July 29, 2013

Change.gov, how you’ve changed


When the Obama administration launched Change.gov back in 2008, shortly after winning the election, it seemed to indicate good things about the president and his staff: that they were web-savvy, that they were committed to a greater degree of transparency than past administrations, that they were willing to put all their campaign promises down in one place and allow them to be, at the very least, halfheartedly debated on Change.gov’s discussion boards.

But we’ve come a long way since then: first, Change.gov underwent some significant taming and tweaking in November 2008, as the President prepared to take office and work with many of the people he’d explicitly or implicitly denounced while on the campaign trail. And now, Change.gov is completely gone. The Sunlight Foundation, which aims to increase transparency and accountability in government, announced on their blog last week that Change.gov is no more. The main page is still there, but there’s nothing behind it, just a lonely HTTP 404 Not Found.

It had been in limbo for quite a while, with the home page pointing to the White House website, but all those early agendas and promises and plans remained on the site until last week, ready to be held up against Obama’s actual achievements—probably not a comfortable position to be in, but a noble one. After all, we all mean to do a lot of things and only get some of them done, but it’s good to be reminded what those things are—and Obama’s leadership style has always been one of admitting that it’s not possible to accomplish everything, but that he’s going to do as much as he can.

So it’s particularly disappointing (and unnecessary—he has no future election to scrub his record for) that Change.gov has been scrapped. Also, it’s just a too painfully obvious symbol of everything that didn’t come to pass; it’s like burning all the Shephard Fairey “Hope” posters in all the dorm rooms across the country.

Disappointing, and also a little creepy. Because, as John Wonderlich at Sunlight notes, one of the items that got thrown out with the bathwater was about an extremely relevant subject these days. From the ethics-agenda-that-is-no-longer:

Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.

I am a little bit less cynical than your average bear, but getting rid of all the things you said about protecting whistleblowers, especially whistleblowers who are federal employees, while prosecuting one federal-employee whistleblower and threatening another, to make it seem like you never said anything about whistleblowers (one year after signing a Whistleblower Protection Act, no less) is probably the nadir of political clumsiness and bad faith. A nadir full of whistles. It’s really not where we thought we’d end up with this particular digital intiative.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.