The hype won't reach The Lost World proportions. And the entertainment value won't top The Empire Strikes Back. But six months after President Bush's Inauguration, America's Netizens can celebrate the summer release of the new improved Web site: Whitehouse.gov: The Second Attempt. Although still in the works, the Bush Administration is close to unveiling an updated, revamped version of its link to the online world, www.whitehouse.gov.
Unlike most sequels, the new site most likely will outperform the original. The Administration's current site was created in the chaos of the Clinton-to-Bush transition and frankly, it shows. Although up-to-date, the site is confusing, plain, and in desperate need of renovation. Matthew Snyder, a Web designer for Washington-based CGD Solutions, has looked the site over and declares: "It's definitely first generation."
While private-sector Web sites insert flash animation and artsy features to dazzle visitors, the White House's current site can't present information in a logical manner. Within a few clicks, visitors find themselves deep in a government maze. Helpful links are hidden deep in the page, which means viewers must scroll down and look sideways.
The low-grade construction of the Bush site is largely due to old-fashioned partisan pride. Although Clinton's Web team created a site template in 2000 for the new Administration to personalize (albeit with Democratic candidate Al Gore in mind), the Bush team quickly relegated Clinton's cyber legacy to the Internet ash heap. "When you have a change of presidency...many changes are made, including the Web site," says White House spokesman Jimmy Orr. In defense of the current site, it should be noted that it is intended to be no more than a placeholder until the Bush team unveils the permanent model.
Let's hope the redesign will incorporate some 21st century magic. Although the White House press office is hesitant to release details -- including how much will be spent on the overhaul and exactly when the new site will be revealed to the world -- we do know that the design, search engine, and navigation features will be overhauled. And from what we hear, the Kids section has also been completely reborn.
Current and former White House Webbies admit that it's daunting to craft the Presidential site. It receives millions of visitors a year (exact figures aren't available), many of whom expect it to be the seminal site of American government, and also a voice for the President's agenda. It's a hard balance to achieve "The goal should not be a political goal," says Mark Kitching, Clinton's assistant press secretary for the Internet. "We tried very hard to steer away from that." Adds Orr: "The White House Web site not only reflects what the current president believes in, it's also a symbol of America."
The site must cater equally to all constituencies. For instance, children, journalists, and many other specialized groups need to be welcomed and accommodated. The Bush team puts up the President's radio address in Spanish. And Section 508 of Federal Acquisition Regulations mandates that all government Web sites be accessible to the disabled community.
The current White House team has added a few features for disabled Web surfers, for instance. At present, the Web site allows visually impaired users to "listen" rather than read the site. A "go to" link also gives them a method for skirting the header and going directly to the main content each time a page is opened. And transcripts of the President's remarks accompany audio clips for those with hearing troubles. The new version will probably provide even more support.
No matter what they do, however, there are some groups that the White House can't discourage enough: cyber vandals. The third week of July, the "Code Red" computer virus attempted, but failed to shut the site down. Hence, the White House Web squad must be hyper-cautious about constructing blockades against unwanted intruders. "Many view this as the golden prize in a hacker's quest," Kitching says. When Bush's Second Attempt site goes up, the last thing the White House wants is for it to be hacked into oblivion. No one can afford a bad sequel.
By Diwata Fonte in Washington
Edited by Thane Peterson