Colin Delany November 12, 2008

Will Obama Empower Government 2.0?

Guest article! The second in the past couple of weeks, too — a welcome development. In this piece, longtime friend-of-e.politics Joe Flood looks in detail at the kind of obstacles that currently frustrate federal government agencies when they try to use the social web. With Obama in office, is generational change ahead? Or will bureaucratic obstructionism win the day? This article originally appeared on JoeFlood.com, where a solid discussion has already built up around it. – cpd

Will Obama Empower Government 2.0?

By Joe Flood

There’s a really interesting article in the New York Times on how Obama tapped the power of social networks to fuel his run for the presidency. Here’s the nut graph:

Like a lot of Web innovators, the Obama campaign did not invent anything completely new. Instead, by bolting together social networking applications under the banner of a movement, they created an unforeseen force to raise money, organize locally, fight smear campaigns and get out the vote that helped them topple the Clinton machine and then John McCain and the Republicans.

Obama’s use of Facebook, Twitter, Meetup and other tools is well-known. By successfully using these tools, he’s created an online mass movement and a personal brand. The challenge he faces now is to implement his ideas across a federal government frequently mired in outdated policies and procedures. While both the McCain and Obama campaigns used every online tool available to them, the federal government is filled with restrictions on Web 2.0 technology, due to privacy regulations, Congressional intervention and IT security concerns. For example:

1. Cookies. The use of persistent cookies on federal web sites is strictly limited by an eight-year old policy developed by the Office of Management and Budget. Young Obama supporters may not remember the Cookie Controversy of the millenial era. The policy lists a number of conditions which must be met before cookies can be used, including obtaining the permission of the agency head. Due to the controversy over cookies, and the strict regulations regarding their use, cookies are very rarely used by government sites.

Why do cookies matter? You need cookies to accurately measure usage of your site with tools such as Google Analytics. Cookies are also used for personalization. Here’s a good explanation:

A “cookie” is a tiny text file that we store on your computer to customize your experience and support some necessary functions. We also use cookies to better understand how our visitors use our site. Our cookies contain no Personal Information and are neither shared nor revealed to other sites. We do not look for or at other sites’ cookies on your computer.

This nice explanation on why cookies are used comes from… the Barack Obama web site and their privacy policy.

2. Arbitrary Bans on Operating Systems. The trend in many workplaces is to let the employees have the tools they need to do their jobs. This is not always the case in government. Some IT shops in government think Macs aren’t secure. Some don’t like Vista. Nearly all IT departments want to implement a common system configuration. Everyone gets the same machine with the same software, no matter if you’re a writer or a web developer. To be fair, this is true in most large organizations. IT departments want to make their jobs easier by standardizing on the same equipment. Yet, the rest of the world is moving toward an ecosystem of operating systems rather than one to rule them all.

In contrast, the Obama campaign was described as being “open-source.” They used the tools they needed to get things done, whatever they were. Case in point – this photo of Joe Biden with a MacBook Air, captured on election night, a picture which I bet is hanging in the cube of many a beleaguered Mac fan in government.

3. Bans on PHP. PHP is essential to Web 2.0. Without PHP, you cannot use WordPress, the best blogging tool out there. Yet, PHP, is banned in some (but not all) government agencies due to security concerns. This concerns are not without merit, for government sites and the Obama and McCain sites were subject to cyberattacks originating out of China.

However, I want to say “yes we can” to making WordPress secure for government. After all, http://www.barackobama.com/index.php obviously uses PHP.

4. Firewalls. In this day and age, the concept of firewalls limiting what employees can see on the Internet seems outdated and silly, like attempts to ban books. Yet, firewalls prevent many federal employees from using Web 2.0 tools to communicate with the public. For example, the Departments of Interior, Energy, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs all block access to YouTube, MySpace and other tools. So, if I’m an evil-doer, I can organize my group on MySpace and no one from Homeland Security will know?

Often, these firewalls prevent officially-sponsored government Web 2.0 efforts. For example, an agency may have an island in Second Life, designed to educate the public. Yet, a demonstration of the features of the island requires a visit to a coffee shop with wifi, a free and open place outside the agency firewall.

This is just a fraction of the internal barriers within government that have blocked many Web 2.0 efforts. Despite this, government is filled with committed folks trying to get things done, despite the hindrances.

What will happen when Obama campaign staffers move into political positions within the federal government? They will have come from an open, risk-taking environment free of the types of restrictions listed above. As political appointees, they will want to put Obama’s stamp on government and change agency priorities and objectives.

What’s coming is a generational and technological clash, as members of the Obama online movement collide with government managers bound by rules and regulations. The best result of this conflict would be that outdated restrictions are thrown out and that government would fully adopt the principles of Web 2.0. Millions of supporters used online tools to participate in the Obama campaign. They will expect to use these same tools to be part of an Obama administration.

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