Ideas for the new White House chief digital officer

Photo: Pete Souza/White House
Photo: Pete Souza/White House

On Tuesday, the White House named former Twitter product lead Jason Goldman as the nation’s first chief digital officer.

From Goldman announcing his new role:

“The platforms that have been the most successful are the ones that have created the best and most meaningful opportunities for participation. My job will be to use those online tools to create meaningful opportunities for American citizens to participate in our government.”

In his announcement Goldman asks citizens (using the hashtag #socialcivics) to share their answers to the question, “How can we — our government and you and your communities — better connect online to make America better?”

Here are my ideas:

  • Turn whitehouse.gov into a media outlet for our times. The White House is essentially a media machine, telling the story of the president and, more broadly, the executive branch. It produces great content — blogs, videos, photos — but whitehouse.gov as we currently know it is a product built for 2009 and so much in media and web product design has changed since then. We are starting to learn, and even know more about, what a government website should be. Currently, whitehouse.gov looks like what we imagine when we think “government.” Whitehouse.gov should follow the same approach as Medium, Vox, even Buzzfeed, to make government feel more informative, approachable, engaged and alive.
  • In a perfect world, we’d do the above for usa.gov, because this could truly begin to unite and inspire citizens (and those aspiring to be) around the concept of a unified “America.” There is no better product branding for getting citizens engaged online than usa.gov. Also, it’s a little shocking the greatest URL in the world currently doesn’t even make it into the .gov top 20 list.
  • Go casual. Government, especially Washington, D.C., is seen as too buttoned-up, and this plays into its approachability and interest. Most people tune out authority during a conversation, because they assume they’re either not being listened to or are going to get lectured. This is how people see government. I’m not suggesting President Obama wear hockey shirts for the weekly address, but more that the faces and vibe of whitehouse.gov media outlet should reflect the image of the American public (beyond the Beltway).
  • Take “petitions” out of “We the People.” Currently, WTP is branded as a tool for citizens to share their grievances, rather than a mechanism to have a conversation. The WTP product should be re-imagined to serve as a platform for citizens, including the president, to engage with the executive branch and Congress. President Obama should open it up as a tool for all branches of government to have a conversation with the American people.
  • Have a call to action for everything. After every post, photo or video, direct citizens to engagement. Currently, we’re just being press released without context to learning more or getting involved.
  • Think about the general experience and make it easier for citizens to find what they need. What we know from the new federal analytics dashboard is that citizens want to complete a task related to a form. If it’s difficult to find to accomplish these tasks, your efforts around the above will lose merit.
  • Addendum: Read the U.S. Public Participation Playbook (thanks Dan Morgan!)

Making whitehouse.gov a more approachable media outlet and directly coupling it with a fresh platform for engagement, the U.S. chief digital officer has the opportunity to change the way we see government and inspire us to start paying attention.

Congratulations to Jason on an amazing opportunity and perhaps the best gig in government.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh. He is also co-founder and CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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