WASHINGTON -- The rumblings began among frustrated researchers. Why, they wondered, is the White House Web site so lame? Why is it so hard to find a particular speech, statement or press briefing? Why couldn't www.whitehouse.gov be more like it was under former president Bill Clinton?
The answer, according to White House officials and outside observers, is that it's still early. The Bush administration took over the White House Jan. 20 and had to flip the switch on a brand-new Web site shorn of material from the Clinton years. The current site, Bush officials acknowledge, is little more than a placeholder featuring basic information but lacking rich interactivity and user-friendly search functions.
Give them a couple of weeks, Bush officials say, and the site will relaunch with a fresh look. New functions will come online shortly thereafter.
"These are smart people," said Jock Gill, who helped launch the first White House Web site in 1994. "They proved during the campaign that they know how to run a Web site. They've only been in office for a couple of months. Web sites aren't built overnight."
Council for Excellence in Government president Patricia McGinnis ticked off a list of things she would like to see in a relaunched site, including more photos, more audio and video and a way for users to ask questions and get answers from appropriate officials without having to know which department site to visit.
"I would think that ultimately the White House would want to have one of the best, if not the best, Web site in the country," she said.
McGinnis and others noted that the Bush administration lacks a major advantage the Clinton White House enjoyed: being first. The Clinton administration began before the advent of the modern Internet. As the Internet grew, the White House Web site grew with it.
"Everything we did was brand-new. They have to not only accomplish what we accomplished but they have to go above and beyond," said one former Clinton administration official. "They should be webcasting everything they do. There should be an interactive State of the Union address."
The White House might not do all that right away, but it is considering a more sophisticated online publishing system and a search function akin to the Clinton "Virtual Library," which allowed users to search by document type, date and keyword.
"My view of the Internet is that it's about conversation and exchange," Gill said. "Right now we appear to have a White House Web site that is not optimally organized to take advantage of what makes the Internet special."
White House spokesman Tucker Eskew said the site reflects "very little input" from administration political appointees. After a graphical redesign, Eskew said, the White House Internet team -- a group of about 12 from the press, communications, strategic initiatives and correspondence offices -- will consider deploying, along with new publishing and search systems, more advanced interactivity, including a way for citizens to ask questions and get answers.
"There are people who worry about creating unfair expectations," Eskew said. "But President Bush wants this government to be more responsive, and e-government should be a means to that end."
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