Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Connect the Dots

Know what drives me crazy about the government? Finding the information and programs that could help me do what I want to do is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The web helps - conscientious web managers try to use terminology that I would use and link me to other government information on the same topic. But more often than not, I still have to spend a lot of time finding what I want. More important, if I don't know the right questions to ask or if the conscientious web manager has not provided a link to related services, I will miss out on programs that could benefit me.

Searches help, of course; and most government agencies are improving their search capabilities. But honestly - it can be just as frustrating to get 100 links in response to a search - which one(s) would be most beneficial to me? Where do I start? Most times, I check a couple and then give up. I'll bet I'm not alone.

What's the answer? There are two issues here:

1) finding everything (information, services, programs) on a topic or related to a topic and
2) getting some good advice about where to begin.

And it all comes down to this: how well do the web managers know me?

Well-written content - content that uses the words that citizens use, so that search engines can find it - is the answer to the first issue. The answer to the second issue lies in the ability of web managers to "connect the dots." Web managers have to have some knowledge about the subject matter, have to work across organizations to analyze information and services on the same/similar topics, and have to be willing to add value by using their judgment to say, "start here" or "these are the best sources of information." That's why we use the term "web manager" - it means making decisions, making hard calls, being real editors - even across organizations. Some web managers don't believe they have the authority to make those calls. But if they don't, then it leaves citizens in a sea of information, left alone to figure out which options are the best or where to begin.

With more than 24,000 federal government websites, and many more state and local websites, citizens need help. We need guides or scouts who know and understand us, to point us in the right direction. We can't count on search engines to show us the way. Yes - searches can give us the options available to us (hopefully). But we need web managers (human beings) to connect the dots, so we can get the full range of government services that we pay for.