The Public Eye

Bev Godwin of the White House's new media office sizes up the potential and pitfalls of opening up to citizens online.

From Day 1 of the new administration, President Obama has called upon federal agencies to be more transparent, or, in his words, "disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use." Key to being transparent, Obama stated in a Jan. 21 presidential memo, is harnessing new technologies to distribute that information. The memo went on to order the heads of all agencies to compile recommendations for an open government directive that would increase transparency, participation and collaboration. Acknowledging that the initiative should cover his agency, too, Obama opened the first-ever Office of New Media at the White House.

The quintessential example of the office's new media approach has been a March online town hall, called Open for Questions. Obama shot a video summoning the public to visit, ask a question about the economy, and give thumbs up or thumbs down to other people's questions. Two days later, he answered some of the most popular questions at an event that was streamed on

But transparency often is at odds with bureaucracy. The Wild West behavior of the Web can run afoul of the rules governing presidential records, privacy and federal inter-actions with citizens.

The White House transferred Bev Godwin, the director of federal home page, to the Office of New Media for help in traversing the federal regulatory environment. In May, Government Executive interviewed Godwin at the National Press Club in Washington. Edited excerpts from the interview follow:

On the Office of New Media:

The Office of New Media is within the Office of Communications. It's a small office-eight people. And the mission is to develop online programs, content and tools for two reasons: to amplify the president's message and to provide meaningful opportunities for Americans to connect with the administration. In order to achieve this mission, we really have a three-pronged approach. One is to develop content in new ways and in new venues as technology impacts how people consume information-how and where they consume information; second, to provide the meaningful opportunities for citizens to participate with government; and third, to lead by example to serve as a catalyst for new media throughout the government.

Vivek Kundra, who's the [federal chief information officer] and also the head of the e-gov office at [the Office of Management and Budget], is a partner we work with almost every day. He has a similar vision, and his office has a lot of the policies under it, as well as the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB, [whose administrator] is Cass Sunstein. We work with him as well. [Federal Chief Technology Officer] Aneesh Chopra just started, and there was a [May 5] meeting on the open government initiative.

On President Obama's March online town hall, an early test for his new media strategy:

We invited the public to ask questions by text, but also by video. And fewer than 1 percent of the people sent in a question by video. However, when you saw the video questions, they were so compelling because you could see the person asking, you could hear that they were from Ohio or wherever, and you felt more of a connection to them.

So . . . we're looking at why weren't there more videos? Is it because it was only two days? Is it because people don't have video cameras, or they don't know how to upload? And so we're kind of looking at what the barriers to entry were on that.

In my eight years of working at and having a bird's-eye view of what the public comes to the government for, [money] is the top thing. We call it benefits and grants; they call it "My family wants to start a dry cleaning business, and how do I do that." "I'm doing research and I need money." "I've overspent my credit cards; what do I do." That is a top task of the public in looking at government.

Before new media, there have always been interest groups and lobbyists, and the organized group has a louder voice than the individual. We saw that online, too. And in this particular case, in those two days, the organized group was the "legalize marijuana" community. They brought the question to the top in many categories. So that's an important issue, and it's very important to some people, but is it the top question on the country's mind when it comes to the economy?

We're thinking, is that a good thing? Is it a bad thing? There are ways from a technology standpoint you could lessen the vote, how much the vote counts, by looking for patterns. If someone searches a certain word and then just votes on every question with that word . . . AARP has a louder voice than I have as an individual.

We got criticized by a few that we made people sign in, in order to vote. They were saying we shouldn't-we should allow anonymous voting. You can argue both sides of that. If there's transparency on the government side, why isn't there transparency on who's voting? So we're looking at that, looking at better ways to moderate through the technology and through the community, and further improvement of the underlying technology design.

On the new media office's four-year plan:

The office had already put content out on YouTube, Vimeo, which is another video-hosting site, and Flickr, a photo-sharing site. [Then] we opened up the White House on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. We opened it at 1:17 on Friday and by Saturday morning, we had over 100,000 fans on Facebook. This is part of getting content where people are wanting to consume it.

[Addressing] the digital divide, we're not going to get rid of print media, we're not going to get rid of phone. We still have in-person offices. People who don't have computers have cell phones. We should concentrate on mobile. And obviously that's not going to get the whole digital divide, but that's thinking the right way, because worldwide that's what people are doing in the digital divide is going mobile. I know agency Web managers have been looking at how we make our sites more mobile-enabled, and some are doing a better job than others. A huge growth area is mobile.

Nobody at [the General Services Administration] or the White House has asked for terms of use on a virtual world yet. And also terms of service are for free [for our existing] products. In Second Life you actually buy an island, although there is a way to create an avatar for free. So we haven't done that yet. Second Life, it's still a niche audience, although there are excellent uses of it that I've seen around government.

There is an annual conference that the National Defense University holds every year called the [Federal] Consortium for Virtual Worlds. I didn't go to it this April, but I went last year. And I was blown away at what is happening around the government. But nobody has come forward asking for virtual world terms of service.

On the notion of participatory government:

This really is how do we allow the people to inform government. How do we allow them to comment on a [Transportation Security Administration] blog so we're learning about problems we didn't know about, and potential solutions that the public who's seeing the issues on the front line may know about? How, as a culture of government, do we listen to people and give them opportunities to help us? But then going further, how do we connect to people with people?

. . . and some of the barriers:

The Paperwork Reduction Act-written before the Internet, no less written before new media-and is it really a burden when people are voluntarily coming and wanting to talk to the government? That's one that really needs to be looked at. Some of the other things are at OMB around the persistent cookie [software that a Web site stores on a visitor's hard drive to collect information about the user]. We can't use persistent cookies on government Web sites, but that's an OMB issue, not a legal issue. But the Paperwork Reduction Act comes up a lot.

[For the town hall], people were [being flagged] as off topic, as opposed to inappropriate. We did put some filters in-the technology allows you to filter out things that have certain words in them and inappropriate stuff. That didn't come in at all. In the end, we did not remove a single question. There were things that were voted to the bottom or flagged down to the bottom because they were inappropriate and off topic, but even the things that some people thought were off topic were not really off topic because the economy is a huge issue and it affects every one of these other issues.

If you look at the White House comments, some of them are more inappropriate than others, but allowing the community to moderate itself is the way to go, because there is not enough government staff to read through all these comments. I don't think anyone in the public is going to be surprised if someone says something negative about your agency, or about the president. There are people who have opinions on all sides. On a blog, people will say something that you don't agree with in the government, but then you'll notice the community is also not agreeing, and they're kind of starting to argue with the person who did it. And so the community can help you through that.

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