Obama Administration Can’t Get White House Emails Working

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The Bush administration came under fire for losing its emails. Almost a week into his presidency, Barack Obama’s administration can’t get its email addresses to work at all. Emails to Obama’s top press officials bounced back Monday, and Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman, told Mother Jones that he could give reporters his email address, but “it wouldn’t do any good,” since the White House email system isn’t working. What about those Gmail addresses the Obama press team set up last week to handle press requests while the system was being set up? Those won’t work, either, says Shapiro, because you can’t access Gmail from White House computers. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs promised during Monday’s press briefing that he would “endeavor to fix the email system,” but gave no time frame for that to happen. (Update: It’s fixed as of Tuesday morning.)

While the lack of functioning email addresses is surely frustrating for the new denizens of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, email has been far from the new administration’s only tech problem. In a post on the White House blog, an administration official (probably Macon Phillips, the Director of New Media for the Obama White House) tacitly acknowledged that the much-touted new WhiteHouse.gov website had experienced problems, too:

The new media team is coming online as well and our first priority is digging into this new website: improving some of the basic press office functions (like the timely posting of press releases, executive orders, etc.), developing content from other parts of the Administration to share with you and mapping out a plan for technology development. Thanks to heroic supporting roles by the Office of Administration’s web and IT team (career government employees who span administrations), we were able to launch the new website.

The fact that it took “heroic” efforts on the part of the OA’s web and IT team to even get the new WhiteHouse.gov off the ground is worrying, although scarcely surprising for people who followed the Bush administration’s tech problems. A story by the Washington Post‘s Anne Kornblut last Tuesday indicated that the Obama team arrived to find the White House in the “technological dark ages.” For people who worked on the most tech-savvy presidential campaign in history, moving into the White House was undoubtedly a huge adjustment: no Macs, no Facebook, no Gmail, few laptops, and, apparently, no email (yet).

All the IT chaos in the White House has opened up a minor debate across the blogosphere. “Why is government IT so awful?” asks the Atlantic‘s Megan McArdle. One of her readers, a “government IT professional,” blames Section 508, which requires that government websites be accessible by people with disabilities. Becks at Unfogged, who “has developed websites for both state and federal agencies,” says that’s “misguided”:

I’ll admit that I thought the regulations were a pain in the beginning but I’ve come to believe in them and think they’re right, and not only for the small minority of people using our websites who are blind and have to use a screen reader. Section 508 compliance is above all about ensuring pages can transform gracefully, which makes them much more usable for everyone, from Boomers like my parents who might need to increase the font size to folks like me who want to access them on mobile devices with smaller screens.

A bigger reason we have bad government websites is because IT for many departments is stovepiped, with each department having their own funding and staff. Each group reinvents the wheel when it comes to data standards, which makes sharing data between groups difficult, and designs their own user interfaces, which sucks up a lot of funding that could be going towards actual functionality and means a lot of them are crap. It also creates funding nightmares — there are a lot of great mashups of data between 2 or more departments that could provide a lot of value to the taxpayer that aren’t being done because nobody can agree on which department should pay for them.

All the chaos Becks describes sounds like something that would be a good job for a government Chief Technology Officer. As luck would have it, Barack Obama promised the appointment of just such a person during his campaign for president. Over at Government Executive‘s FedBlog, Alyssa Rosenberg asks, “Now that you mention it, where’s that Chief Technology Officer?” It’s a shame that Obama hasn’t already appointed someone for the position. As Jonathan Stein wrote in our January/February issue, fixing the government’s technology problems is an enormous task:

This is, after all, the city where the White House email archiving system until recently relied on print-and-file, er, technology­, while the FBI spent five years and $105 million on a case management system it ultimately threw out. “If anybody expects they can walk into the executive branch and reorganize it from a technological perspective without the strongest authorization under the law or from the executive, they’re fooling themselves,” says Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig, who consulted with the Obama campaign.

IT failures in the Executive Office of the President are nothing new. Last year, while reporting on the Bush administration’s loss of millions of White House emails, I exchanged notes with Jesse Wendel, the publisher of Group News Blog. Wendel has worked in IT for almost 30 years. He told me then that, “If the pilot of Air-Force One were as sloppy as the White House IT staff, AF1 would go down. If not this flight, then eventually. It’s no wonder they lost millions of emails. Their sloppinesses and failure to correct obvious failure assured something bad was going to happen.”

If Obama doesn’t want history to repeat itself, he should appoint his CTO as soon as possible and have someone get to work not just fixing the email situation, but addressing the larger problem of government IT failure.


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