Monday, January 02, 2006

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.

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