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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Rewiring the White House

In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act. It’s a valuable law which preserves all manner of official communication for posterity.
But it was written at a time when people still delivered interoffice memos in those funny manila envelopes that get closed with a piece of string.
Email had been invented seven years earlier in a project funded by the Department of Defense, but it’s hard to imagine that the authors of the Presidential Records Act could have foreseen a government which put instant, electronic communication into widespread use. To ask anyone at the time to imagine the sprawling, interconnected world of the Internet as it is today would have been laughable.
And yet this 1978 law still dictates how the executive branch does business.
During the election, the Obama campaign was deeply immersed in the world of the Internet, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the brilliance of the external online strategy. But much less has been made of how well Obama for America as an organization used the Web internally.
Staffers used online tools to share documents, built wikis to train volunteers, used Facebook to build get to know each other. And throughout it all, the staff — from David Axlerod on down — maintained a continuous conversation through instant messenger.
It now looks, however, like that practice will be put to an end.
Citing both the requirements of the Presidential Records Act and security concerns, lawyers for the incoming administration have told staffers that they will not be able to use instant messenger in the White House. They will forgo the use of an official Facebook account as a tool to communicate with supporters. They won’t be allowed to bring in USB drives to take work home. Access to many websites will be restricted. And in many cases, the computers at their desks will be dated and running old Windows software.
The end result of these regulations and hurdles is a bubble that separates the White House staff from the outside world — they’ll get less input from critics and allies both — and the loss of these tools makes those who have come to rely on them less efficient and less flexible. By making it difficult to adopt new technology, our laws will serve to stifle creativity in government, where right now we need it most.
But there’s hope. President Obama gets to keep his Blackberry.
He asked for it, the Transition team bought into the idea, the NSA approved a model, and then the lawyers came around.
Obama needs a Blackberry for the same reasons his staff needs IM, and the White House found a way to make it work.
Now, someone should stand up to make the same argument for updating the rest of government’s communication tools. And once that’s done, Congress should be lobbied to rewrite the Presidential Records Act to reflect the reality of how professionals do business in 2009.
Governing is hard enough without asking those who commit to it to forgo anything that makes them better at their jobs.

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