Obama's 100-day tech review

At 100 days into the Obama administration, observers said that the president has made some significant steps toward using technology and the Internet to honor campaign promises. But there's still work to be done.
Written by Declan McCullagh, Contributor

A White House "virtual town hall" that Barack Obama hosted last month was intended to be an exercise in open-microphone democracy that would allow the president to interact with average Americans.

Aides billed it as permitting members of the public to "pose a question or vote for a particular question" using the Google Moderator utility. A new area of the WhiteHouse.gov Web site was titled Open For Questions, and nearly 1.8 million votes were cast.

That was the plan. After voting began, though, a committed group of mischievous activists (and their friends) deluged WhiteHouse.gov with their votes -- and questions advocating the legalization of marijuana soon topped the site's "green jobs," "financial stability," "jobs," and "budget" categories. Obama eventually told the live audience that he doesn't think pot legalization is "a good strategy to grow our economy."

The White House's experience with reefer madness reflects the challenges that Mr. Obama faces when living up to his campaign pledge to create a "new level of transparency" through "cutting-edge technologies."

At 100 days into the Obama administration, Washington observers said that the president has made some significant steps toward using technology and the Internet to honor that campaign promise. In other ways, they said, Mr. Obama has not yet lived up to it.

"In general, we've been very optimistic," said Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Compared to his predecessors, Obama is an unusually wired chief executive. Bill Clinton sent only two e-mail messages as president and has yet to pick up the habit. George W. Bush ceased using e-mail in January 2001 and said toward the end of his presidency that he's looking forward to e-mailing "my buddies" after leaving the nation's capital.

But Obama, whose campaign made aggressive use of the Internet, is an inveterate e-mailer, saying "I'm still clinging to my BlackBerry" before taking office. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters after the inauguration that, thanks to a "compromise," his boss could keep a security-enhanced BlackBerry for e-mail.

Schwartz and others suggested that it's unfair to judge Mr. Obama's record on technology and openness after 100 days, especially when the president himself set a 120-day deadline for an internal review.

One of Mr. Obama's first acts as president was to sign a directive ordering his chief information officer to devise ways to make the administration more Internet-friendly within that time period. (The memorandum says agencies must "harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.")

In early March, Obama named Vivek Kundra, Washington, D.C.'s chief technology officer, to the position of federal CIO. Kundra said that he wants "to ensure the public has access to information, and to rethink the way the public interacts with the government in an information economy."

One of his office's projects is the not-launched-yet Data.gov Web site, which is intended to be a warehouse of government data for public consumption. (For the District of Columbia, Kundra's office created the D.C. Digital Public Square Web site, which provides data feeds and even ways to follow government activities through Twitter and Facebook.)

The White House also faces the challenge of upgrading a clunky and out-of-date computer system to allow them to do things like send SMS text messages and mass e-mail updates.

"They're putting out a report," said Schwartz, referring to the 120-day review. "We've had some conversations with the open government people and they seem to be looking at a lot of the issues we think are important."

The Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan group that advocates for open government, has created a Web site allowing voting on what's most important to see in the 120-day review. The winner so far: Formal data standards, which would allow programmers to extract government databases to be incorporated in their own applications -- in much the same way as Google's announcement this week does. (Sunlight also was the sponsor of a so-called Transparency Camp in Washington recently.)

Another area that's attracted more attention under Mr. Obama's administration than it did under that of George W. Bush is blogging. The White House has a blog (with comments disabled and no actual posts by the president so far). White House Budget Director Peter Orszag has a blog; so does the State Department and Homeland Security (with comments permitted).

Overall, though, the Obama administration has been "more talk than action, that's for sure," said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

It's true, Harper said, "that it takes longer to do a lot of the things the president has promised. However, there are things he promised and things he could have done starting on Day One that he didn't do."

One of those is adhering to what seems like a simple, unambiguous promise: Mr. Obama pledged that he would "not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days."

That hasn't happened. Mr. Obama signed a slew of non-emergency bills without posting them for comment. A chart shows that Mr. Obama posted only one of 14 bills for the required five days.

In addition, before taking office, Mr. Obama promised new openness in the presidential transition, saying "you can track these meetings" his transition staff had with groups seeking to influence policy. A "Your Seat At The Table" memo said: "This scope is a floor, not a ceiling, and all staff are strongly encouraged to include additional materials."

That didn't happen. Although Mr. Obama did disclose documents submitted to the transition staff, his Web site never provided a list of meetings with the names of groups and identities of participants.

Instead, only a list of documents submitted was made public -- meaning that if a meeting took place between the transition team and outside groups and no documents were exchanged, it remained secret. And even though meetings with White House staff are generally more important than meetings with transition staff, no similar disclosure policy has been adopted.

This and the WhiteHouse.gov five-day period could be easily fixed, Harper argues. "It's totally within the purview of the president to say what should happen," he said. "And it's not something he said should happen."

Editorial standards