There is no doubt that President Barack Obama is the most connected, most web savvy president in history. His campaign launched one after another Web 2.0 initiative to set a standard for social campaigning that will still be talked about in 20 years.
On Change.gov and now Whitehouse.gov, we’re seeing nothing short of a revolution in how the federal government communicates with constituents.
But citizen expectations may be running a little high. There are limits to how effectively the government of a country as big as ours can engage in true “participatory” communications.
For example, President Obama is the most followed (subscribed to) “user” on Twitter, with over 225,000 followers and counting. CNN Breaking News is a distant second, with a little more than 126,000.
Many Twitter users criticize politicians and celebrities who don’t “engage in real conversation.” Recent updates on Twitter include:
I've been following @BarackObama for a while. It's not that great. I wish he would make better use of it.
on reading @barackobama's twitter, I kind of wish it read more like normal peoples "Man oval office needs some serious cleaning"
Of course the second one is partially humorous, but the idea that Obama (like dozens of other Twitter celebrities) doesn’t “make good use of Twitter” is a common theme. But it isn’t reasonable to expect the president of a nation of over 300 million people and the leader of the world’s last superpower to reply to individual tweets with “that’s a wonderful idea,” or “lol.”
Federal regulations and demands of presidency limit presidential communications
“the official records of the President and his staff are owned by the United States, not by the President. The Archivist is required to take custody of these records when the President leaves office, and to maintain them in a Federal depository. These records are eligible for access under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) five years after the President leaves office.”
In other words, if President Obama does tweet that “lol,” it will have to be archived and made available for five years under the FOIA. That’s neither practical nor worth doing. And the PRA is just one of many regulations affecting presidential communications. Undoubtedly many of these will be updated and reinterpreted to factor new technology like Web 2.0, but this will take time. In the meantime, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace will not be cornerstones of President Obama’s personal communications strategy.
In addition to the demands of the presidency and regulatory barriers, we already know that security has been a big concern amongst Obama’s staff. Everyone knows he fought to keep his treasured BlackBerry. Now the New York Times is reporting that Obama’s “secret email address” is the latest status symbol inside the Beltway, noting that Vice President Biden has it, but neither “Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, nor Steny H. Hoyer, the majority leader” have Mr. Obama’s email address. (I don’t think it’s firstname.lastname@example.org or POTUS@hotmail.com)
In other words, if high ranking politicians find themselves cut off from some forms of direct communications with the president, where do you think that leaves the rest of us?
Economic climate will influence Web 2.0 investments
President Obama is taking office in the middle of the worst economic climate in 80 years, and like the leader of any organization operating under severe budget constraints and close scrutiny, it will make sense for the federal government to invest in systems that allow it to do a lot more with a lot less. Some of the applications that make sense are document management and collaboration, communities to improve inter-agency communications and collaboration, microblogging and other lightweight communications tools, and business intelligence/knowledge management.
In his announcement speech in February 2007, Obama said, "Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age." And while Web 2.0/social applications will bring improvements in citizen participation and transparency, some of the best applications within the federal government will be largely invisible to citizens.