Web site gives but doesn't receive, critics say
The Bush administration put up its new White House Web site on Aug. 31, and the reaction so far has been, "It's an improvement."
But Web designers and political analysts alike say the Bush administration's new version of www.whitehouse.gov also fails to take advantage of some increasingly influential technologies. "There's nothing interactive — that's my biggest criticism," said Michael Cornfield, a political science professor and research director for the Democracy Online Project.
If it were an ordinary Web site, it would be "pretty good," said Phil Noble. But because it is the "Web site of the president of the United States and leader of the free world, chief executive of the most wired nation on Earth," it doesn't make the grade, said Noble, who runs the political Web site www. PoliticsOnline.com.
The White House site "ought to be one of the best sites in the world. It should be a showcase of interactivity," he said, with Bush participating in chat groups and using the site for online opinion polls. "The president ought to be leading the way in using this new medium to promote democracy."
Internet interactivity — from online town hall meetings to e-mail newsletters to issues for discussion groups — is being used increasingly by political leaders to stay close to their constituents. Members of Congress, governors and prime ministers from Great Britain to Japan increasingly use the Internet's interactive features.
But the new White House site does not. "It's a one-way Web site, not a two-way site," Cornfield said.
Right now, the only form of feedback on the Web site is the ability to e-mail the Web development team. There are no immediate plans to include discussion forums or other types of interaction with the White House team, according to Tucker Eskew, director of the White House Office of Media Affairs, which oversees the site's content. "But I think down the road there could be opportunities," he said.
The president previewed the site before it was released to the general public and assessed its layout as complementary to "his approach to government," Eskew said. "He liked the fact [that] the Web site is focused on his priorities for his administration."
Yet, according to news reports, Bush does not even have a computer in the Oval Office, Noble said.
Others are not so harsh. The new site is well-organized, said Gary Bass, executive director of the public interest organization OMB Watch.
A column on the left side of the home page lists the president's top priorities, and hot links lead to position papers, speeches and photos of the president addressing such issues as education, tax relief and defense.
In a section labeled News & Policies, there is a useful day-by-day account of President Bush's activities, with links to presidential statements, including a few audio and video feeds. The chronological order makes it easy to follow the president's activities, Bass said, and the audio and video are a technological step forward from previous White House Web site.
Lots of photos give the site a "friendlier, prettier" look, he said.
The pages seem heavy with Bush administration boosterism and light on issue analysis, but that's to be expected, Bass said. The site is there for the president to present "the message he wants to convey to the public, so it's going to have his filter and his lens."
"It's a cream puff presentation" of political issues, "all sunshine," said Pam Fielding, whose company, e-advocates, specializes in Internet campaigning and cyber lobbying.
"I would like to see more links to things like budget bills and economic reports that are written so an ordinary person can understand them," she said.
A link to the Constitution would also be nice, Bass said. "And I would love to see on the White House site information telling citizens how to use" electronic Freedom of Information Act requests. That law requires government agencies to turn over nonclassified information when members of the public request it.
A feature that has won wide praise is the site's attempt at bilingualism. Bush's policies, radio addresses and a tour of the "Casa Blanca" are presented in Spanish as well as English. But some information is available in English only.
Another plus for the White House site is its accessibility. "For the most part, it's above average," said Tracy Leonard, spokeswoman for the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. "There are some small things" that caused difficulties for site users with visual impairments, she said, but overall the site is easy to navigate and compatible with screen readers and other assistive technology.
Diane Frank contributed to this report.
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