. Major policy proposal proposal workspaces?  Too many cooks spoil the broth.  Research Selogene Royale’s presidential campaign in France.  She turned her Web site into an electronic “listening tour” and requested policy input from French voters.  She ended up with a party platform that stretched from Normandy to Nice.  This is good in principle, and lousy in practice.
  • Campaign promises?  Trust me, the Republicans will do that for them.  And if they don’t keep a campaign promise, do you think the Web site will have a big, red “X” in the “We Didn’t Keep This” column?
  • Other tools: Twitter and .rss are good ideas, but I doubt that you need “pull” tools to draw attention to the President-Elect.  These are good ideas if you are launching a company and trying to build traffic, but President-elect Obama won’t stay up nights wondering about his unique visits to WhiteHouse.gov.
To be perfect honest, Dan, there are a few good ideas in this, but I think that you have a) let your bias against the current President color your thinking about the Web site, and b) are examining the potential of what might be without considering the hard-core realities of how business gets transacted at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mark

4 thoughts on “Reality Check: There Will Be No Wiki White House, Dan

  1. I have to agree with you, Mark. There’s a great enthusiasm for social governance, but a lack of pragmatic understanding about the inner workings of government to really get the massive change it would require. Thus many fanboys will be disappointed.

  2. government wiki’s have been tried – David Milliband put one together when he was Ag Minister under Blair and had to pull it down after conservative bloggers essentially hijacked it. I think an Obama WH will probably encourage more input/feedback but I’m not convinced that feedback will always appear immediately on the screen. The real question – will those who give input feel like there’s an adequate response? We’ll see. The media will matter, but the feeling that your government is responding to you will matter more.

    I do think we can expect blogs like DipNote to take on a bit more prominence, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there were internal wiki’s – there probably already are. The real difference I think will be working with third parties and making WH content more portable. I totally agree with you re: “pull” and driving traffic. A raw number is not a major concern and it shouldn’t be a strategic goal.

  3. I agree with Mark [sorry Dan!]; a lot of what’s done with social media in friskier, frankly less consequential contexts won’t work in the world of federal policy/politics in motion.

    At the risk of self-promotion, I’ve aruged that the question isn’t about how Obama uses social media, it’s about how his supporters do: “It’s not 2.Obama, It’s You.0.” http://xrl.us/oyypd

  4. I’m going to categorize this along with a lot of the other rose-colored glasses stuff I’ve been seeing. Sure, it sounds great, but those suggestions are absolutely ridiculous to anyone who has ever worked in government (at any level I might add). It shows an almost hopeless naivete–seriously, publishing the calendar online? I would have thought that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the risks presidents face would get the danger in that.

    I’m wondering what is going to happen when reality sets in and people realize that the more things Change (TM) the more they stay the same? Some things will be different, very different, but there are real reasons that business is conducted the way it is at the WH. I think someone has seen too many “West Wing” episodes (or, maybe not enough?)

    I remember reading somewhere that almost 80 percent of intelligence gathered is from publicly-available sources. I really don’t want even 5 percent of that to come from a more “open” White House. It’s too big a risk.

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