It looks as if the decision has been made, President Barack Obama will be allowed to keep his Blackberry. Politico’s Ben Smith reports incoming white house staffers were told last Friday that, indeed, the President would remain connected – but for them the news was not so bright. There will be no IM in the White House, and that’s a change that the white house staffers are not ready for.
This is an interesting policy, since Web 2.0 and real time communications have played such a significant role in the Obama campaign.
According to Smith:
“They just told us flat out we couldn’t IM in the White House,” groused one senior staffer Friday.
“It sucks. It’s really going to slow us down,” complained another, saying that lawyers had warned that, along with instant messaging, White House software will restrict users to a range of sites roughly “like your average grade school.”
At the heart this debate is The Presidential Records Act, which requires White House documents to be made publicly available five years after a president leaves office. The White House will obviously be archiving its emails to comply. But why stop there? After all, in many ways IM is really just instant email. For more than seven years now, corporations have embraced the benefits of IM and solved the compliance issues around storing and retrieving its content.
In defense of the White House IT staff, even though IM seems like instant email to its users, its very different from a management standpoint. Instead of one email network under IT’s control, there are dozens of different IM networks in play where conversations occur in real time and involve any number of parties. It’s like solving a Rubics Cube as opposed to a flat picture puzzle – it can be done, but it’s a bit more complicated.
For example, a multi-party IM conversation can include numerous participants joining at different times, creating a requirement to make clear the context surrounding each participant’s understanding of the conversation. Who entered at what point, what did they hear and what did they say?
Or in terms that became familiar during the Watergate scandal, which was the catalyst for the adoption of the Presidential Records Retention Act, “Who knew what, and when?”
The technology exists to solve these problems, so my guess is that’s not all that’s behind the decision. IM conversations are by their nature casual, more like hallway conversations. So the fear is that if IM is archived, one day those walls will talk and the result may be embarrassing. Remember Mark Foley?
But Corporate America has dealt with this issue as well, and the White House could do the same. Employee education goes along way, along with proactive technology solutions like setting policies and real-time notifications to appear during their instant message conversations to let them know they are being monitored. If you tell the White House staffers they’re being monitored, I’m guessing they will use IM appropriately – no more or no less than they would with email. How often do you go over the speed limit when a Highway Patrol car is in the next lane?
Change. If anyone can do it, this administration can.