White House to relaunch site

White House to relaunch site

The good, the bad and the ugly of Whitehouse.gov

+ Does a great job of highlighting Bush administration accomplishments

+ Does fairly well at providing a smattering of government data and links to other government sites

' Confuses visitors with an unwieldy and inconsistent navigation interface that overlooks much good content

' Does a poor job of archiving and indexing historic documents for public access

' Ignores incoming e-mail and fails to respond to inquiries

Improvements needed:

  • Redesigned interface

  • Addition of a better document server

  • Staff attention to e-mail queries

    Overall grade:'C Minus

  • Jack Gill

    The White House Web site, launched with great hoopla in 1994, underwent a dramatic makeover this year when President Bush took office. Now, a second relaunch is imminent.

    Whitehouse.gov still displays handsome photos of the president's house and George W. Bush himself. There's also a useful interactive map that details how the federal budget supports programs in each state. But the site now emphasizes public relations more than services or official documents.

    Under the previous administration, Whitehouse.gov provided a substantial public record of press releases, speeches, transcripts of radio addresses, text of all documents signed by the president and details about the White House's organizational structure.

    Like the Bush administration, the Clinton administration was guilty of loading the Whitehouse.gov server with pages boasting of presidential accomplishments. Most senators and members of Congress do the same on their sites. But the open availability of presidential documents, once heavily promoted, has been lost.

    Or has it? If you search deep enough and use the correct keywords, you can still find the text of some speeches and lists of a few important documents. There is no contextual information indicating the breadth of what's available, however. Nor is there the implied promise that the site offers all presidential documents. Visitors are left guessing as to what can be found.

    Where's the server?

    Many government users and citizens have complained about the loss of the White House document server, which functioned as the authoritative repository of all presidential documents from 1993 to this year. Besides Web service, the document server also made everything on the site available via e-mail and Usenet news.

    The site still has a Citizen's Handbook and information about museums, libraries, safety, travel, employment, health resources and housing, but the elements are not interactive.

    Whitehouse.gov also has scaled back the scope of its internal searches. Visitors can still take advantage of the firstgov.gov portal and the Government Information Locator Service.

    In today's White House, 'the less information distributed the better, seems to be their approach,' said Jock Gill, a former White House staff member who built and helped operate the original Whitehouse.gov site.

    Gill said he sees a broader pattern of 'noncompliance with requests for documents [and] few encounters with the press' at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He said he believes that 'taxpayer-funded sites should be as apolitical as possible,' although he acknowledged there is some question whether the site is a political entity or in the public domain.

    Another former White House staff member, who asked not to be named, said it would take an act of Congress to mandate the return of server access to all presidential documents.

    Check out history

    To compare the depth of information that had been available, pay a visit to snapshots of the archived White House Web site, at www.clinton.nara.gov. The National Archives and Records Administration required all federal Web sites to provide such snapshots at the end of the Clinton administration.

    Unfortunately, the Clinton Presidential Materials project is not complete, so some of the links are dead ends.

    During its first year of operation, the Clinton White House site received 4 million page hits and delivered 50 million pages and images to subscribers. More than 700,000 people sent e-mail to the president and vice president. The White House publications service had 250,000 daily subscribers in that same time frame.

    In an e-mail interview, Bush administration spokesman Jimmy Orr said the White House would be revamping its site.

    'We take the Internet seriously,' Orr said. 'We have worked on redesigning the site and look forward to providing visitors a much improved site with the same concentration on content, enhanced navigation and a superior search engine.'

    He said the White House Web team is 'placing new emphasis on providing timely information via streaming audio and video' with a new launch 'in the immediate future.' Orr would not say how soon that would be, but he did say that Jane Cook, a former webmaster for Texas' state site, was the designer.

    As for other important functional differences, the Clinton White House site had pages with forms for sending quick feedback about various topics to the president and some staff members.

    The new site lists only general e-mail addresses for the president, the vice president and their wives. It does not provide ready-to-use Web forms, which means that citizens can only send comments from their own e-mail addresses, if they have them.

    There is no way to contact the White House public affairs office via e-mail as before.

    Last month, two requests for information to President Bush's general e-mail address brought automated acknowledgments from the mail server, but no one handled the requests or sent the information.

    One of the requests was for an interview with the White House webmaster, and the webmaster was copied. There was no reply. This is not good customer service for any Web site, much less one that represents the president of the United States.

    So what does the Bush White House Web site do right?

    First and foremost, it has a fast server. Pages load quickly. But because the server has been under constant hacker attack this summer, its brand and configuration are secret.

    The site's pages, though not graphically exciting, are streamlined, and icons are small. Some JavaScript enables mouse-over highlighting, but there is minimal effect on page weightiness.

    Whitehouse.gov in its current state complies with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 requiring that federal Web sites be accessible to disabled users. Parallel text versions are available for most pages. Photo descriptions in Alt tags assist visitors who use audio screen readers. Some presidential remarks are available as audio files, too.

    The news section contains a fairly well-organized collection of presidential remarks, but it does not appear to be complete.

    The press briefings unfortunately are lumped together in large daily files, making information difficult to locate by subject. At least it is archived by month back to January, but the White House staff should break it out and archive by subject.

    The site in some ways does the president a disservice because the good content is so difficult to find. There is, for example, a wealth of federal statistics. But you'd never know it by looking at the top page. You must first click into the news area and look for new text links at the bottom of the blue navigation bar. They are almost unnoticeable, and many visitors likely miss the statistics link.

    Look a little closer

    When you do click the statistics link, a page with a single paragraph appears. That seems to be all that's available, but it's misleading. Look under the search box back on that left navigation bar again and see that additional links have now appeared. You must scroll to see some of them.

    A big flaw of the site is that navigation methods differ from section to section. Sometimes you navigate from the top, sometimes along the sides, and sometimes by scrolling to see additional buttons.

    Before the relaunch, the White House Web team would do well to schedule some user tests that involve finding specific information. It could be an eye-opener for the developers to watch people struggle.

    Who knew there was a short biography available on the site for every previous president and first lady? I found them by accident.

    The search function is fast and accurate, but visitors should be able to sort results by date or ranking. Also, I found by trying that the site supports Boolean searches, although the interface doesn't say so.

    It should be more obvious to visitors how to search. Little effort would be required to develop an advanced search page.

    The interface to cabinet-level agencies is no worse than before, although it would be helpful to see a short description of each agency and its mission before having to navigate off-site.

    In general, Whitehouse.gov serves best as brochureware, giving citizens some of the news and some of the contact points. But it could and should do much more.

    Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at [email protected].

    Judith N. Mottl, a free-lance writer in Bayport, N.Y., contributed to this article.


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