DOD seeks debate, youth on new Web 2.0 site
Stars and Stripes August 17, 2009
ARLINGTON, Va. — "The days when, I think, communications people try to control the message no matter what are gone."
Remember that quote, spoken by the Pentagon’s new head of public affairs on Thursday, as it is the spirit behind a new Defense Department Web site, defense.gov, designed to embrace the open, youth-driven, two-way participation of Web 2.0.
"Transparency, multiple voices being on your Web site, engagement, not one-way communication, dialogue — that’s the way to go," said Price Floyd, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, in an interview inside his E-ring office at the Pentagon.
Floyd said that when he learned that the predominant audience of most visitors to its central Web site for Defense Department information — defenselink.gov — was more than 50 years old, he decided it was time for a change.
"I was surprised by that," he said. "We need to reach a younger audience. The 18- to 24-, 25-year-old is an important audience for us for lots of reasons: it’s where recruits come from; it’s where our future leaders and national security policymakers come from."
He also wanted to offer the American public a Web site that had something for everyone.
"The DOD Web site needs to fit the needs of all its, for lack of a better word, clients," he said.
The new front page will have a feature allowing visitors to type any question for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. As those are submitted, they will be posted online and visitors can vote on which questions they want the secretary to answer. Gates will answer the top five on the site, according to Floyd.
"As long as there’s not inappropriate language, inflammatory language in the question," he said, though deciding what constitutes such content will be a trial-and-error process.
Still, anyone from around the world can post a question, Floyd says, military or civilian, American or foreigner. "Maybe it’s stop loss, maybe it’s the new GI Bill, or maybe it’s we’re relying too much on counterinsurgency and not enough ‘big Army,’" he said.
Gates welcomes the expected controversy that an open forum on the U.S. military’s main home page may bring.
"His quote back to me was, ‘I can’t imagine why that would be a problem.’ That kind of stuff on your Web site actually gives you credibility," said Floyd.
Other top officials such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or defense procurement officials may also be called on to speak to relevant topics. And the site will feature an online poll tracking what visitors feel is the most important issue of the day.
All of it is subject to change. Floyd said he will never consider the Web site content complete.
Floyd came to the Pentagon on a wave of personnel that has poured from the Center for New American Security, a left-leaning think tank that has populated the ranks of President Barack Obama’s defense, diplomacy and national security apparatuses. Floyd was the center’s chief spokesman. Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, the Pentagon’s chief policy official, co-founded the group and was its president.
Floyd said he’s following the lead of the new interactive features on the redesigned WhiteHouse.gov Web site ushered in by Obama’s team.
"We need to go to where those audiences are and communicate in the way they communicate. Twitter, Facebook, having widgets, blogs, podcast for things — all that stuff is there," on the new defense.gov Web site, Floyd said.
The Pentagon is close to releasing new rules for social networking use by servicemembers and department employees on military systems. Recent news reports have documented wide disparities in the rules for servicemembers in the U.S. and deployed downrange, and even between the services.
At the end of the month, the department’s chief information officer will hand recommendations for militarywide rules on social networking Web use in a report to Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, who is expected to make his recommendations to Gates for final approval.
"My guess is the plan will be balanced — that there will be an understanding of the benefits that these sites provide, as well as a recognition of threat and the need to mitigate against that threat," he said.
It also will give commanders leeway to deal with issues of broadband they may face individually — leaving open the likelihood that not everyone will face the same access to the Web sites.
"What I don’t imagine this policy being is a complete open door or a complete closed door. … I haven’t heard that from anyone as a real option."