From the outside, it appears that US president Donald Trump’s transition into the White House’s digital realm has been one big 404 error.
Since his inauguration, Trump has personally struggled with digital illiteracy, but notable changes also immediately befell whitehouse.gov: The pages for civil rights, climate change, disability, and LGBT rights, among others, disappeared. A Spanish-language version of the site is no longer available. One eagle-eyed user also discovered that signatures on the White House’s digital petitions portal didn’t seem to be getting recorded correctly.
Some have called the changes malicious, others simply negligent. But there’s plenty of reason to believe they’re also entirely par for the course.
After all, it’s been nearly a decade since we last saw a presidential digital transition, and the internet was a very different place back then. In early 2008, the first iPhone was only six months old, dial-up internet was still commonplace, and half of US families didn’t have broadband at home. Fast forward to today, and we’re able to scrutinize—and screengrab—every technological mishap at breakneck speed. The internet can be very unforgiving.
“The Trump administration has plenty of other things it has to worry about,” says Tom Cochran. He should know: Cochran was the White House’s director of digital platforms for 18 months in 2011 and 2012. During that time, he oversaw all of Barack Obama’s digital endeavors, moved whitehouse.gov from a propriety platform to an open-source content-management system, and created the We the People petitions portal. (He’s now chief digital strategist of Acquia’s public sector.) Echoing press secretary Sean Spicer, who has often reminded the press that some aspects of the Trump transition are just “going to take a little bit more time,” Cochran suggests the new administration may simply need another few weeks to make their website great again.
We asked Cochran to clear the air on a couple of contentious issues. This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What is your general view on the digital transition between the Obama and Trump administrations?
It’s no secret that my political allegiances lie with Obama’s administration, but I can be very objective with this. First off, I think that the media is reading a little too much into the digital transition. You have to think of it in terms of moving into an apartment: The previous tenant moves out, and a new tenant moves in. When the previous tenant moves out, he or she will take his or her possessions, furniture, and paintings, and the new tenant comes in and starts over and hangs their stuff up wherever they want to. Someone who had been in that apartment before would go in and say, “Whoa, wait, where did the couch go? There used to be a couch here.” Well, yeah—but there’s a completely new tenant in here.
Second is that at noon on inauguration day, the website ownership went from president Obama to president Trump. What that means is that at exactly 12pm, by law, Obama’s website was frozen in time and moved over to the national archives, archiving the content of the 44th president of the United State’s website. Then, the 45th president starts at 12:01 with his new website and begins filling it with new content. It’s no surprise that things will not be there. It’s no surprise that there might be a couple of hiccups and bumps along the road. These presidents have different policies, right? As a result of different policies, some content will change, some will go away, and some will be added. That’s why you’re going to see content that is completely different, because this is a completely different administration.
If you’ve ever been part of a website launch, you’ll know that nothing is perfect on the first day, no matter how much you try. Something always slips through the cracks. Given the magnitude and the scale of the migration of a White House website—probably one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent websites in the world—I would say it was a pretty wild success to not have anything really bad happen other than content not be there.
In the transition between Bush and Obama though, Obama’s team basically had the entire website up at 12:01, including full translation options. Were there other mistakes that the Obama transition had that we’ve just forgotten in hindsight?
I think there were plenty of mistakes, errors, and broken links with some pages here and there. That’s just something that’s expected whenever you launch a big website. But I think you’re right—you don’t remember the errors that you had eight years ago. A problem that happened yesterday is far more top-of-mind.
What are you most proud of from your time serving Obama?
The fact that the website you saw day one of the administration was not the one that you saw on the last day of the administration. It was a living, organic thing that evolved over time, focused on the user, and made sure that they were able to receive and consume the information they needed.
The second thing that we’re most proud of would be the We the People petition application: We put in place the ability to petition the government for a redress of your grievances via open-source technology on the web—a right to petition that is actually articulated in the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. Being able to do that was a big deal, and not a trivial thing to do, either. You can imagine the hoops we had to jump through.
Speaking of which, there’s been a hurrah over the White House petitions page in the first few days of the Trump transition—apparently some petitions are not recording signatures properly, for example. There’s a lot of hearsay this is something sinister, but with your knowledge of the backend, could it just be a bug?
Short answer: yes. Any sort of reading into things being sinister or the administration willfully preventing information from getting out is just reading into the fact that technology has glitches from time to time. They just started a new White House, so I think it would be fair for everybody to give them a little bit of leeway to get things settled.
In response to a follow-up question after our conversation, Cochran later added:I did some digging and asked some questions, and every signature is being recorded, but they’re just not live. Every time you hit the sign button, it goes to a central register. And because there’s such a high volume of signatures, higher than they’ve ever seen before, it’s overwhelming the register.
On the day of the inauguration and the first days of Trump’s office, a series of government Twitter accounts went rogue. The Badlands National Park account was tweeting out climate-change statistics and the National Parks Service was retweeting posts about the low inauguration attendance, for example. As each smaller .gov website is controlled by its own team instead of a centralized task force, is it possible we could also see some websites go rogue until someone notices?
It’s conjecture, but if you’re looking at the three to four million people that work in the United States government, absolutely. It’s possible that somebody somewhere could do something that’s against the rules.
What can we learn from all this, and how could the transition process be made more smooth in the future?
Preparation is the key. But in all fairness, this is really the first time that a website has transitioned from one administration that understands the web to another. Those teams should talk as soon possible. That’s really the most important thing.