Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Make Time to Lead

The more I reflect on my time as a government web manager, the more I realize that the most important thing you can do for your organization is lead. Being a leader is different from being a manager. Managers have to organize, plan, delegate, oversee, and evaluate. Leaders have to inspire, persuade, and engage people who may – or may not – share their goals and see their visions. Certainly, you must be a good manager. You have a product to maintain. But you also must be a leader. You have to lead your agency to seize the potential of the ever-changing Internet to deliver the best content possible. The problem is that management activities often overwhelm you. You have to make time to lead.

In the early days (the mid-90s) of government websites, we had plenty of time to lead. We weren’t bothered by creating and defending budgets, meeting volumes of mandates and requirements, and keeping on top of millions of pages of web content. Most of our websites were relatively small at that point, and few of us had policies and procedures imposed on us. We were just making it up as we went. If we were going to get these websites moving, we had no choice but to lead.

I remember making the rounds, asking executives if we could brief them on the web. Then we’d show them websites like Dealernet, where people could search for cars. We’d say, “wouldn’t it be great if people could find their HUD homes online just like this?” You could feel the interest and energy rising.

I’d send out routine email updates to managers, both in Headquarters and the Field, telling them what we were working on and challenging them with new possibilities. When someone came in with a problem or negative attitude, we sat and brainstormed with them until it turned into a positive. We didn’t talk about limits – we talked about possibilities.

When I heard that an executive was thinking about a new idea or initiative, I got on it…sent him/her an email with a suggestion for ways the web could help, along with a request to discuss. When we had meetings with staff from throughout the Department who worked on the web, we focused on innovation and excitement. We refused to be sidetracked by constraints, and we brainstormed ways to get around obstacles. We looked for opportunities to get out and show our websites to partners and citizens. We jumped at the chance to go to conventions and conferences and set up our little table, where we could talk one-on-one with the people we hoped to serve. We listened to what they said, and – out of those discussions – new ideas were born.

But as time went on, websites grew in number and size; Congress and OMB took note and started making rules we had to follow; and executives and public affairs staffs began to see government websites as their own publicity venues. As more and more people began using the web, everyone became an “expert” on design and content (indeed, most were not!). It got harder and harder to “herd the cats” toward doing the right thing for citizens.

Now, government web managers face hundreds of challenges and decisions every day. Demands are growing, while resources are not. It’s hard to get away from the phone and email to get out and talk to managers and staff, face to face. And when you do, you’re often met with indifference from people who now take the web for granted or petty issues that fail to consider the broader goals of the website and the organization.

When was the last time you actually got out of the office and talked to everyday citizens – personally – about what they want and expect from government websites? When was the last time you went to a Principal Staff meeting and made a pitch for 5 “out there” visionary ways they could use the web to further the mission of the agency? When was the last time you had an honest-to-goodness brainstorming session with your web team, where whining was tabled and optimism was praised? When was the last time you published a “good news” briefing on your intranet or sent it to managers in a memo, where you laid out 5 great things that have happened at your agency because of your website?

With the growing pressures of being a government web manager, it’s hard to make the time to lead. But it’s so necessary. It’s how you move the agency forward to use the web in smarter, faster, better ways. And you know what? It’s how you keep yourself energized. It’s one of the “fun” parts of being a web manager. Don’t let yourself get trapped by management demands and issues. Make time to lead.

Related links

Proceed Until Apprehended
10 Tips for A Successful Web Manager

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Reward Collaboration

Back in the mid 90s, Government Executive Magazine did an annual “Best Feds on the Web” article. In those days, we who were honored used that external validation to build credibility and interest within our agencies. Our websites were just infants then; and they needed all kinds of support to grow. Then along came the E-gov awards, the Digital Government Awards, the Brown University ratings, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (which became a competition when they started publishing the results), and a myriad of other awards that recognized the accomplishments of single agencies. Our bosses loved it, and so did we. But now that government websites are full-grown, I wonder what purpose those awards serve? I wonder if it is really a good idea to pit one agency website against others?

Most citizens view “the government” as a single entity. They want good, simple, well-written web content that will help them get the services they pay for. They don’t care what agency it comes from. They don’t care that one website has been rated better than another. They expect every government website they visit to be “the best.” The Web Managers Advisory Council established the goal: to make US government websites the most citizen-focused and visitor-friendly in the world. To do that, we have to work together. We need to reward collaboration.

We used to do an annual “Web Day” at HUD. We started it to recognize the “volunteers” among the HUD staff who put in extra hours and energy to make our website better. We honored the best web managers and the best marketers and the best web pages in the field and in Headquarters. But eventually, we realized that these awards were reinforcing organizational divides. We were sending conflicting messages: on one hand, we were telling HUD staff to consolidate information and services across organizations and make HUD’s website reflect “one HUD.” On the other hand, we were rewarding web managers who were “better” than others and forcing competition. You can’t have it both ways – if you want people to work together, then you’ve got to reward collaboration.

Wouldn’t it be great to reward agencies who get together to consolidate information and reduce duplication? Wouldn’t it be great to recognize those web managers who reach out to other web managers to help them make their sites better? Wouldn’t it be terrific to honor agencies that share applications with other agencies, so we don’t all have to reinvent the wheel? If we want citizens to get the best of their government from every government website, then we need to downplay competition and reward collaboration

Related links:

Common Look and Feel - Maybe the Time Has Come
Working Best When Working Together