Rebooting the White House OS

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As the Obama administration moved into the White House two weeks ago, it was clear that the Bush administration used computers in the unfortunate and revealing way a horse wears jockey shorts.

The Mac-centric Obama team was faced with groaning hardware running old versions of Windows. There weren't enough laptops to go around and those they found could have been glued to desks and had their Ethernet cards removed, for all the good they would do.

President Obama had to fight to keep his beloved Blackberry. His team, like many of the Mac owners, did battle with grumpy IT drones and firewalls more tuned to a top-down and Windows-centric administration than to a Apple-happy band of social media hippies.

And, unlike Bush, whose OS was awash in malware, viruses, botnets, worms and corrupt files; Obama has done a clean install of an operating system that while susceptible to corruption, has so far not been slowed and compromised by malicious code and the defragmentation and digital detritus that builds up after eight years of running with a failing hard drive.

He's also promised a transparent interface to government, which is first thing the average user will notice about the Obama OS, well, that and the Aretha Franklin startup sound.

It's that proposed transparency I'd like to discuss.

The Obama campaign was masterful in crowdsourcing platform ideas, funding and fundraising initiatives. The Obama White House, one minute after President Obama took office, told the world, via whitehouse.gov: "President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history."

The message went on to stress how important prompt communication and ongoing citizen participation will be to the Obama presidency.

So, let's take that at face value (at least during the honeymoon). Here's one of the most powerful governments in the world, a world full of security issues, secrets and sensitive files. And it wants to be transparent and collaborative. Why?

Because the only reason the Obama administration now gets to change the operating system of the White House is because it learned the value of transparency, communication, collaboration and community organizing on the campaign trail.

It's a lesson a lot of organizations, including non-profits and NGOs need to learn.

Too often I talk with groups that are frightened of creating wiki-based intranets, starting public discussion forums or putting their content on social media sites. Here are the reasons they give:

• We're a very traditional organization with a reputation to consider
• We have to be very careful about how people use our name and materials
• We have very confidential information that we can't compromise
• We don't want people saying negative things about us in public
• We don't want people to steal our stuff
• We need to control our message

To which, I can now respond: And the White House isn't, doesn't and can't?

All those points are more excuses than reasons, and the Obama administration's adoption of social media tools and hopefully-ongoing transparency makes a lie of them all.

Few organizations apart from the Vatican, the Pentagon or Rotary are more hidebound and traditional than the White House. Few have to be more concerned with brand, name and materials. Few trump it for security and sensitive information and control of information has been the lynchpin of the previous administration. But, here we are.

The truth is, for many organizations, concern about security is over-played unnecessarily by IT departments which, in my experience, are the least helpful part of an organization considering technological change.

Concern about people saying negative things in public is plain wrongheaded. You can't stop that backchannel and never could. You only had the option of not listening or participating. And, you need to listen, and ask for help.

You don't need to control your message. You need to set it free and allow it to light up dozens of Twitter feeds, blog postings and websites.

The White House has rebooted. You know all your defenses against social media? Three words. Ctrl-Alt-Delete.

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