I was watching CNN yesterday morning (as has become my habit since my first day of almost religious TV watching in the morning, 9/11/01), and I saw a bit on a new feature of the White House web site. It's called Ask The White House and, although it claims that it is an "interactive forum where you can submit questions to White House officials," it seems that there are only scheduled online discussions hosted by a member of the White House staff. However, I don't see any information on upcoming online discussions on the page, or even information on when the two posted discussions (supposedly) took place. The "inaugural" discussion was hosted by White House Chief of Staff, Andrew Card who, from his responses, if he actually gave them, seems to be a nice enough guy, but the "discussion" made me uneasy. I had expected to find lots of messages at least questioning Secretary Card about the situation in Iraq, if not making strong, angry comments about how the administration is totally insane and shady, but there are just these nice, polite, essentially "softball" questions from (supposed) citizen participants that allow Card to talk about himself and how great the administration is. Now, despite a couple quasi-critical questions and a few spelling/grammar errors, these do *not* seem like legit questions to me. Perhaps some White House aids are busily screening messages while another set of aids consults with Card and some lucky aid gets to be the one to do Card's typing for him, but this doesn't seem likely to me. My impression of this "discussion" is that it isn't real, that the questions and answers were, at best, written by an aid and answered by Card, who had his assistant type them in for him.
It occurred to me that perhaps I was just being paranoid again, but reading the second discussion with the Administrator for E-Government and Information Technology Mark Forman made me more convinced.
Fahmeeda, from NY. NY writes:
What are the E-Government iniatives and how will it help an ordinary citizen communicate with the Government? What future plan does E-Gov hold? Will I be able to vote on-line without going to the polling booth in the future?
There are many E-Gov initiatives focused on providing access to the government in "three-clicks" or less. Two good sources of information. FirstGov.gov is the portal to the federal government where you may obtain on line services and information. And www.egov.gov is the website that has information about all of the President's E-Gov initiatives. For example, if you wanted to find out information on parks and recreation facilities you could go to www.recreation.gov which you can easily find at the FirstGov.gov website.
Karen, from Springfield writes:
When will citizens be able to read comments made by other citzens about proposed regulations online?
Today at some of the major regulatory agencies, such as EPA and Department of Transportation, you may find and view other citizens' comments on proposed regulations. Soon, on www.regulations.gov, one of the President's E-Gov initiatives, you will be able to find and comment on all proposed regulations."
These aren't just softball questions. They seem to have been written with the answer in mind. I ask you, what kind of Joe-schmoe citizen out there already knows enough about the E-Government Initiatives to know that it's intended to "help an ordinary citizen communicate with the Government", or just happens to ask when the government is going to start doing something on the very same forum where the government is making an announcement about that thing? Seems fishy to me.
It turns out that this "Ask the White House" thing is part of the E-Government Initiatives , a program run by the Office of Management and Budget and whose budget is "estimated to be $59 billion for 2004, up from the 2003 Budget request of $53 billion. This increase, much of which is expected to occur during 2003, has two primary causes: better reporting by agencies has
identified $2 billion that was not previously reported as IT; and new spending is planned to support homeland security and the war on terrorism. The increase in IT spending has primarily been achieved through reprioritizing to support key Administration goals, with a shift by agencies toward strategic use of technology to improve performance." The E-Government Initiatives, despite the way their site looks, is not the idea of President Bush, but required by a couple acts passed under and signed by Clinton and just formalized and made permanent by the the E-Government Act of 2002.