Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Government web managers are struggling to keep the balance of “mission” and “message” on their websites. Public affairs shops understandably want to use the web to promote the initiatives and successes of the agency. But citizens really come to government websites to find the services they offer. Web managers are challenged to make sure all of those needs are addressed.

Maybe a new website is the answer. I know - I'm one who complains about too many websites. But maybe - by creating just one more - we could eliminate the need for new websites for every new initiative. Maybe we should create: USANews.gov.

USANews.gov could hold the news releases from all agencies, sorted by agency and topic. It would be similar in concept to USAJobs, which holds all government vacancy announcements.

There are a number of advantages to having a single news website:

  • Political leaders and agency public affairs offices could promote one single web source for all government news, instead of promoting an array of separate news websites.
  • News agencies and citizens would have one place to find all current government news.
  • Citizens and reporters could search all current news by topic, easily.
  • By removing news items from the agency websites (particularly, home pages), agency web managers could use that prized front page space to feature services that the agency provides for citizens. A link will get visitors to agency news on USANews (just as we currently link to agency job announcements on USAJobs).
  • Public affairs offices could post news releases directly to USANews. For some agencies, that could eliminate steps and get news posted more quickly.

USANews could be owned by the White House or OMB or it could be an interagency portal, run by a council of public affairs officers.

USAJobs is a good example of the value of putting common information on a single website. USANews could be a real plus for the government and for the public.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Transition: An Opportunity Or A Sentence?

In 2008, America will have another Presidential election. In January 2009, a new administration will begin to move into Federal buildings across Washington DC and beyond. Those new political officials will know a lot about the web. They will have used websites to solicit contributions and votes, and they will know the power of the web at reaching a wide audience. Will government web managers use this transition as an opportunity to effect needed changes in web management across government? Or will they become victims of web-savvy political bosses who have their own ideas about how to use public websites?

Internet use became ubiquitous during the Clinton administration. In those years, government web managers were pretty much left alone because political executives were just getting acquainted with the notion of websites and direct contact with the public. When the Bush administration came onboard, many government web managers were caught by surprise. They didn’t anticipate new political bosses who were beginning to see that websites could be used to promote their message. In many agencies, the new executives jumped right on the websites, sending web managers scrambling to redesign their websites to give the new administration its own look. They began to confront the issue of propriety, as they were asked – and in some cases, instructed – to pull down all references to the prior administration. In many cases, government websites were “hijacked” by enterprising public affairs offices, turning the front pages into newspapers and positioning photos of political executives in prominent places, to promote individuals’ careers.

So the question is this: did we learn anything? Will government web managers use the coming transition as an opportunity to come together and develop a strategy that anticipates new political bosses who will have even more sophisticated views on using government websites? Or will we allow ourselves to become victims – again?

We need to resolve a number of important web management issues governmentwide:

  • Governance structures – where should the web team be located? How should web management be institutionalized? What common rules of the game should be implemented everywhere?
  • Web Manager job classification It’s high time that there is a standard job series and appropriate grade structure for government web managers. What can we do to cause that to happen?
  • Reducing the number of government websites – 24,000+ is ridiculous. They’re expensive, and they don’t serve citizens well. Gerry McGovern wrote a great piece on how people react when they have too many options. How can we start the process of downsizing?
  • “Message” versus “mission” – nearly every government web manager I know has complained about this problem. Citizens don’t use government websites to read the news. They use government websites to use the public services they pay for with their tax dollars. How can we keep the focus on mission?

There are others. The point is, what are government web managers going to do about them?

The government web manager community has come a long way. The fact that there IS a community is a huge step in the right direction. The Web Content Managers Forum doubled in size from February 2005 - December 2005 (from 500 to 1,000). That's terrific. Now is the time for that community to band together to come up with a strategy for the next transition. They need to be ready to go with a process for working with the new administration to implement solutions to governmentwide problems.

Government Web Managers: you have 3 years – and it will take that long to come up with a thoughtful strategy and to get everyone onboard and educated on his/her roles in implementing it. Make transition an opportunity. Because if you don’t, it could be a sentence.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

9 Questions Every Web Manager Needs to Ask…

…Once a month

  1. What have I done to make a significant improvement to the content of the website? Yes, you’re too busy to start anything new. But if not you – then who? You have to keep your head up, looking for new content opportunities. You are the leader, and leaders are constantly scanning the horizon for the next steps. Don’t put it off. Make something happen to improve the content of your website every single month.
  2. What have I done that I personally love to do? There's a lot of "junk" in every web manager's life. If you’re going to keep your sanity for the long haul, you have got to find one thing that you love to do; and make time to do it. Every month. If you like to write, then make time to write. If you like to play with stats, make time to do that. Be good to yourself. Make time to do something you love – so you can keep slogging through the stuff you don’t.
  3. What have I done to contribute to the web managers community? Government web managers work best when they work together. To work together, you have to know one another. Your peers will help you when you need answers, cheer you when you get low, and celebrate with you when you succeed. Get to know them. Help them. Join in a monthly Forum call. Send a message to the listserv about something good that’s going on. Spark a conversation. Volunteer to work on one of the Advisory Council projects. Tell a colleague about webcontent.gov. Do something to help your community – and yourself.

…Once a week

  1. Who did I talk to that I hadn’t talked to for awhile? Web managers have to keep stirring the pot - planting seeds and nurturing them. So have you talked to that executive you met in the hall last month, mentioning something about a new web page? Have you followed up with that web coordinator in the field office, who wanted to do an outreach effort to market the website? Have you talked with that colleague at another agency about working together to merge content on a single issue? To be successful, you have to be an entrepreneur. Work those rol-a-dexes!
  2. Did I give clear direction to my web organization? Your web team – both those who work for you and those who work with you – depends on you to keep them pointed in the right direction. You have to do that every single week (and in some cases, maybe every single day!). Have you updated them on the week’s developments? Have you asked them about problems they’ve encountered? Have you shared new information that could impact them, now or in the future? Have you explained changes in priorities? Never ever assume they know by osmosis – it’s your job to keep them on the path toward achieving your strategic goals. Talk to them. Every week.
  3. What did I see on another website that could work on mine? I know – you are the most brilliant web manager in the world and you don’t need to steal ideas from anyone- right? Wrong. The web has grown and progressed largely because web managers have taken ideas from others and made them better. So every single week, take some time (even a few minutes) to surf the web. Look at other government sites. Look at sites of big corporations. Look at college kids’ websites – they often try great new things on a shoestring. Go to webcontent.gov and click on a few links. Spend at least a little time looking around for something you can use.

…Once a day

  1. Have I done what I promised? Come on – you know it drives you crazy when you’re counting on someone to finish something that you need, and they don't. Well, it works both ways. So every day, check on your commitments and make sure you keep them. If you can’t deliver on time, at least give notice. Don’t be the obstacle to progress.
  2. Have I elevated any issues that could bite my bosses? Web managers touch many problems every day; and it can be challenging to keep things moving, without letting issues fall between the cracks. Timing can be critical. If you fail to tell your boss or another executive about an issue in a timely way, it can blow up. So do a daily check – did you lob all the balls into the proper courts?
  3. Who do I need to thank? This is just so important. Web Managers have to count on the contributions of many, many people throughout the organization – and beyond – to succeed. Most of them are not your employees. Bullying may work. But creating good will is oh-so-much better. It really is essential to getting them to do what you want them to do. Take time to send that little thank-you email to the techie who posted the emergency change this morning or that program staffer who did such a great job answering a touchy webmail inquiry or that executive who cut through some red tape for you or that office director who hosted a training session for you. It doesn’t take much time to give an “attaboy” – and it will pay off big time, over the long run. People help you every single day – remember that. Take the time to say “thanks” and “well done.”

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Bring Government Home

Someone asked me recently to describe the single most important thing we did when I was HUD’s Web Manager. Several accomplishments came to mind:
  • From the beginning, adopting the philosophy that HUD has ONE website, so we avoided the proliferation of websites that other agencies suffer;
  • Deciding early on to go to a standard template Departmentwide. That WAS a biggie and helped in all sorts of ways; and
  • Forming the Departmentwide task force in 2000 - involving managers and staff across the agency - to decide how to institutionalize web management at HUD.

But I think the most important thing we did in my 10 years as Web Manager was find a way to give citizens that local connection to HUD and to other housing and community resources in their area.

For years, people we talked to in focus groups, at web clinics, and in webmail told us that - sure - they wanted to know how to buy a home. But what they really wanted to know was how to buy a home in the state where they live or want to live. We had good solid generic information on HUD’s website. But our local information was spotty.

In the early days, our local information was written by HUD staff in our 80 field offices, who basically volunteered to help in their spare time. We provided a standard outline for them to follow, but the quantity and quality of the content varied from place to place. The real problem is that it was organized by office jurisdiction (in some states, there were as many as 5 HUD offices!) – not by geographical divisions that citizens were most familiar with, like "states" or "cities" or "counties." Worse, we really didn’t have good control over what those local web volunteers were publishing; so often it was redundant and occasionally it was inaccurate.

One of the recommendations of the 2000 Web Management Task Force was to create full-time web managers throughout HUD, to write and manage web content. The task force wanted HUD to identify the knowledge, abilities, and skills that a good web manager needs and hire people with those skills. Further, the task force saw the value in dedicating full-time resources to this important task. And good news! We actually implemented that recommendation - at least in the field.

Ten regional web managers came onboard in late 2001 - people who are qualified writers/editors and management analysts who live and work across the country. The regional web managers went to work - starting from scratch – to put together standard content that would connect citizens to the local resources they need to accomplish their objectives and solve their problems. They organized the content by state – not by HUD office jurisdictions - because they knew that would make more sense to citizens. They went out and marketed the product, both by doing extensive staff training and by attending events and handing out promotional materials to tell people what was available.

The response was overwhelming. The new state pages went up in September 2002; and from that very first month, “local information” is the second most visited section of the website, after the front page. Now, citizens can go to HUD's national pages and read the generic “how to’s” and then proceed to the state pages to find out "where" they can get help locally. They can read good stories and see photos of people in their own communities who have used government programs – federal, state, and local – to fulfill their dreams for housing or to strengthen their communities. It brings government home to them.

There are a few federal agencies, besides, HUD that are out there making the local connection. EPA is one that has done a good job. But it’s a concept that needs to be embraced across government, both horizontally and vertically. Partnerships with state and local governments need to be established, so citizens can see the full array of their local options from all government levels. It’s what citizens want, it helps “connect the dots,” and it’s the right thing to do.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Strategic Planning Is Common Sense

Good web managers spend time every week thinking about their strategies. The Internet changes every day, and you have to be re-evaluating all the pieces, all the possibilities, all the priorities constantly and be ready to make changes.

Strategic planning isn't rocket science. It’s common sense. A good web management plan has 4 major parts:

  • Content
  • Technology/delivery systems
  • Organization
  • Management

Content: Planning web content has to be number one in the strategic plan. It drives everything else you do. What do people want when they come to your site? Do you know? Do they get it? What can you do to connect the dots - within the agency; among federal programs; and among federal, state, and local programs? How can you create continuums – present logical sequences of tasks, events, and information? How can you “package the goods,” anticipating what the reader wants and what they may need next. Where are the voids in your content, and what can you do fill those voids? What could you do to create opportunities for citizens to be involved in their government (government of and by the people - not just for the people)? How can you control the content, to make sure good content doesn't get overwhelmed by "junk?" What can you do to clean up, consolidate, prune, improve the writing on your site? How can you improve customer service?

Technology/delivery systems: Look at the way your customers use your content, both now and in the future; and be prepared to deliver it to them in as many ways as they want. If you're investing in a content management system, find one capable of feeding all forms of content delivery: Internet, intranet, kiosks, PDAs, call centers, faxes, and new technologies that may come down the pike. Think ahead. And be sure to make use of current technologies in new ways: real time chats, virtual teams, intelligent searches, knowledge bases, etc.

Organization: How do you need to be organized to manage your website and achieve your goals? As web capabilities and customer needs change, the organization needs to adapt. What knowledges, skills, and abilities do you need to be successful, and what is the most efficient and effective way to add those KSAs to your organization? Do you need additional full-time content management positions? Do you need training programs? Do you need new or different contract support? Do you need to do something new to improve your customer service through marketing, outreach, usability, e-mail? Staff resources don't grow on trees, so are there people in the agency that you could enlist to help you, without creating new jobs?

Management: What are your goals and objectives for managing the web, and how are you measuring their achievement? How are you ensuring that your organization gets appropriate return on investment? Do you have adequate management controls over your web content and management? This is so important. How do control who posts? How do you make sure content is current? How do you ensure quality of your product?

Make sure your strategic plan addresses each of these four areas. Do reality checks regularly. Don’t be afraid to make changes – even radical changes – when new information or new capabilities present themselves. Above all – make sure everyone in your agency knows what your plans are, so they’re on the same page and can work with you toward achievement of your plan.

Strategic planning isn't rocket science. Just use common sense. George Bernard Shaw said, "Common sense is instinct…enough of it is genius.” Apply your common sense to your strategic plan, and you’ll look like a genius!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Are "Best Practices" Right Practices?

I see the term “best practices” used widely, and I wonder what that term means. “Best” according to whom? “Best” relative to what? Does “best” also mean “right?” Or does it just mean that this is the most common practice or the best of what exists? I think that term is used to glibly.

“Best” implies that someone evaluated a group of practices and decided that one of them was the best of the group. If that's not the case - if there was no evaluation of the full array of practices, performed by one or more experts in the subject matter, based on objective criteria - then we shouldn’t be using the term “best.”

But my greater concern is that many people interpret “best practice” as the right thing to do. That may or may not be the case. Best practices normally are the best of what exists. It’s entirely possible that none of the current options really is the right practice to address the goal or problem.

When it comes to web content management practices, I think we should be on a quest for “right practices” and not just comfortable with accepting the best of what is.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Why Don’t Government Web Managers Have Their Own Job Series?

Government websites have been around nearly 11 years now. But there still is no OPM-defined job description or job series for web managers. Why is that? Can you imagine any other job that could exist across government for 11 years without a defined job description and series? How can you create good training programs and do succession planning with no standard job description?

I’m guessing there are at least three reasons for this phenomenon.

  • First, government websites have been done at the grass roots level. In many cases, websites sprung up from enterprising staffers rather than from management mandate. Managers weren’t really focused on or interested in who was running the sites as long as what they wanted got “put up.”
  • Second, it took a few years to shake out the knowledges, skills, and abilities needed of a good web manager. At first, there was the struggle between the techies who started the sites and the writers who realized that someone had to get in there and edit that junk so the agency wouldn’t be embarrassed. That actually got sorted out fairly quickly, relatively speaking. Within about 3 years, web managers were moving into public affairs or communications or policy shops, away from the CIOs. But we still didn’t have a standard job description.
  • Third, we who were web managers were leery about having someone from OPM or the CIO Council decide what we do, when we were pretty sure they didn’t know what we do. The Web Content Managers Forum drafted a prototype Web Manager position description (PD) nearly 5 years ago. It was a pretty good one, at that, rooted in writing, editing, analysis, and communications. But when we talked with OPM about it, they wanted to put it into a tech series. We knew that would be the kiss of doom, so we backed off.

I think the time has come to bite the bullet, get the issues out on the table, and pin down this job. Government web management can’t move into adulthood until “web managers” are recognized as the unique jobs they are. This is particularly important now, as some agencies are looking at web management as a target for potential A-76 studies. It's time to separate the commerical technical duties from those that are inherently governmental. To be sure, there are risks involved in pushing this issue. Some agencies will have to change their PDs and grades. Overall governance issues will come to the front, and there may be ongoing struggles between Public Affairs, CIOs, and others over control of the agencies websites and associated web management functions. But it’s time. Skilled Web Managers are – and will be – critical to achieving the mission of agencies, as more and more work is done through the web. They need to have the right skills, the right grades, and the right legitimacy in the management structure.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

It's All About the Content

When we had web manager meetings at HUD, we tried to take the web managers out into the local community to see – first-hand – how HUD touches communities. At one outing, we were visiting a hospital that had been converted into senior citizen apartments, in Harlem. Our guide took us down to the basement, where they’d set up a computer lab. He said that residents were having a ball, scanning in their family photos and emailing them all over the country. That prompted our question: do low income folks in this area have internet access? Is that a problem? His answer surprised us. He said that internet access isn’t the problem. Between libraries, schools, community centers, and other public venues, they have access. “The problem,” he said, “is what they find when they get on the web. It’s the content. It’s not written in terms they understand, it’s not organized in ways that makes sense to them, and it’s too flashy and glitzy. That’s why they don’t use the internet.”

It’s all about the content, folks.

Stop the Proliferation of Federal Websites

FirstGov spiders more than 24,000 federal public websites; and major search engines say they spider more than 180 million government web pages, including federal, state, and local. How can citizens find what they want and need in that jungle? It's like dumping them off at a shopping mall with 24,000+ stores and saying "good luck!" when what they need is a Costco - maybe not every brand imaginable, but at least a couple of the best options for each kind of product, all in one place.

As I watched the news broadcasts on the hurricane Katrina disaster, last summer, I saw officials across government end their remarks with, “visit our website at
www.xyz.gov.” I lost count of the different websites the public was told to visit. And – sadly – I don’t think I heard a single government official direct the public to FirstGov, the website that should be the front door to government information.

Putting up a new website for every program, initiative, and disaster is not helpful - especially since many of these sites are abandoned quickly, leaving behind outdated content that still turns up in searches. It’s a shotgun approach that misses more than it hits; and it is costly.

The other consequence of this proliferation of websites is that we now have thousands and thousands of pages that web managers can’t maintain. Agencies simply don’t have the horses to keep up with all that content. But the public doesn’t know that. They think if they visit a .gov website, they’ll find current and accurate information.

OMB or Congress needs to force some discipline on agencies to work together to collaborate and consolidate, to eliminate duplication, and to turn FirstGov into that warehouse store where citizens could find all the basics in one place (and only have to remember one website address).

Monday, January 09, 2006

Measuring Website Performance

Measuring performance of government websites is a complex issue. Many web managers look at usability testing and customer satisfaction scores as significant measures of website performance. Indeed, they do measure how effective your website is. But is that really the measure we should be looking for? From a budget point of view, it seems to me that we have to look for ways to quantify how the website helps the agency further its mission. It’s entirely possible to have a website that people like and that they can use, but it doesn’t advance the mission of the agency. Is that really money well-spent? The problem is: how do you get that data? HUD’s mission is to increase homeownership and affordable housing and strengthen communities. The problem is that we never could find a good way to show that people were buying homes or finding affordable housing, because of the website.

Gerry McGovern, who spoke at our government Web Manager Workshop in the spring of 2005, pointed us to measuring completion of tasks. Are website visitors able to complete the tasks they want to complete? I like this idea because it really focuses on the bottom line of any website: do you have the right content?

I still have this nagging concern, though. In all these measures – what is the impact of reader’s expectations? I remember getting a message from an outraged website visitor just last summer. He had come to our website to find a foreclosed home in his area, and we had no foreclosures available in his area at that time. His reaction was, “I’ve seen ads that the government has thousands of foreclosed homes for sale, and you don’t have a single one listed in my area. Bad website!” He completed the task – he was able to find and search the listings. But he wasn’t satisfied with the outcome; therefore, he wasn’t satisfied with the website. I don’t think he’s an exception – I think expectations play a big role.

The bottom line – the reason we measure websites at all - is this: is the agency/are taxpayers getting adequate return on investment? Maybe it depends on where you sit. Take the case of the guy who couldn’t find a foreclosure listing. From the agency’s point of view, he was successful. He found the information and was able to use it, without having to draw on more expensive human resources. From his point of view, the experience was not a success. He didn’t feel he was well-served. Does the latter trump the former? Does the former trump the latter?

Hmm…what are we really trying to measure?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Got a Problem? Shine the Light On It

Someone asked me recently what to do about two managers who were competing to put the same content on the website. Apparently, they’ve lost sight of the fact that they work for the same organization. One technique I’ve used in the past – when I encountered a problem that I lacked the authority to solve – is to shine the light on the problem. Feature the topic with links to the content created by each manager. Stay positive – “isn’t this great – we have all this information about this topic” and point it out to your bosses. Often, bringing a problem to light is all it takes to cause action.

Proceed Until Apprehended!

Those of you who know me know that “proceed until apprehended” was one of my favorite expressions. Someone asked me where that came from. I wish I could claim credit for coming up with it – I can’t. The saying came out of a HUD web manager meeting in Indianapolis, back in 1996. It was the first gathering of all the web volunteers from every HUD office; and I spent most of the two days briefing the hundred or so HUD staff there on where we were and where we were going. On the second day, we broke up into small groups and talked about plans for the future. At the end of one group’s report, they offered a motto for the web management organization: “proceed until apprehended.” I thought it was exactly right – a good description of the grass roots efforts that had – and would – be the heart of HUD’s web efforts. And a great reminder of our responsibility to those we serve.

Web managers often have to lead the organization into uncharted territory. They have to be pioneers. They have to try things that haven’t been tried before and think about service in new ways. Hopefully, they chart their courses based on doing the right thing for citizens. I always found that, if I based my strategies on doing the right thing for Americans…if I remembered that citizens counted on me to be their advocate and to give them the best information and services we could offer, then I would be on sure footing. Being a web manager takes courage – courage to proceed until apprehended.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


I wonder what the next big revolution in government will be, due to the internet? It already has caused governments to come face-to-face with citizens. It has raised citizens' expectations of government. Citizens no longer are delighted and surprised to find government information and services online – they expect it. They demand it. So I wonder…will they want to become part of it? Can e-governance be far behind?

I am a baby boomer, and – like other baby boomers – I believe what my parents told me: that we are the best and brightest generation (written with a big smile and tongue in cheek). We are beginning to retire; and because we live longer now, we could have as much as a third of our lives in front of us. We want to lead productive lives. We believe we have knowledge and ideas that can be valuable. We are going to look for ways to be heard and to be involved. I think we’ll look to the internet to make that happen.

Governments should find meaningful ways to let citizens participate through the internet. It really is the right thing to do. Through the internet, citizens could get involved in virtual teams and online discussion that define and solve problems. It will mean a new way of thinking. It will mean sharing power. But the Internet has opened a door to government that won’t be closed. Citizens want to participate. Citizens want to contribute. Citizens have knowledge and expertise and wisdom that could help. The web offers an opportunity to harness that energy and commitment and use it for the good of all. That’s government of and by the people – not just for the people.

History of the Web Content Managers Forum

In the early years of federal government websites, most of us were lonely pioneers. We were making it up as we went, and each of us felt so “out there.” Believe it or not, it was really hard to find our colleagues. Many “webmasters” were really focused on the technical side of the sites. Finding the people who worked on the content side often was next to impossible.

Tired of this isolation, we convened the first meeting of the Web Content Managers Forum back on October 31, 2000. The HUD Web Team called around to all the Cabinet level agencies to try to find out who worked on content, and we sent out an open invitation. We had 27 people at that first meeting in a HUD conference room...those Forum "pioneers" included Doug Green, Barbara Black, Lori Davis, Mark Asfaw, Phil Cogan, Tina Kelley, Jean O'Donoghue, Gina Pearson, Phyllis Preston, Judi Maguire, Jacques Kapuscinski, Michael Compher, Eileen Gibson, Angela Washington, Diane Bernier, Ken Thomas, Mary Jo Lazun, Deborah Burris, Sam Gallagher, Cindy O'Connor, Letha Strothers, Bill Bacon, Ted Albers, Cindy Newberry, Lynda Folwick, Eleanor Sullivan, and me (Candi Harrison). We were just so darned glad to find one another - we had so much to talk about...so much information to exchange. We decided to meet monthly and set up a listserv to keep in touch in between.

At that first meeting, we identified a number of topics that we wanted to discuss:

  1. How will the upcoming transition impact our web operations, and what do we need to do to prepare for it?
  2. Where do we think the federal government web presence is headed? Will we always have individual agency sites? Will there one day be a large database of federal info, accessed through a grandchild of Firstgov.gov? Is there anything we can/should do to shape this direction?
  3. How are agencies dealing with implementing metatags?
  4. Are agencies using content management software and, if so, what works?
  5. How are agencies using stats management software to manage/improve their websites?
  6. How are agencies dealing with requirements for providing information in Spanish?
  7. How can we create customizable web sites (which is good for the audience) while satisfying privacy concerns?
  8. How do you organize content so it's useful to customers (audience-focused), while keeping your organizations happy?
  9. Who has a budget? How should content management be funded?
  10. How do you deal with e-mail coming into the web site?
  11. How do you manage FOIA pages?
  12. How do you market a web site?
  13. How can we use webcasting to enhance our web sites and improve delivery of information to our audiences?
  14. How can we work together better to make sure we're helping citizens get to information at other agencies that relates to our own?

Our monthly meetings remained fairly small for the first couple of years - normally 15-20 people. The listserv hovered around 150. Leadership was informal. Whoever volunteered to host a meeting chaired that meeting. After the first year, I stepped aside; and Gina Pearson and Bev Godwin kept things going. That changed at the end of 2003, when OMB announced it was going to set up the ICGI to recommend policies for federal public websites.

As the Web Content Management Working Group (now the "Advisory Council") got cranked up, we started using the Forum to vet ideas and recommendations. More and more web managers joined the listserv to be part of the process. Then we started doing the monthly Forum meetings via conference call - so we could include web managers all over the country. And we began engaging state and local government web managers, as well federal web managers. At the end of 2005, there were more than 1000 federal, state, and local government web content managers on the listserv and -routinely – 75-100 people on the monthly conference calls.

The web content management community has come a very long way. Though it still lacks a strong political advocate at the highest levels, the community has recognized the power of banding together. The coordinated hurricane Katrina response was testimony to the importance of this network. Web managers simply stepped up, reached out for colleagues through the Forum, and got the job done. It was grass roots action at its best.

The Web Content Managers Forum links government web content managers. And as we’ve discovered - web managers serve best when they serve together.

Titles of Government Websites

While branding is important – and usability studies seem to show that having an agency’s name featured on the website lends credibility - I still think that the name of a site should reflect what the site is about – not who is sponsoring it. At HUD, we changed the name of the website from “U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development” to “Homes and Communities” very early on (I think it was 1996). It was a very conscious decision, reflecting the fact that HUD's website would NOT be about HUD - it would be about homes and communities. People expect the title of a book to reflect what the book will be about. We decided to call HUD’s website "homes and communities" because that's what the site is about. The Department's name is prominently placed right under the title. If the title of the page were "HUD," people would expect to find out only about HUD. We wanted to be broader - not about the agency, but about our mission: homes and communities.

If we want to communicate to citizens that they don't have to know the organizational structure of government in order to find what they need, isn't it a subtle - but important - message to title our websites with words depicting what we do, rather than our organization names?

Serving Citizens Online

An interesting note from August 17, 2000...

We've been out doing a lot of little focus groups, and one thing we've learned is that you can't just put the services on the web site. You need to educate the audience - explain to them how to use them.

Here's a good example. We have Community Plans posted on our web site. The point is for citizens to take a look at the plans and then send an e-mail to their local government to tell them what they think. Well - we need to say that to them. It's not always obvious to them how to use the services we provide. We're working on a redesign of our web site now that will include a new section called "at your service." It's going to be a list - right on the front page - of things you can do with the information on our web site. So I think a site needs to find ways to help the audience know how to use all this info.

I think that there are three big issues facing us:

1. How much information is too much? How do we consolidate, remove duplication, streamline information so it's not so overwhelming - not only within federal web sites, but among them?
2. How do we get managers to value creating services for citizens? Right now, managers get rewarded for saving money. How can we reward them for improving service to citizens?
3. How do we get agencies to struggle with the issues surrounding eliminating the middlemen? More and more, I hear from citizens who want to know why they have to go through a real estate broker to put in a bid on their HUD home or why they have to go through a city to get a piece of the block grant money for an improvement to their neighborhood. As the internet gives citizens more and more direct access to the government, I think we're going to have to face the fact that citizens also want direct access to our services – not access via a middleman. These will be very tough issues to resolve.

I think that if we are to be relevant not only to citizens today, but to those Gen Xers coming on strong, we have to start defining our accomplishments in terms of improved service to citizens. So, for example, instead of saying "hey - FHA connection is processing 200,000 loan transactions a day," we need to say, "hey – citizens now get an FHA loan approved in 3 days instead of 20."

Contracting Out Web Manager Duties

In 2004-2005, some federal agencies were looking at web management as a possible commercial activity that could/should be contracted out or at least reviewed under the A-76 program.

It looks as though the kinds of functions that A-76 coordinators really are looking for are the tech functions: coding, posting, design (the actual computer programming involved in design - not the requirements part), and development. Certainly, it is true that those kinds of things can - and are - being done by the private sector pretty successfully.What they're missing is that "content managers" don't necessarily perform those functions.

When I worked at HUD, for example, all tech support for the Departmental Web Team and the Regional Web Managers was contracted out. It varied in our Headquarters program offices. Some have contractor support. Some have support from federal employees who do the coding and posting. Some of the Headquarters program office web managers do both content management and the technical work.I think that some of these folks who want to put web management on the A-76 list miss the point that content managers perform editorial (decision-making) duties that really shouldn't be contracted out.

When I was at HUD, the web managers really were the "editors in chief" of HUD's websites - we actually decided what's going on the website...what those words are and how they're organized. Though content can come from anywhere in the organization and it must go through appropriate approvals, the actual words that appear on the page are subject to our editing. That's part of our jobs. We select and train web managers for those skills. We make decisions about what can and can't go on the website. There have been times when we've decided not to post something because we felt it wasn't appropriate or because we didn't think it was something our audiences wanted. Further, how we write/edit content has a big impact on how readers understand HUD's policies and programs. In effect, we "interpret policy." It's been awhile since I went through A-76 training, but if memory serves me correctly, only federal employees can interpret policy. I don't think this is a stretch - I think it's a fact that the person(s) who decides the words that go on the page has a huge impact on how the audience perceives the facts.

I don't think a newspaper would consider contracting out its editor-in-chief duties. So if government web content managers can build the case that they are "editors-in-chief" of their websites - decision makers and policy interpreters - then it would be difficult to contract out those duties. Food for thought.

Where Are We Going?

A message I sent to the Web Content Managers Forum on 8/18/05

What if we had a new construct for government websites? Maybe we need two kinds of government websites: one is a government library, where we put everything, date it as we post it, create some good metadata so we can manage it, and tell folks we'll update as we can but make no promises. It serves double duty as our "web records." It plays to our philosophy that if it can be public, post it. It will help librarians and researchers. It will be vast. It will have every esoteric piece of government information we can find.

Then we have a single much, much smaller government services website - maybe it's a future version or extension of Firstgov. I think what people want is a guide - here are the 10 most used services related to housing or food or education...here's how you get them...here are the questions to ask...here's who you can talk to. Part of the problem in the past is that we've tried to throw everything at them. Or we link all over the place, with no context. Want to know more? Here - visit these 10 links and figure it out for yourself.

We pull the 1% of content that 99% of our visitors to our various websites use (thank you, Gerry McGovern!) and weave that together with some short segues, some real-time support, etc. We focus on citizen services (tasks they can accomplish), organized by topic. We vow to keep that current. We get the plain language folks involved - tell them to be aggressive in editing whatever goes on this site so it's good content. We use XML or some other technology so that the responsible agencies can keep the narrative current, but it appears on a page as text - not links. Heck - maybe we go out to the Industry Council and tell them what we want to do and challenge them to come up with new technology to help us. And we start moving away from 24,000+ separate websites.

Maybe we even marry up with USA Services and all the call-center efforts - put those folks online, as well as on the phone. Wouldn't it be great if a citizen could come to Firstgov at midnight and "talk" to a real person about the health service question or the transportation question that's been bothering him/her? If we could pick out 10 or fewer topics that are important to all Americans - housing, health, food, work, family, safety, transportation - and provide a good, simple, easy to use guide - wouldn't that be great? Wouldn't that be the right thing to do?

Maybe we could start by picking off one topic, figure out how to do things differently - so we really HELP Americans find the most used services from the govt...and then use that as a model - or at least as a lesson learned.

I know, I know...there are those who are shaking their heads and saying, "yeah, this sounds good...but just how will we do it?" So I will end with a great quote from one of my favorite bosses: If you don't know where you're going, it doesn't matter how you get there.

Where are we going?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Working Best When Working Together

(Excerpt from my message to Karen Evans, head of E-Government at OMB, on 9/16/05)

When Katrina struck, many of our individual agencies went into panic mode - what can we put on the web? Let's throw up everything we can think of to support this relief effort. Never mind that it doesn't make any sense for 6 agencies to post information about mold, when people are still trying to find their loved ones.

But then, an amazing thing happened - something that couldn't have happened 2 years ago. The web managers from Homeland Security and EPA and Firstgov and CDC and HHS and FEMA and HUD and several other agencies got on the phone and said "let's stop this madness and get organized. Let's consolidate all our info, put it into categories ("lanes") that make sense to citizens, and all agree to use the same terms and do it the same way on all our websites." Everyone checked their egos at the door and proceeded to make this as unified and simple for citizens as possible.

Why could this happen now and not before? Because of the Web Managers Advisory Council (formerly the ICGI Web Content Management Working Group) and the Web Content Managers Forum. Now, we have an infrastructure - specific web content contact points at each agency who know each other and a listserv that connects us across agencies, across levels of government (yes - we have state and local governments involved, too), and across the country. It has been an amazing success story.

In the past year and a half, the government web content managers community has banded together and is growing. We have embraced the fact that we all serve best if we serve together. Who are these people? We are the folks who put the words on the page and organize the content and do the marketing and work on portals and stir the pot in our agencies to get managers to use the web to serve citizens. Most of us are under the Public Affairs umbrella. Some of us are in policy shops or - as in HUD's case - in the departmental management office. We work hand in hand with the CIOs, but we are the "other side" of website management.

This group is doing exactly what was envisioned in OMB A-130 - crossing boundaries, sharing information, trying to reduce or mitigate duplication. We are trying to find better ways to combine information across agencies, to make it easier for citizens to get what they need. We worry about these facts: FirstGov spiders more than 24,000 federal public websites and Google says they spider more than 180 million government web pages, including federal, state, and local. How can citizens find what they want and need in that jungle? It's like dumping them off at a shopping mall with 24,000+ stores and saying "good luck!" when what they need is a Costco - maybe not every brand imaginable, but at least a couple of the best options for each kind of product, all in one place.

We have made amazing progress in a very short time. The impetus was the ICGI effort. But from there, the Advisory Council (40 members strong, from every Cabinet level agency plus independents, from HQ and Field) and the Web Content Managers Forum (a 5-year old 1,000 member listserv group that meets monthly - via conference calls - around web content issues) have soared.

So why am I telling you this? Because I think we need to be connected. The CIOs have a Council that connects them to you. Our connection is much more loose. We have gravitated toward making FirstGov our center, partly because Bev Godwin has been an advocate, a sponsor, and a leader and partly because - as the front door to the Federal government, it is the right thing to do to make FirstGov the center. But it would be great if we had a stronger link to you. We are all trying to achieve the same goal: to serve citizens online.

It would be great if we could have some sort of ongoing relationship with you so we can tell you what we see and know and so you can tell us how we can help you. There are a couple of ways we could do that. You could "appear" on our Forum calls - we normally have 100+ web managers across the country on these monthly calls - a couple of times a year to let us know what's going on with you. Or we could do a briefing for you every quarter or so, either in person or via email. And of course, you always can keep up with what we're doing on our website: www.webcontent.gov.

Whatever you decide, I wanted you to know that this group is moving on, doing our best to do right things for the American people through our community and our websites. We share your goals, and we'd love to find other ways to work with you toward our mutual aims.

Web Content Magazine

One thing that frustrated me was the lack of a publication about government web content. The publications we're all most familiar with – Government Computer News, Federal Computer Week, Government Executive - tend to focus on the technology side of websites - not on the content side of things. It would be fabulous to have some sort of magazine or newsletter or e-zine to which government web content managers and others could subscribe and contribute. It really could be a nice way to exchange success stories, lessons learned, and think pieces on issues government web managers face, to a wide audience beyond DC and the Federal Government.

Getting Buy-in From the Boss

How can government web managers avoid being victims of bosses who “don’t get it?” There are ways to make progress, whether or not bosses are onboard. Government web managers are doing it all the time. They take control. They’re writing their own content – not waiting to be given permission or told what to do. They’re bridging gaps within agencies. They're walking into voids and filling them with "right things to do." They’re starting to work across agencies. The hurricane Katrina disaster relief effort is the best example of why this is so critical – web managers came together and proved that agencies can set aside their own identities and egos and come together to provide synthesized, unified, simplified content for citizens. It takes networking, figuring out the right thing to do, and touting success. And when it comes to credit - give it to your boss or your agency – shine the light on those positives. It’s a great way to gain buy-in.

Who's Your Customer?

Many government web managers work in organizations that don't value serving citizens. Yep - it's true. Remember that most federal level work is done through intermediaries - state and local governments, nonprofits, small businesses, industry partners, etc. So if you were to go to a federal government boss and ask him who his audience is, most times he'd say "partners."

Government web managers know that the internet has changed all that - in fact, citizens do expect to come face-to-face with the federal government. But so far, the organizational culture has not changed. That's probably the biggest rub for federal government web managers - they know their primary audience is (or should be) citizens...but their bosses see it as someone else.

The challenge: bridge that gap.

How Are Government Websites Different?

How are government websites different from other kinds of websites? Government web managers face most of the same issues that private sector web managers face - plus a whole lot more.

For the most part, government agencies do not have a profit motive. In fact, if you save dollars, you lose them (they go back to the Treasury). Further, the government isn't looking for customers (the postal service and the US Mint and a few places that sell products are the exception - not the rule). The product already has been purchased. Government agencies are service-providers. The services have been determined by lawmakers and purchased through the tax dollars. It would be simpler if government agencies were businesses. Then you could measure success in dollars and cents. How do you measure whether or not your government website actually provided the services citizens paid for with their tax dollars?

Government websites also differ in that they don't get to play by the same rules as the private sector. For one thing, government web managers have to design and word their sites so they reach everyone - not just those with high speed internet service, top of the line computers, and Harvard educations. They have to be inclusive - not exclusive.

Government web managers have many restrictions on what they can and can't do with their websites that the private sector doesn't have...strict privacy rules - for example, no cookies. So they can't help website readers customize the sites or offer other personal services that might make the web experience easier...strict requirements to make sites accessible to people with disabilities...and more rules are coming all the time, as Congress and the government lawyers become more and more aware of the impact of our government websites.

Finally - this is a biggie - unlike the private sector - government web managers have to please the ever-changing cast of politicians who head the agencies and often hold the purse strings. Politicians have a legitimate interest in promoting themselves, separate from their organizations. Their futures are not tied to the organizations, but to the changes they can make in their organizations while they are there. So they want to use agency websites to promote their personal initiatives and results. You won't see the CEO's photo on the front page of the Xerox or American Express or Forbes websites. You often will see the photo of the agency head on the front page of a government website. Is that something citizens want or need? Probably not. But it is a reality that government web managers have to face. How do you find a way to let your political bosses promote their initiatives while still designing your front page for your primary audience - citizens who came to your site not to read about political initiatves but to apply for a passport, find out if they can buy a home, or learn about the symptoms of cancer?

Much to consider.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

10 Tips for the Successful Web Manager

  1. You must have vision. You must know and understand your audience and be able to envision the possibilities for serving them online, so you can guide the agency. You must be able to take in new information constantly and see connections. Guess at the future. Connect the dots. Look for opportunities to collaborate and coordinate with others outside your organization toward the greater good.
  2. You must be a highly skilled leader. Most web managers have no official “power.” You don’t supervise all the people who contribute to the website. They aren’t accountable to you. So you must gain their cooperation through leadership. It’s not enough to be a good manager – you have to be a great leader. You have to be able to bring people together to eliminate duplication, facilitate coordination and collaboration, and inspire others to follow the direction you set. Above all, you have to stay focused on the overall goals – the future - even when you’re up to your neck in daily problems. Your most important job is to keep your web management organization inspired.
  3. You must be an excellent communicator. You have to be able to tell your organization, your executives, your customers about your vision and the future. You have to keep them informed so they’ll be onboard with your plans. You have to be a superb – I mean exceptional - writer and editor. Not only do you have to understand how to talk to your web readers, you must teach others how to do it.
  4. You must have a positive attitude. If you get down, so will your organization. You have to inspire others. Be a cheerleader. Praise the positive and use the negatives to teach. This is one job in which you really do get more with honey than vinegar.
  5. You must be able to make quick decisions. Web managers make literally hundreds of decisions every week. The web is a fast-moving medium, and you have to keep up with it. So that means you have to be able to analyze issues and problems quickly and make decisions. You have to be able to incorporate both long-term strategies and short-term realities (aka: politics) in your decisions. You won’t always have time to collect all the facts – you have to be confident in your own ability to make the best guess.
  6. You must be a great problem solver (or have one on your immediate staff). This is SO important. Every web manager needs to have someone who is an extraordinary analyst – who can take apart complex problems and figure out solutions. This kind of problem-solving takes time. So if this is your gift – if you are basically a problem-solver – then you need to make sure you have a high level associate who can carry out the more fast-moving web management duties…like stirring the pot and being a cheerleader. If your talents are in the pot-stirrer category – the fast-moving leader – then be very sure you have an excellent problem solver as your right hand.
  7. You must be courageous. This probably should be much higher on this list. Being a web manager is a tough job. You often face people who don’t “get it,” don’t agree, and won’t cooperate. You have to be willing to get out on a limb – try new things because they are the right thing to do for your audience. It’s hard to do the right thing – but it’s an essential part of the job. The public counts on you to be their advocate. So you must be courageous and do what’s right for them.
  8. You must be an entrepreneur. The best web managers are always out there stirring up new business. They don’t sit back and wait for content to come to them – they go out and get it. They are pot-stirrers. They keep things moving. They keep adding to the mix, seizing opportunities whether it’s a good time or not. They constantly scan the agency, spotting problems, sensing the possibilities, and looking for ways to connect issues and solutions. Of course you have too much to do. That goes without saying. If you’re a great web manager, you always have too much on the burner. And you have to tend all of those pots – stirring them when they need it to keep them simmering until it’s time to dish them up and serve them.
  9. You must find a guru – someone outside your organization who inspires you…to whom you can go when you lose your way…who will keep you revved up and who will help you get back on the path, when you falter. You don’t have to know your guru personally. But you need to find someone whose writing inspires you or whose seminars keep you focused on possibilities.
  10. You must take vacations. No – I didn’t put this in just to have 10 points. I put it in because it is absolutely essential to get away from your work, clear your head of the day-to-day problems and grind, and make room for new ideas and thinking. I know web managers who think they are indispensable and who carry their laptops or Blackberries with them so they never leave work behind. I used to do that myself. It’s no good. You have to clear the clutter now and then so you will have better vision. You have to re-charge your batteries so you can lead and stay positive and maintain that vision. Your organization counts on you, and you can’t be your best if you’re tired and overwhelmed. Take vacations regularly.