My colleague Juliet Eilperin has a fantastic look at the way new technologies are changing what it's like to work at the White House. The most apparent feature of that push has been to eliminate the reams of paper that flitted from office to office on any given day; no longer are staffers physically wrestling with Xerox machines. Often, they're more like digital disc jockeys as they alternately manage the White House's Twitter accounts, edit video and organize live chats on Tumblr. As the White House workforce has begun adopting new tools, the move has also uncovered some underlying trends that promise to change how government operates — and the way we interact with it.
Messaging. The White House has quickly learned to use technology as a way to circumvent traditional media. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr have all given the White House tremendous new outreach tools. They let officials speak directly to the public, avoiding the thorny mess of rules, relationships and personalities that often comes with working with reporters. The Obama administration operates as many as 40 Twitter accounts. Official White House photographer Pete Souza is wildly popular on Instagram. On the one hand, you could say this is a good thing for democracy — the Internet enables a kind of populism that was previously filtered by newspapers like this one. On the other hand, what might seem like a massive push toward access by the public could also be described as an unprecedented bid for control. Disputes about journalists' access may seem petty, but the growing centralization of messaging makes enforcing accountability and transparency more difficult.
Are we just creating more work? The proliferation of technological tools — for messaging and otherwise — promises to cut back on a huge amount of inefficiency. For a good look at how burdensome doing things by paper can be in the 21st century, check out my colleague David Farenthold's report on an underground mine in Pennsylvania that processes retirement papers for government employees, mostly by hand. Better technology would save those workers a lot of time. But in other parts of the government, more technology doesn't necessarily mean progress. As most of us have learned, the shift to e-mail has put us all on call, around the clock. One White House staffer sends up to 600 e-mails on a normal day, Eilperin reports. Are all those messages really necessary? And while moving away from paper may have sped things up and reduced some waste, other tech — such as social media — have created entirely new work demands that didn't exist before.
We want YOU(r data). By now, you've probably heard of We the People — the White House's site for online petitions. Maybe you've used it yourself. If so, your e-mail address is now in the hands of the Obama administration. So are the addresses of 14 million others. But three years after launch, We the People has become a virtual ghost town, according to George Washington University researcher Dave Karpf. The typical visitor created their account just to sign one petition — and hardly anyone is signing anything these days. While the petition system led to some notable policy developments, it did far more as a Hoover for voter data. The Obama administration uses all those e-mail addresses it's collecting as a way to contact voters about political issues they may be interested in, thus feeding everything it's learned back into the perpetual campaign that's become a standard feature of American politics.