Obama's Transparency Problem

Image: Shorpy.comAt the close of a momentous day in American - and international - politics, it is not hard to actually feel the strong sense that one epoch has ended and another one has begun.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

1924 Computing Pool Image: Shorpy.com

At the close of a momentous day in American - and international - politics, it is not hard to actually feel the strong sense that one epoch has ended and another one has begun.

The Obama election campaign's shining jewel has been the brilliantly realized use of online technologies, and like a startup that explodes onto the scene - a Google or an Amazon - it suddenly seemed to be everywhere in modern life, growing exponentially.

But like those startups the Obama administration is grappling with a problem familiar to business users of modern online technologies - the old guard and legal restrictions.

The momentum during today's inauguration was palpable, the shifting of gears into this new era. Now the reality sets in. The modern - and not so modern - collaboration tools the superstar Obama team have been using are unacceptable to White House lawyers. The 1978 Presidential Records Act requires White House documents to become publicly available five years after a president leaves office; it's unclear whether instant messages discussing government business are secure enough, or discoverable enough later.

No more instant messaging, no more lightweight communication technologies. Obama is fighting to be able to continue the use of his Blackberry for email. This is the edge case that's been playing out in businesses around collaboration: tremendous momentum and product success using modern technologies fall foul of the legal retention culture, which slow that momentum to a crawl just as critical mass is being reached.

This is not to blame the lawyers and security experts, who are doing their difficult jobs enforcing the law of the US or the corporation they work for. Legal discovery is a core component of business litigation and an important tool to protect assets and intellectual property in business.

The issue is the archaic, momentum killing, foundational legislation. 1978 is light years distant in the IT world. The restrictions of the Presidential Records Act on the new administration are akin to qualifying for the pole position for the Indianapolis 500 in a state of the art race car and then being told you have to drive the actual race in a Model T Ford. Some of the White House PC's are still running Windows 2000. We are in a competitive, interconnected world: whether government or business the current economic conditions are flashing code red. Other cultures and businesses not anchored by hidebound legal restrictions will leap ahead to survive. This is the front lines of the enterprise 2.0 revolution, massive social network interconnectivity and openness, the coming linked data semantic web. This is the front line of the competition for the brightest minds to work for you - even in this economy.

At midday eastern US time the White House website was transformed, signaling a new era. The change.gov/ transition site has been closed but its spirit has been magnified as the official site of the US government.

Replete with blogs, email updates, a White House Twitter account and an attractive modern design, the new website of the American people has all the superficial trappings of a modern company. Like those modern companies, the real challenges are going on behind the scenes - weighing up the huge advantages of modern collaboration techniques and tools with the 'no can do' attitude of the security gatekeepers.

IBM just announced their quarterly numbers: the healthiest part of their business is Global Technology Services - IT outsourcing - which requires openness and collaboration between partners. This accessible cooperation between businesses is the way out of the recession.

Will the White House legal infrastructure facilitate a new openness to enable the laudable goal of making the Obama administration the most open and transparent in history? Or will the Obama team's momentum be slowed to a crawl by legal bottlenecks and one-to-one logged communication?

If this is the case how many of the brightest and best will leave to work for companies that get how critical providing modern collaboration environments for their people is, many of whom have grown up with the internet and lived their entire lives in a connected world?

This is the conundrum playing out in government and business in this era: walled garden or openness? What must remain hidden and what can be in the public eye?

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