Obama Team Finds It Hard to Adapt Its Web Savvy to Government

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009

The team that ran the most technologically advanced presidential campaign in modern history is finding it difficult to adapt that model to government. WhiteHouse.gov, envisioned as the primary vehicle for President Obama to communicate with the online masses, has been overwhelmed by challenges that staffers did not foresee and technological problems they have yet to solve.

Obama, for example, would like to send out mass e-mail updates on presidential initiatives, but the White House does not have the technology in place to do so. The same goes for text messaging, another campaign staple.

Beyond the technological upgrades needed to enable text broadcasts, there are security and privacy rules to sort out involving the collection of cellphone numbers, according to Obama aides, who acknowledge being caught off guard by the strictures of government bureaucracy.

"This is uncharted territory," said Macon Phillips, White House director of new media, which was a midlevel position in previous administrations but has been boosted by Obama to a "special assistant to the president."

Phillips, 30, a self-described geek who grew up in Alabama and worked at a D.C.-based online consulting company before joining the campaign, has been trying to manage high expectations that the Obama administration will run the most accessible, transparent, Web-savvy government in history. He feels the weight of carrying out that bold ambition -- and hears the criticism.

Hours before the $787 billion economic stimulus package cleared Congress, Obama's online team posted the legislation on WhiteHouse.gov. The team recognized that many Americans would not only want to read the bill, which runs 1,071 pages, they would want to comment on it. On WhiteHouse.gov, however, users were asked to limit their "comments, thoughts and ideas" to 500 characters, a restriction that didn't go over too well.

"Absurd," responded Ellen Miller of the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, which calls for more government transparency and interactivity online.

Within 36 hours, Phillips and his team had reacted to public disappointment and upped the character count from 500 to 5,000. "It's an improvement," said Phillips, who called for patience.

He noted that WhiteHouse.gov has a blog and a YouTube channel, both firsts for a president. Also, Katie Jacobs Stanton, a Silicon Valley executive who helped start Google Finance, recently joined the team as director of citizen participation.

The online unit, which numbers at least seven, is larger than any White House has had, but it is not configured to replicate the campaign's work.

"WhiteHouse.gov," Phillips said, "is not like BarackObama.com or Change.gov. We're not running a campaign anymore. To us here, WhiteHouse.gov is not just a Web site. The new programs that we will roll out are more than just URLs. They are new ways to engage with citizens. Stay tuned."

Phillips called the site "an ongoing experiment."


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