Digital service? The White House itself needs work

The White House has been pushing agencies to improve digital services they deploy to the public. A good place to start would be the White House itself.

In attempting to obtain a presidential greeting for the retirement of a member of the clergy, I found out just how annoying and ultimately disappointing federal digital services can be. The White House website itself provided the example.

Presidential greetings come out of a factory-like setting. I doubt it’s even anywhere near the White House itself. You enter data, and if it meets certain criteria the greetings office generates a letter or certificate of some sort. Greetings have much in common with flags that have flown over the U.S. Capitol, which you obtain from individual congressional offices. Both the flags and presidential greetings result in pseudo-personalization. The President doesn’t know my rabbi and more than Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) knows the several newly-naturalized U.S. citizens to whom I’ve given flags over the years.

But these tchotckes matter to the recipients. Thirty years ago, I received a flag that flew over the Capitol. I hang it proudly on a nice flag pole every Flag Day and Fourth of July. Later, I received a presidential greeting on a “retirement” — which was actually a career change. Notwithstanding my George W. Bush greeting came out of a machine along with 10,000 others that day, you can bet I framed it and hung it on the wall. It has my name and the President’s genuine auto-pen signature.

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The flag process still requires paper and postage. Flags don’t come for a month or so because, I’m guessing, the crew on the roof of the Capitol can only hoist so many flags up and down the flagpole in a given day.

About the White House online:

Problem one: Finding how to request a greeting. The White House website has become such a massive propaganda outlet I gave up and used the search function. Luckily, entering “greetings” in the search box yielded the right link at the top of the list.

Problem two: Confusion. At WhiteHouse.gov, you enter the information into a form with required information on the requester, the greetee and where you want it sent. At first it seemed easy and straightforward. I like that the dialogue and the type were nice and big. But soon, a point of confusion: There’s a checkbox asking whether you want it sent “in care of.” I want the greeting sent to me so I can make an eventual presentation. But the checkbox labeling was so ambiguous I couldn’t tell whether to check it or not. The average commercial site makes it easy to choose a shipping address or if you want something packaged as a gift.

Problem three: Incompleteness. The site has a nice selection of greeting types. Among them, faith leader anniversary and faith leader retirement. That fit the bill. But uh oh, when you go to select the “prefix” — the correct word is salutation — the only choices are Dr. Mr., Ms.,  Mrs., and The Reverend. No Father, Brother, Sister, Monsignor, Rabbi or Imam. And no “other, please specify” option. Bad, bad, bad. Kids at the White House: check out emilypost.com. In the “comments” box I asked whether other salutations were available or even possible.

Problem four: Crappy Captcha. A Captcha deal required three tries before it would acknowledge my correct answer.

Problem five: No feedback. When I finally submitted my request, it was unclear to me whether it had taken effect. I never received an email acknowledgement, nor an answer to my question about salutation. You can’t call the White House to ask about a request. You can listen to a long recorded instructional message, but not actually connect with anyone.

So, basically on all counts, this little corner of the White House’s piece of digital government disappoints. Its only function is to spit out customized form letters. I nominate this one as the next project for the GSA’s 18F crew.

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