The Obama administration's White House Web site launched on Tuesday follows through on promises for inviting comments from the public, but online researchers wonder how the new president will use the information to influence policy.
"It is a good site," said Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public think tank in Washington. "It offers interactive features that make it easier for people to find information and offer feedback on administration actions."
In his blog on WhiteHouse.gov Macon Phillips, director of new media for the White House, wrote the site will "serve as a place for the president and his administration to connect with the rest of the nation and the world."
He said the site will be citizen-focused, with three priorities: providing in-depth content through features, including the blog, e-mail updates and a briefing room that affords access to the president's latest events and public statements; transparency through the posting of executive orders, proclamations and policies; and asking for public input in lawmaking by allowing them to review and comment on non-emergency legislation for five days before it is signed into law.
Phillips did not state how the White House would use the public comments it receives on legislation, which Obama frequently talked about as a priority during his campaign.
"They're going to have to figure out a way to manage what I anticipate will be a heavy volume of responses," West said. "It's easy to create a form, but if they get 100,000 comments, how do they synthesize that information? You can't create an interactive system and have no one on the receiving end."
West expects the site eventually will use data-mining technologies with automated word search and other capabilities to help transform the "torrent of information into useful data" about the trends and nuances that can be found in such feedback.
WhiteHouse.gov includes six drop-down menus at the top of the home page that provide visitors links to a slew of additional information about Obama's agenda, the administration, and background information about federal government and the White House. A banner of changing photos dominates nearly a third of the top of the page. When the site launched, the area included images of the inauguration and President Obama on the campaign trail.
Larry Freed, president ForeSee Results, which conducts a quarterly satisfaction survey on Web sites for the University of Michigan, said the banner might not be the best use of space. "That banner is really big and using a lot of screen space," he said. "It's powerful, and it's a way to get news out, but they could better use that real estate. It's important to take the enthusiasm [of the inauguration] and keep it going, but it's also time to get down to work. That message is not yet there."
Freed suggested reducing the size of the banner and moving some of the links buried in the drop-down menus to the bottom half of the home page. He also recommended the site provide links to other federal Web sites such as USA.gov, which is the primary gateway for citizens to find government information.
"More and more agencies are having great success providing services through the Internet, which gives government a chance to sell their message the way they want to sell it," Freed said. "Knowledge is power, and if citizens have that knowledge, they can hold their government accountable."
According to a 2008 report West authored, which analyzed functionality of state and federal Web sites, government sites that earned a top ranking in 2008 included USA.gov and sites operated by the Agriculture, Education and Treasury departments, the Federal Reserve Board, the General Services Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Library of Congress, the Small Business Administration and the U.S. Postal Service. The Bush administration's version of WhiteHouse.gov did not make the list.
Phillips emphasized in his blog that WhiteHouse.gov is a work in progress, and encouraged visitors to submit ideas for content through an online feedback form. Users with disabilities also were asked to review the site and offer suggestions on how to improve the site's accessibility. Images already on the site contain "alt text," which provides blind visitors with an application that can read the text on a page, and for deaf users, text transcripts for audio clips of the president's speeches and remarks and closed captioning for videos are available.
"When [Obama] put up a video of his first weekly address on change.gov, there was no transcript or text version, which led to some criticism," West said. "The fact that they now do offer that service for the disabled showed the Obama people are listening and learn quickly."