Pondering The Future of the Digital Presidency

President Obama has done a lot in his time in office. Whether you love him, like him, are neutral on him, or hate him with the fires of a million suns is not germane in the context of what I’m here to write about. Set aside for a moment any of the political, legislative, strategic, ideological, economic, or policy decisions he has made. That’s not what I’m interested in posting about. I want to talk about something he has done that is entirely unprecedented and may long outlast his tenure in the oval office. I want to talk about his software and new media strategy and what it means for the future of the presidency.

Today the White House released an iOS/Android mobile application. The presidency? There’s an app for that. (Sorry, had to be done.)

Now, there are tons of apps available for mobile devices. Every company these days has one. That is not particularly new. One could even argue that they are late to the party. BUT. The interesting thing here to me is whether or not the next administration (whenever that happens and whomever that happens to be) will feel that they need to continue the digital policies of this administration and, if not, how they will change them.

It takes IT workers, software developers, QA people, project managers, to create and publish web sites and mobile applications. Presumably these jobs are actually performed by contract software houses (they could be government employees, I don’t really know), but even so, the budget allocation and the interest to create things like the White House App, Data.gov, a Twitter feed, a video podcast, and all the other new media efforts this administration has pursued will either need to be adopted and modified to fit the message of future administrations or abandoned in favor of less open access.

The reasons put forward by the Obama administration for taking this tech-savvy approach to government communication are many. First, there is a stated commitment to openness and transparency in government. Every visitor to the White House is a matter of public record. The White House website has become a trove of interesting information giving an apparently unprecedented view into the day to day operations of the government. Via the Twitter feed and video podcast and other outlets, there has been, since day one, a communications strategy intended to reach individual citizens directly instead of utilizing the 24-hour cable news networks and the filtered media. It is a strategy, IMO, has actually contributed to the dramatically different views people have on this particular president. People who were initially inclined against him have probably not subscribed to his video podcast, or downloaded the White House app, or spent much time accessing either the data or news coming directly from the executive branch (likely missing out on the White House beer recipe… sad…). They are more likely to spend their time consuming biased second hand media sources doing the traditional editing and spinning of news events and therefore getting a significantly different perspective on Obama and his policies and actions than people who follow the day to day operations of his administration via first-hand social media. Why pay attention to what is actually happening in the White House when you can listen to a bunch of uninformed television pundits earning a living by giving their highly subjective opinions out on the air on whatever soundbite happens to be sexiest on any given day?

When I wonder what Obama has been up to, I go look at the first hand sources. This is something that was not possible with previous presidents and I don’t think that the more conservative portion of our population (even if they have managed to find their way to a Facebook account and learned how to use a computer) has yet adapted to the idea that pundits and talking heads and media outlets are, by their very nature, a filtered outlet of second hand, prepackaged, information.

Now, this isn’t to say that the “official” channels can not be abused. Obviously, things like the White House video podcast and website are potentially propaganda tools. They could be used to paint a glorious, sanitized, artificial, dishonest, picture of how things are. As somebody who has followed these media streams, and also monitored the traditional media, I have found this not to be the case with this administration. Obama has not attempted to hide unpleasant truths, he has spoken about them, at length, and candidly. I have often disagreed with the man and his policies, there is much he has done that I would have done significantly differently, but I cannot fault him for the fact that that for three years now he has directly addressed the American people as if we are reasonable adults capable of mature and rational discussion, even as the country at large has given him little or no reason to believe that.

So what happens to these channels when Obama leaves office? This may be the first presidency that has not only so directly addressed the population through personal media channels, but also the first one to consistently brand that message. The White House website and media have a consistent color scheme, font choices, and aesthetic. It’s a little like what would happen if Steve Jobs was president. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Mitt Romney wins this fall. Will there still be an iPhone app? A blog? A White House home brewing recipe? Will the color scheme change from blue to red to reflect the new administration? Will there even be branding? Perhaps most importantly, will the new administration talk to us like we’re a bunch of idiots the way the last one did or will they at least attempt to continue the kind of frank, mature, dialog that Obama has made central to his governing style?

At the risk of being one of those opinionated media idiots (hah, I’m not in the media, so I’m just an opinionated normal citizen, you can tell because I’m mostly bald), I believe that the media channels of the White House (including the Android app) are not the property of this administration. They are the property of We the People (which also happens to be the name of a public petition website set up by the Obama Administration). The President and his staff are our employees. They work for us. When a company hires me and I go to my first day of orientation, I am presented with a computer and a bunch of software that is licensed and operated by the corporation, including official communications channels like Outlook email and some sort of “blessed” instant messaging system. I am expected to use these tools to do my job. If I am CEO of the company, I could theoretically come in and demand that we remove the email system or I could ban telephones or change the address of our corporate web site, all of which would have a pretty adverse impact on my company. You might initially think, “hey, he’s the boss, he can do that” but then you realize that even the CEO reports to the shareholders. I can make those changes, but if they negatively impact the operation of the company, if they cause the company to regress, the stock price will tank and I will generate a lot of ill will. Ultimately, I will lose my job.

Since the elected officials theoretically work for us, we are the ones who bought the software, we are the ones who own the code, we are the ones who can expect that if the White House has a Twitter feed, it continues to operate even when somebody else is in the White House. If there is an online petition site today, there should be one tomorrow. They work for us. I think we have the right to expect them to stay open and technically in the 21st century.

If there is one thing Obama understood in order to get into office, if was that we live in the 21st century and it is multi-cultural, complex, and far removed from the 1950’s. We are all interconnected both digitally and economically. We cannot go back to that earlier time. His policies will (I hope) have lasting positive ramifications in the future, but it is possible that his approach to direct engagement, to building an IT communication infrastructure around his administration, his approach to branding the White House as an open, transparent, accessible, entity mark him as the first truly 21st century president. He has established a precedent that it will be difficult to undo without appearing to be insular, paranoid, and closed-minded. I am fairly certain that if John McCain had won, this tech revolution in the executive branch would have had to wait another election cycle or two. A man born in 1936 would have been unlikely to create White House 2.0. Neither, if I think about it, would a man like Mitt Romney (born in 1947). It took somebody on the early edge of Generation X to come into the Oval Office with a Blackberry in his hand. Even if a Republican administration were to come into office and rebrand the White House communications from the blue to red it would strike a radically different chord in the minds of citizens who have come to rely on the Web 2.0 social media channels that the executive branch offers as a source of information. Perhaps they wouldn’t even understand the value of what Obama has done by providing a modernized communications infrastructure and would treat it like just another outlet for soundbites and meaningless, sanitized, drivel. They might even, GASP, discontinue the mobile app.

Someday, hopefully not for at least another four years, there will be a new administration. It could even be Republican. Will my iPhone app still provide me with insight into it’s operation? Will the We The People petition web site still run? Will engaged citizens who adopted these technologies because they were supporters of Obama, abandon them when it’s Mitt Romney behind the wheel? Time will tell, but I for one hope that the openness stays, and we all stay along for the ride. Administrations come and go, but legacy code is forever. At least, I hope so.

What do you think? Is the open, tech-driven, social media presidency the way of the future? If the Republicans win, will they keep it around? If they do, will you tune in?

One thought on “Pondering The Future of the Digital Presidency”

  1. I think that the increase in visibility to the average non-political Joe(lle) has open a lot of eyes on both sides. I don’t know if every generation has felt this way, but I feel about politics today like I did when the Berlin Wall came down. The Old School good-old-boys club is dying out.

    Increased visibility (not just transparency, which is more a matter of what you believe or not), with or without tech as the medium, isn’t likely to go away just as they are not likely to re-erect the Berlin Wall. It may make pendulous changes and swing the less-visible way for a while, but the precedent has been set. Over the medium term (say, 2-3 election cycles) a graph would show an overall trend toward increased visibility and overall toward more transparency.

    I might actually pay attention to Republican politics if they are in office and actually use social media, etc.

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