New White House on the Web

After eight months, the Bush administration has replaced the temporary White House Web site with a full-featured site that underwent meticulous development and evaluation before its Aug. 31 unveiling, officials said.

The White House media affairs office put together the new site (www.whitehouse.gov) following strict guidelines while remaining open to input from many sources. The result is a site that tries to make it as intuitive as possible for citizens to find information about the White House and the Bush administration. "This is a much more approachable site; it's a more welcoming site," said Tucker Eskew, director of the White House's media affairs office, which also oversees all content on the site. "It's meant to encourage users to come visit."

Janet Cook, the former Webmaster for the Texas governor's office, led a development team of about 12 White House employees and contractors from an information technology support contract put in place during the Clinton administration. They started by looking at other federal and state government sites, as well as some in the commercial world, to get ideas.

"We looked at every Senate site, every House site, every governor's site...and we got some good hints to put together a good site," said Jimmy Orr, Internet news director in the media affairs office.

Cook decided to split the site into "rooms" that correspond to the actual White House. News and policy information is found in the West Wing, information on the history of the White House and public tours are in the Blue Room and the search engine is in the Library.

The search page covers all of the documents generated by the Bush administration. The White House develops plenty of electronic records, so the search function has undergone a major overhaul and is now driven by the Inktomi Corp. search engine, Eskew said.

That allows users to pick from pre.defined searches—such as a quick link to all documents on the administration's defense policies—or perform detailed searches according to subject, document type and date.

Many federal agencies are struggling to meet the strict standards of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the law mandating that all federal technology be accessible to people with disabilities, and the White House is trying to make itself an example.

Every section of the site, including the many photographs, graphics and video files, is coded to work with screen readers—such as JAWS (Job Access With Speech) from Freedom Scientific Inc.—for the visually impaired.

"It's one of the most widely used software programs for people with visual impairments, so we tested the site...we tweaked it and fine-tuned some of our HTML coding so that JAWS" would work with the site, Cook said.

No formal feedback process exists yet for comment on the new site, but the public has already had some say in the site's development, Eskew said. The Bush administration pulled in students, members of the disabled community and employees from every office within the White House to provide feedback during the summer.

And soon the White House will start using the WebTrends traffic analysis and reporting software from NetIQ Corp. to get a better view of the types of visitors the site gets and what pages they look at, Orr said.

That view of users will only provide general information, however, because the site must meet strict standards when it comes to privacy. That was especially important after the Clinton administration had to issue a policy prohibiting agencies from using persistent cookies, small pieces of code stored on a Web site visitor's hard drive for identification on return visits.

That policy enables agencies to use session cookies, which are deleted when the user closes his or her Web browser, but the new White House site does not even use session cookies, Eskew said.

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