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.

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