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.

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