The Oval Office Facebook Group

This post was originally published by Science Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress, on November 3, 2008.

On Wednesday, November 5th, 2008, a presidential transition team will immediately begin preparing for inauguration day 2009—the day the new president will take office. This team will take over from the campaign staff and work on behalf of the newly elected president in order to make the transition of U.S. leaders as smooth as possible.

The process itself is extremely complex and will happen very quickly. There will be about 800 people on the transition team, which will spend roughly $9 million. Given that this team will have about 11 weeks to form a new government as the country skids through an economic crisis, it will not be an easy job. The handover of power will involve an unprecedented amount of information and will require fast, effective communication. Briefing books, face-to-face meetings, and phone calls will be insufficient. The transition team must make the most of modern information and communications technology to shape, coordinate, and run the process of moving the next president into office. Here are some suggestions on how that can work.

Previous administrations—and ultimately the American people—have suffered from poor communication and coordination during transition periods.

One of the first priorities of the president-elect must be issues that could affect national security and other vital interests. Ordinarily, this information gets passed around in the form of briefing books and PowerPoint slides. But now, information and communications technology allows experts to conduct briefings remotely using videoteleconferencing, present information via secure webpages and internal wikis, and conduct real-time discussions and make document modifications using collaborative software and chat tools.

Previous administrations—and ultimately the American people—have suffered from poor communication and coordination during transition periods. For example, the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident occurred in Somalia at the time of the Bush 41-to-Clinton transition, and the “Bay of Pigs” occurred during the Eisenhower-Kennedy transition. Ultimately, these crises, and numerous others, boil down to lack of communication, coordination, and collaboration.

But the U.S. Intelligence Community has already cleared a lot of the technical hurdles in this area. Their recent advances with INTELINK and its cousin A-Space are essentially mashups of the functionality civilians are familiar with through Facebook, LinkedIn, GoogleDocs, and Google Reader—all rolled into an addictive work environment. These social networks allow status updates, subscriptions to real-time news feeds, activity streams, content management, a community tag cloud, drag and drop, discussion threads, a “scrapbook,” and widgets. This system is better than anything I know about in the private sector and the whole government should now make good use of it.

Using INTELINK to coordinate the intelligence and national security teams of the incoming administration is but one important example of how social networking software and Web 2.0 tools can facilitate the presidential transition, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What is the transition team?

Broadly defined, the presidential transition includes the entire campaign season, the election cycle, and a number of months after inauguration when the Senate confirms appointees and leaders are stepping into decision-making roles. The team that coordinates this process exists in two critical and intertwined worlds.

The first is in the Executive Office of the President, where transition staff are concerned about staffing the White House, vetting potential cabinet members, developing advisory councils, recruiting lower-level personnel, coordinating with the outgoing administration, communicating with key outside advisors and leaders in government and the private sector, and drafting an initial presidential agenda.

The second world is executive branch departments and agencies, where team members have three main responsibilities: analyzing the overall organization and function of parts of the executive branch, reassessing key senior personnel positions and responsibilities, and looking at pressing and long-term issues in subject-matter areas.

Department-specific teams are especially important during a change in which the incoming president is from a different political party from that of the outgoing administration. In the event that Sen. Barack Obama wins, those transition teams within departments and agencies are likely to be larger than what was normal in the past.

Technology in the transition

During the Clinton-Bush transition to the 43rd presidency, the United States was just past the Y2K confusion and at the peak of the dot-com bubble; Time-Warner purchased AOL; Microsoft released Windows 2000 and was in the middle of an antitrust case; Netscape launched its open-source Navigator 6.0 browser; Wikipedia did not yet exist; and the first short film to be widely distributed on the Internet, “405: The Movie,” had just appeared.

But now the presidential campaigns are longer, more expensive, and more stressful, and the government is larger. Since that last transition, there is a new department in the executive branch for Homeland Security, as well as significant new coordinating offices like that of the Director of National Intelligence. As such, transition organization will be more difficult than ever.

In this process, personal connections are imperative, and new social software lends itself to precisely these situations. A new administration in transition, just off a grueling campaign, cannot reasonably be expected to comb through mountains of data which are not necessarily well-organized, in agreement, or even fully available due to classification issues. Social technologies, inherently designed to bring people and ideas together, can improve the transition process.

The transparent transition

Eight years after the last hand over of the presidency, collaboration tools have emerged and evolved, and the complexity of projects like managing an 800-person government transition, organizing what might be the largest White House ever, and analyzing a myriad of government agencies, employees, contractors, and policies, could be easier and more effective by drawing some lessons from Wikipedia and even the familiar Facebook.

Immediately post-election but pre-transition, there is a huge need to understand the institutional memory of the White House and of the cabinet agencies. Eight years ago, briefing books—big thick binders of information— were still in vogue. But now, social tools like websites, wikis, and collaborative software can help by making information more widely available, searchable, and discoverable, and it can also promote and aid discussions between relevant transition personnel with areas of overlap.

The White House must also coordinate a recruitment effort to seek out individuals with required expertise to staff the incoming administration. This involves not only the creation of a website for this purpose, but management of the resume information—which they can expect will be about 40,000 applications in the first few weeks and eventually total 70,000 interested persons, according to an article written by Clay Johnson III, the current deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and previously the executive director of the Bush 43 transition team. Social software will also facilitate the associated research for vetting job candidates. Information management tools, collaborative software, advanced Internet search algorithms, and knowledge of online social networks would greatly facilitate a good deal of this important task. In addition, current career government employees could staff some of these thousands of open positions. The transition team is in a unique position to reach out to and recruit those people—even if just temporarily—using social tools. This approach would leverage existing bureaucratic knowledge without risking administrative gaps in the critical first months of the presidency.

Next, the incoming administration will be immediately and constantly overwhelmed with “advice” (some wanted, some unwanted) from think tanks, previous administrations, “experts,” interest groups, lobbyists, governors, legislators, and donors. And this information will come from a variety of sources using diverse media—print, email, video, and audio. Points of contact for these people and groups need to be organized and coordinated; information must be organized and shared; and staffers must meet and sometimes partner with groups, all in the effort to craft the short and long-term agenda of the critical first 100 days (and beyond) of the new administration. New social websites and software allow coordination of formal debates so as to allow actionable conclusions from what might at first seem like the chaos of many opinions. And the new administration might consider using social networks to reach out to stakeholders as well.

Within departments, small teams from the incoming administration will be interacting with existing personnel in order to prepare for the cabinet and sub-cabinet heads, tee up important upcoming issues, and reorganize resources and personnel. Social tools would enable teams interacting with different departments to share information and advice while they perhaps struggle to obtain information or solve problems. Social software can also help coordinate informal social networks and organize advisory groups of outside-subject-matter experts to advise the transition team members, keep track of discussions, and include people who cannot attend in person.

Risks during the transition

Once the president takes office, there is a very real chance of a crisis that will test the new administration. Both World Trade Center incidents occurred in the first year of a new presidency. If this happened in 2009, would formal and informal networks and communication be in place? Social media can reduce these risks by getting the right information to the right people before they need it. Prior to September 11, 2001, groups within the intelligence-gathering community did not share information. Tools like INTELINK, discussed above, have solved many of those information-sharing problems in principle, but the transition team must plug the right people into the system right away—and they have to use it.

Within the Executive Office of the President, every administration’s staff is organized differently according to the president’s desires. But this organization has consequences for communication and effectiveness. For example, staff with insufficient titles cannot go to certain parts of the White House, including the Mess. Where else might important, informal, evolving staff interactions (say, between speechwriters and policy advisors) come from? Social media can help create more of these interactions. One potentially useful idea from corporate America is that every morning each person must enter one sentence into a collaborative system, answering the question, “What are you working on?” These data—available to anyone on the system—are simple, searchable, discoverable, and archivable.

In addition, now in office, the president must focus not only on the voters he needed to get elected, but on the public sentiment of the entire nation. Governing is very different from campaigning. Social software can help with this too. Websites like Twitter offer real-time information on public discussions people are having on the Internet. Quantifying public sentiment using these and other tools, both open and proprietary, will be very important for reaching out, listening, and engaging the citizens post-election, and henceforth for influencing new policies and programs.

Last but certainly not least, the people of America should be engaged in knowing about what is happening during the presidential transition process, and what increased risks (if any) there are during that period. Historical incidents, like the World Trade Center bombings, tell us that there are increased risks. In an increasingly fragmented media and information society, that level of engagement requires more than a press release on the White House website and stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post. It means full multimedia engagement in a myriad of locations and times using a blizzard of tools including blogging, speeches, informal gatherings, mobile technologies, podcasts, online video, and widgets. In addition, the outreach should use social tools that allow not just message “push” but rather bidirectional conversation—increasing citizen participation and interest in government.

Dr. Mark Drapeau (mark.d.drapeau@ugov.gov) is an Associate Research Fellow directing the Social Software for Security (S3) project at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy of the National Defense University in Washington DC. These views are his own and not the official policy or position of any part of the U.S. Government.

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