Barack Obama's presidential campaign was an online juggernaut, and the new administration has proposed to use that technological wizardry to make government more transparent. But while new media observers give the team's two most ambitious Web sites -- the overhaul of WhiteHouse.gov and the stimulus-tracking Recovery.gov -- an "A" for effort, the consensus is that Obama's online efforts have a long way to go in the next 100 days.
In a recent poll by NationalJournal.com, new media experts from across the political spectrum gave WhiteHouse.gov an average grade of C+. (See report card below.) Although they mostly saw the site as an improvement from the previous administration's, many noted that it remained a one-way forum and suggested it be opened to allow comments and make greater use of the "Open for Questions" feature.
"This occasional use of interactive tools" is impressive, says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation. But "90 percent of the time the site is pretty straightforward, as it was under [George W.] Bush."
Recovery.gov fared even worse in our poll, averaging a C. The most common gripe about the site, which was designed to track stimulus projects, is that it's "the view from 30,000 feet," as Micah Sifry, co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, put it. Without providing on-the-the ground details, Recovery.gov offers taxpayers few tools for staying on top of where their money is going, reviewers said.
Criticism of Obama's Web efforts began in the second week of his presidency, when he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act before it had been posted for review on WhiteHouse.gov. Since then, transparency advocates have hit Obama for not posting legislation on WhiteHouse.gov for five days of public commenting, as he promised to do on the campaign trail. And Recovery.gov has been attacked for its $84 million price tag. (Nick Schaper, the new media director for House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, wants more transparency on how that money is being spent.)
So what's been lost in the transition from the campaign trail to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Lots of staff, for starters. The administration has fewer than 10 full-time new media employees, Macon Phillips, director of new media for the White House, told NationalJournal.com earlier this month. That's down from the roughly 170 techies the Obama campaign's Web team accumulated by Election Day.
"It's a challenge because the team's small, a lot smaller than ours was on the campaign, and there's even a lot more to do," Joe Rospars, the campaign's new media director, said recently.
Then there's the fact that Recovery.gov has competition in the form of privately operated Recovery.org, which has "more granular data and a real search tool, which one assumes we'll eventually see on Recovery.gov," Sifry explains.
Still, Sifry is prepared to cut Recovery.gov some slack.
"I don't think it's fair to compare this site to other Web sites yet, as it's just weeks old," he said. "Let's take another look in three to six months, OK?"