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Team Obama’s Change.gov — abuzz about how it was created — and how difficult change in government is

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Change in government is difficult. Team Obama is going to find that out. In the meantime, they are doing a good job of doing — and asking for permission later.

One example is Team Obama’s transition Web site, Change.gov. They are already doing some very innovative things such as the feature that lets you ask a question. There are some bureaucratic issues raised here. For example, the Change.gov “open for questions” feature uses Google’s Google Moderator application to let people post questions — and rate other people’s questions.

A brief aside: We spoke to Katie Jacobs Stanton, principal of Google’s new development team on Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris recently. She told us about Google Moderator — what it is and how it can be used. Hear that conversation here.

On one hand, that is precisely what government should be doing — why go out and create a government-only application when the private sector can do it maybe better… definitely faster… and absolutely cheaper? That being said, how does a government organization go about doing that — was there a request for proposals for these kinds of applications, for example, because there are others who have similar kinds of applications… and there are privacy implications. Google Moderator requires that a person register. I don’t know for sure because the change.gov page doesn’t say, but I’m guessing that when you do register, it falls under Google’s privacy policy, which is very different from the federal government requirements under the Privacy Act of 1974, which governs how the government deals with privacy.

(I should note that if you listen to our Daily Debrief conversation about Google Moderator, we did not get into these issues with Stanton. I specifically agreed to that beforehand — and said so on air — because these issues are not Google issues. They are issues that need to be addressed by Team Obama. And I have requests in, but, as you might imagine, they are not top issues for the transition team.)

So I think the change.gov Web site could be a microcosm of how difficult change is in government.

Specifically, I’m hearing that GSA, which is responsible for getting the transition team set up, is getting pings with FOIA requests of people seeking information about how change.gov came about. Michelle Malkin, who is apparently a conservative blogger, has received access to some of the FOIAed documents and her take is that there is something wicked afoot.

Last month that I blogged several questions about the propriety of allowing the perpetual Obama campaign to use a .gov domain name for what appeared to be a fund-raising front. Readers and industry observers noted that the decision appeared to violate General Services Administration rules governing government domains.

Guess what? They were right. The FOIA documents sent to Lance O., which he forwarded to me, reveal that the GSA initially rejected Obama’s application for “Change.gov.” On Oct. 21, Peter Alterman, Deputy Associate Administrator of Technology Strategy at the GSA, denied the Obama campaign’s request for a government domain because:

1) It would be a a violation of the government’s naming conventions (too generic); and

2) using ‘change’ in the domain name would be political, since it was the trademark slogan of the Obama campaign.

The day after the election, on Nov. 5, GSA Chief Information Officer Casey Coleman overruled Alterman after apparently receiving a waiver from Chris Lu, Executive Director of Obama’s Transition Project. As reader Lance discovered through his FOIA request, Ms. Coleman did not elaborate on the granting of this waiver except to say that she had “determined that it is in the best interest of the Federal Government to register the subject domain name.”

TechPresident has its take — they aren’t nearly as concerned.

I’m generally not that suspicious nor cynical, so, unless proven otherwise, I don’t see any nefariousness here. That being said, GSA and Team Obama would do well to have some transparency here — make theseFOIAed documents available on GSA’s FOIA online reading room Web site. (Most agencies don’t actively use their FOIA electronic reading rooms. GSA’s, for example, is fairly awful. If something is there, it is hard to find. But GSA is not alone here. Most agencies make these reading rooms difficult to find — and often don’t post much information. It has always baffled me. In the age of transparency, why not post just about every request an agency gets unless there is a reason not posting it?)

Back to the subject at hand — there are a whole host of issues here — some complex and dictated by existing law, and some still complex and dictated by the way government has always done business.

I, for one, am happy that Team Obama is reaching out and trying new things, new ways to involving citizens, new ways to be transparent. Shouldn’t that really be the goal anyway? Yes, these laws, rules and regulations are important, but they should serve the public, not the other way around. Times are changing, and government needs to be a part of that change.

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Written by cdorobek

December 29, 2008 at 5:46 PM

2 Responses

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  1. Fascinating points. At this point, it becomes trite to say “just do it” and you can apologize later … but what else can you say? Maybe if enough of us had the kind of heart the Casey showed, we could have REAL change in government.

    Linda Cureton

    December 30, 2008 at 8:16 AM

  2. [...] No word on the Obama CTO yet, but… Peter Kafka over at Media Memo is reporting that Team Obama will soon announce weeks the appointment of has hired a Google executive to be the administration’s “director of citizen participation.” And the person should sound familiar — Katie Jacobs Stanton has been principal of Google’s new development team and regular listeners to Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris remember that we spoke with her about the Obama transition Web site change.gov’s use of Google Moderator for it’s “as a question” feature. [...]


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