White House 2.0

Web 2.0 Technology and the Government

Hi, I'm Peter Swire. I'm a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a law professor at the Ohio State University. During the Obama-Biden transition, I was the lawyer for WhiteHouse.gov as it was getting set up, and for Change.gov.

The Challenges of 2.0

It might seem like it's too frustrating having to do Web 2.0 at the White House. But another way to look at it is this is a challenge for you the techies, for you the political theorists, to be trying to figure out what can we do. What can we do to make participation more meaningful. What can we do to make interactivity work better for the White House once we understand the challenges the White House really faces.

One challenges is scale. Instead of getting a couple hundred or a few thousand comments, you can get tens of thousands or even millions of comments. But a second challenge, and this is actually a bigger deal, is what they call clearance. In the White House that means before you answer something, you have to clear it with all the right experts. WhiteHouse.gov has chosen certain things that it does in order to be able to be effective while working within the constraints of the White House. The president will sample 10 letters or emails every night that get sent to him, and he chooses a relatively small number of them. They have voting systems where people do thumbs up or thumbs down on different kinds of proposals, such as for health care, or something like that. The White House might get thousands of questions, but the voting system helps select some of the top ones.

Procurement of Free Software

When it comes to buying software, the government's really gone through three phases. The first era was, think about NASA software. The government had to write its own code because there's no other missiles out there with software ready to go. Phase two, though, was when you could get commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, software. Phase three is there's these free software products. It's not buying it off the shelf; it's not writing it yourself; it's free services that are often hosted by someone else off site. So, if you're going to use Facebook, if you're going to use YouTube, how should the government "buy" free software? That's the puzzle.

So, one way to go is to use the federal procurement process. But that's probably not the right answer. If you're signing up for a free software account, you're not spending money. The answer that we've come up with is what I call the conditional use approach. You want to have a lot of open use of this cool new software, but you want to have some rules in place. If one kind of software's being used, you ought to have a way for the other vendors or for people who like a different software approach to propose alternatives to the federal government.

So if we use 2.0 to control 2.0, if we have feedback to get to better 2.0, and if we use 2.0 with better policies in place, we can have openness and embrace the new technologies, but still uphold the other things we care about as the federal government does this.

Legal and Policy Considerations

There are a few different hurdles that could be problems. They're all solvable. You've got to handle privacy, access for the disabled, signing the terms of use, avoiding advertising. Privacy problems are ones that I worked on back when I was in the Clinton White House. During that time, I worked in the Old Executive Office Building right over our shoulders here. My office was up there on the third floor. When a user goes to a federal website there's strict privacy rules to make sure the federal agency isn't grabbing lots of data from that person, setting cookies on that person, etc. But when the person goes to a free web service, a Web 2.0 service, those same privacy protections might not be in place.

The federal government is there for all the people. Section 508 of the Disabilities Act says the federal government has to be very good about being accessible to people who are colorblind, who can't hear, who can't see. A lot of those Web 2.0 services haven't been as careful about meeting all the federal standards for access.

One question is whether federal employees should be able to use Facebook and other Web 2.0 sites when they're at work. Well, we sure want to let federal employees use their initiative, sign up for useful services, try to find a way for a thousand flowers of Web 2.0 to bloom. We want to encourage openness, we want to encourage experimentation. But we also eventually have to have the policies step in that are supposed to be there.

We're doing this little film clip about hurdles to Web 2.0, but there's a lot of reason for optimism. There's all sorts of interactivity, all sorts of rich media, all sorts of function and participation that come with these technologies. At the same time, there's important policies the federal government has: your privacy, your security, access to everyone, fairness in procurement. All of these policies we have to learn how to build into Web 2.0. So I'd say experiment, try a lot of things going forward, but as we get more experience, we're going to have to have the policies built in in a pretty darn solid way, because otherwise the federal government wouldn't be living up to the principles we have to live up to if we're going to give 2.0 in ways that work for all the people.