In 1835, a New York dairy farmer sent President Andrew Jackson an unusual gift: a wheel of cheese weighing nearly a ton. After letting the cheese age for two years—in, yes, the Entrance Hall of the White House—Jackson invited the entirety of the American public to come to the People’s House to eat and enjoy it. And on the appointed day, come many of them did: within two hours, all 1,400 pounds of cheese were gone.
The aged dairy was meant, in this case, to symbolize the synergy between collective ownership and participatory democracy—the notion that what transpires in the White House is and should be meant for public consumption. Sometimes literally.
Well. Yesterday, at 12:01 p.m. EST, Jackson’s latest successor placed before the American public his own wheel of cheese: a refurbished version of WhiteHouse.gov, the People’s House writ digital. Come in! it seems to say. Take a few bites! Chew things over! This is your White House, too!
The site’s, um, inaugural blog post—written by Macon Phillips, the White House’s Director of New Media—explains how “Change has come to WhiteHouse.gov” and highlights the three-pronged (and 2.0ed) goals of the revitalized site: Communication, Participation, and Transparency.:
President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history, and WhiteHouse.gov will play a major role in delivering on that promise. The President’s executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review, and that’s just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government. You can also learn about some of the senior leadership in the new administration and about the President’s policy priorities.
Reaction to the new site (‘new’ in relation to the Bush administration’s version of the site; much of the policy-focused content of Whitehouse.gov is carried over from Change.gov, Obama’s transition Web site) has been, generally, glowing. Particularly so among media critics and transparency advocates, each group having been chastened from eight years of Bush-Rovian secrecy.
The updated site “is expected to be the window for what is being touted as a bold experiment in interactive government based largely on lessons learned during the most successful Internet-driven election campaign in history,” Agence-France Presse put it. Today’s Washington Post quoted YouTube’s news and politics director, Steve Grove, similarly applauding the site: “By bringing the White House onto YouTube just moments after the inauguration, the Obama administration has demonstrated a commitment to a transparent government that connects directly with citizens,” he declared. PBS MediaShift’s Megan Taylor concluded, “It could portend unprecedented transparency in the American government.”
Such rosy-hued assessments of the day-old Web site often frame the current version of WhiteHouse.gov as a foil to—and, indeed, a rebuke of—what it was before 12:01 yesterday: a site run by an administration that (in)famously curtailed/thwarted/mocked transparency. The previous site’s occasional blog posts had a pulling-teeth quality to them, perfunctorily cheery in tone, and generally reading like press releases. If the Bush site’s goal was dialogue, then it was a one-way dialogue—not so much Arthur Miller’s vision of “a nation talking to itself” as Orwell’s vision of a nation speaking, unilaterally, for itself. The Bush Administration’s online White House had no space for public commentary, in every sense.
But comparison, taken too far, can also be misleading. Many of the media’s early assessments of the new WhiteHouse.gov framed their treatments according to some iteration of, wow, this site is so much better than it was before!. Which is somewhat akin to deeming a Quarter Pounder to be a good meal choice because, wow, it’s so much healthier than a Big Mac!. Relying on a Bushian metric for transparency doesn’t just set Obama’s bar too low; it sets the standard so low as to invalidate pretty much any bar in the first place.
We need, then, to redefine transparency for the digital age—or, better, to return to an older definition of what transparency means to our democracy. Being better than Bush when it comes to transparency isn’t good enough. Celebrations of Obama’s inauguration—and the Web site that came with it—as ushering in a New Age of Transparency are premature at best: as we’ve seen again and again, talking about transparency does not transparency make. And while there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful—including Obama’s signing, this afternoon, of two transparency-friendly executive orders—as Saul Hansell put it yesterday on The New York Times’s Bits blog, “Like so much else on this hopeful day, there is the lingering question about how many of the Web site’s lofty aspirations will survive the rough work of governing in a complex world and cynical capital.”