Thursday, December 27, 2007

Forewarned is Forearmed

If you haven’t been watching what’s going on with Great Britain’s websites, government web manager, you should be. Those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.

To bring you up to date, the UK government (wisely, in my view) decided to shut down a large number (951) of its agency websites in favor of consolidating content – by topic/service area – on two “super” sites: Directgov and Now, watchdog groups are starting to ask questions- not only about the advisability of that course, but also about what led to that decision. In an article published by The Register, entitled “Watchdog Criticises UK Gov Websites,” some very interesting issues were raised at a recent hearing of the Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Don’t be distracted by the poking at Directgov (though there is one interesting issue about that site, which I’ll mention later). The questions that should draw your attention (and possibly chill your blood!) are these:

1. How many government websites are there? What do you mean, you don’t know?
2. How much are you spending on these government websites? What do you mean, you don’t know?
3. Who is using your websites and what are they looking for? What do you mean, you don’t know?
4. Why were government websites allowed “uncoordinated growth” for 10 years?

Many U.S. government web managers have been struggling with these same questions for years. The Web Managers Advisory Council (and its predecessor, the Web Content Management Working Group, of the Interagency Committee on Government Information) continues to work to address these issues. In fact, one huge step forward toward getting a handle on U.S. government websites was OMB’s 2004 policy that government websites – for the most part – must have .gov, .mil, or domains. However, to my knowledge, there still is no official inventory of all U.S. government websites.

In the early days of the web, citizens were just so grateful that the U.S. government was putting information on the web that actually could help them. Now, however, citizens are raising their expectations – even demands. They want content to be “searchable.” They want content to be written so they can understand it. They want to be able to find those “top tasks” that they often use, and they want them to be easy to use. That brings me back to that one interesting issue about Directgov…according to The Register article, the watchdog group wondered why Directgov doesn’t offer more “functionality.” “It’s not a very awe inspiring website is it when the only thing you can do is renew your car tax?” Hmm. Could they be suggesting that citizens want better access to those “top tasks” and that they want those “top tasks” to be easier/more efficient to use?

When the new administration comes onboard next year, they’ll be asking questions about past actions and strategies on a myriad of topics. With the growing dependence on the web to communicate with citizens, someone in the new administration is likely to zero in on what the government is doing with its websites. Get ready, folks. Document your history. Publish your policies, procedures, governance structure, management controls, and strategic plans. Inventory your agency websites and be prepared to defend the reason for each. Identify those “top tasks,” make them easy to use, and put them on the front page. Know what you’re spending on your websites – and be prepared to justify it. Forewarned is forearmed!

Related links:
The Answer for Better Searching? Better Content!
We Need a Communications Czar

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Answer for Better Searching? Better Content!

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs was to hear testimony from Google, Wikipedia, and others about the failure of government agencies to make their content “searchable.” The article claimed that some of the authorities scheduled to testify blame poor organization of content for the search problems. Well, that’s certainly part of the problem. Where web managers place content definitely contributes to its accessibility. But there is a bigger culprit: the words on the page are not words that the searching audiences use or recognize or – in many cases – even understand. This isn’t rocket science: if people are searching using terms that don’t appear on your web page, they probably won’t find that page. We’ve just got to do a much better job getting the words right.

Web Managers Advisory Council has worked for the past 2 years to help agencies focus on improving their “top tasks” – those processes and pieces of information that a significant number of citizens seek, routinely. Again – no rocket science here. You need to make sure those tasks are worded properly so that citizens can understand them; you need to make sure that they’re efficient – especially if it’s a process; and you need to put them in places where citizens can find them (dare I suggest front page links?). Seems like that should be an easy thing to do – right? Wrong.

It’s stunning how many agencies are struggling to identify their top tasks. Improve them? That can get very political. Is there funding to make a process more efficient? How do you get the agency to make that a priority? Will “the powers that be” permit you to replace those front page news releases and photos of the agency head with links to top tasks? And here’s a biggie: do agency authors and web editors know what words citizens use and recognize? If you do know, can you get agency managers (and lawyers) to permit you to use simple, plain language wording?

Web Manager University offers web writing courses every session. Indeed, they’ve typically been full. My take? They should be required. And not just of web managers. Anyone who contributes (or approves) web content needs to know how to make the words work. If you get the words right – searching is bound to get better.

One more thought on this issue (I can’t resist beating this drum)… I had a boss once who taught me that the only way to solve a problem is to deal with the root cause. So what’s the root cause of this problem? The Federal Government doesn’t really value communicating effectively with citizens. Some federal managers don’t even recognize “citizens” as their audience. Agencies don’t put money and resources into good communications. Content – for the web, for publications, for call centers – isn’t written and edited by skilled communicators. We don’t even have a mandate to put web content management under a professional communicator. Communicating isn’t something that just anyone can do. It takes skill. It takes experience. It takes understanding of the audience. It takes commitment.

We can make our websites more searchable if we fix the words. We can make government more effective if we make communicating with citizens a priority.

Related links:
We Need a Communications Czar
Three Wishes
Somebody Needs to Say “No!”

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Stop Blaming Your Bosses!

I hear, over and over, such comments as: “my boss just doesn’t get it,” “I can’t get support from my boss,” “we need to educate our bosses so they’ll do what we want them to do.” OK – I’ll admit it…I actually uttered words to that effect, once or twice. But now, I realize we were (are) wrong. It isn’t our bosses’ fault that things aren’t going our way. It’s our own fault. And there is something we can do about it. We can communicate.

In my experience, most bosses do their best to make good decisions that forward their missions and goals. Most bosses really are good people who want to do the right thing. Heck, I was a boss a few times. I know I always tried to do right things, based on what I knew about the issues. And that’s the key. We need to make sure that our bosses have all the facts, in a timely way, so they can make good decisions (ie - decisions that we like!).

We need to communicate well and often, to make our bosses aware of what we’re doing, the issues we’re facing, the options for making things better, and - yes - that we are hard-working, talented individuals who know what we're talking about. That means we’ve got to take the time to send those bi-weekly accomplishments reports (don’t wait to be asked!). That means we’ve got to write those issue papers - laying out problems along with our proposed solutions - in a timely way, so our bosses have time to consider and ask questions and make good decisions. That means we’ve got to make appointments with our bosses and get on the agenda of management meetings and use our ingenuity to let them know both what we’ve achieved and what we’d like to achieve. ‘Tis better to err on the side of over-communicating, than under-communicating. ‘Tis better to be a pest, than a hermit. ‘Tis better to be in your boss’s face, than off your boss’s radar.

Bosses do sometimes make decisions we don’t like. Sometimes, that’s because they know things we don’t know. But don’t let them make a bad decision because they don’t know something you do know. Don’t blame your boss for your failure to communicate.

Related links
What If Our Bosses Don’t Want to Be Educated?

Make Time to Lead
9 Questions Every Web Manager Needs to Ask

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Have You Seen "Gov Gab?"

The team rolled out it’s latest innovation: Gov Gab, the government blog that helps citizens figure out government. They’ve done a great job. The look is good. The posts are well-written and friendly and generally the right length (one of the entries had a few too many photos…but they’re just getting their feet wet). So, great blogging!

But actually, this is better than a blog. This is the kind of content I’d love to see on It does what Google can’t and lists of links don’t: it makes sense out of the top tasks. It is the right length. It talks to citizens in their language. This is what I’ve been yipping about!

If the Web Managers Advisory Council could figure out how to deliver cross-agency (both horizontal and vertical) content this way – get the agency web managers to work with the writers to “tell the story” (at least for the top tasks) - and integrate it into the website, I think it would be a huge step forward in communicating with citizens.

Really well done, Bev Godwin and company at Kudos to all!

Related links:

Make the Words Work
Why Have All These Government Websites When We've Got Google?
It's All About the Content
Connect the Dots

Common Look and Feel – Why Look Further Than

I was looking at this morning; and it struck me that the design they’ve got could work for most government agencies.

I like everything about the masthead. It’s clean and simple. The branding is perfect. It’s got tabs, which - for agencies - could be “Citizens,” “Partners,” and “Media.” I like the “top services” section. It gives prominence to the “top tasks” that the web manager community is working to identify and enhance. And the content below that section could be customized to the agency, using the directory layout (and – where appropriate – taxonomy) on as a model.

I know the team did a ton of usability work on the design, so why reinvent the wheel? Why not just use this template across government?

I think part of the fear tied up with the common look and feel discussion is the thought of coming to agreement on a design. Well, why not use what we've already got? I know I could have fit the HUD content into that format. Maybe you’d exempt the Smithsonian and a few others. But certainly the cabinet level agencies could adopt this design easily.

If I were pitching to the new administration, I’d pitch this. Shouldn’t THE government look like THE government?

Related links:

Three Wishes
Serving the Public - What Lies Ahead
Common Look and Feel - Maybe the Time Has Come

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

We Need a Communications Czar

One of the issues that web content managers have faced for years is that there is no “content” advocate at OMB to help sort through the policy challenges we encounter trying to manage these huge communications vehicles (websites), effectively. The general content policies that exist have come through the technology Offices. While they are helpful, they don’t go far enough to ensure the excellence that U.S. citizens deserve. Content and technology are different beasts. They need different shepherds. We need a Director of Communications Policy at OMB.

We need someone at the top who is looking across government, at all the ways we communicate with the public (web, telephone, publications, etc..), and developing policies that ensure we’re providing consistent information and services in ways that audiences can use it. The technology folks are working hard to make sure the “how” is effective. But who is looking governmentwide to make sure the “what” is effective?

Right now, web content managers use “best practices” and critical mass to institutionalize cross-government web management procedures. Some argue that this is appropriate, within the grassroots culture of the internet. But we’re talking about the government here. We’re talking about public service. Shouldn’t our content be consistent, no matter how it is delivered and no matter which agency(ies) provide it? Shouldn’t our services be communicated effectively, so citizens can use them easily? Even the best oven won’t make a lousy cake taste good. Even the best technology won’t make lousy content serve citizens effectively. We need more than evolution and critical mass to ensure that the government (collectively) communicates well with the people we serve. We need a communications policy chief at the table.

It’s time. It’s needed.

Related links

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Playing Links Ping Pong

Let me start by saying that I’ve never liked to play ping pong. It makes me dizzy and – because I’ve never been especially adept – it makes me frustrated. So when I got dumped into a game of “Links Ping Pong” the other day, I felt the same way.

I was helping a friend find some information from the government. We started at the agency that made most sense…did a search…didn’t find exactly what we wanted. So we started through the topics, each of which led to pages of links. Within 2 clicks, we were playing “Links Ping Pong.” We’d click on an item in one list of links, only to be linked to another list of links. We chose an item from that list of links and – yep – got linked to another set of links (this time, on another agency’s website – in another window!). OK. So we picked one of those links and – you won’t believe this (or maybe you will) – we went right back to the first agency’s website…to – you guessed it – another list of links.

At that point, we gave up.

The lesson is this: yes, the web is all about linking. But the value that the web manager brings to a website is making sense of all those links. I can go to Google and get a list of links. The reason I’d go to an agency website – instead of Google – is to get real content or to be guided through links in some sort of logical way (“first, you do this” or “go to this site and look for this”). I don’t go to government websites to play links ping pong.

If you do use a link, I’d appreciate it if that link took me to real content – not just to another menu of links. If you do take me to a set of links, please describe what I’m going to find – or I should look for – on that set of links. Don’t abandon me! And please, oh please, don’t use acronyms or program names that don’t make any sense to me, as your linking text. At least provide an explanation for those of us who don’t speak your language.

The saddest part of this whole adventure is that my friend turned to me and said, “See, this is why I never use government websites.” We all are judged by the performance of each. So dig in and do the work, web managers. Make your links count. Do it for your own agency. Do it for all government agencies.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Three Wishes

OK, folks – the clock is ticking down to the next Presidential election. In a little more than one year, transition teams will be walking into your agency, nosing around, looking for opportunities to make changes that will improve operations (and, quite honestly, make them look good). So, if that transition team were to call you in and tell you that they are going to grant three – and only three – wishes, what would you tell them?

Remember, bosses – especially new bosses – want to do things that will promote their own objectives, make them the first to do something, improve efficiency and effectiveness, and – most of all - reflect well on them. If you can articulate your wishes in terms that will meet both your new bosses’ needs, as well as your own, it’s a win-win situation. You’ll have a much better shot at having those wishes granted.

I already have my three wishes (yes, I realize I probably won’t be asked…but who knows?):

1. Combine all content operations into one single office, in each agency. Create content once and serve it many ways. I’d combine web content, publications content, and call center content – at least that which is targeted to the general public in one “Office of Communications” or “Office of Citizen Services” in each agency. Improve consistency. Staff the office with people who know what the public wants and who can write content from the audience’s point of view.
What do the bosses get? Efficiency and improved service to the public.
What do we get? The same. In addition, this should stop the madness about where web content management should live in the organization (not IT, not Public Affairs – communications!).

2. Use one common web design for most of government. I know, I know – you guys don’t like this. It would limit your creativity and autonomy. I was there. I know how you feel. But if you step back and look at it from the public’s point of view, having one design would make it easy to recognize a website as an official government website. More important, it would make it easier to use all government websites if the public only has to learn one navigation system and taxonomy. It finally would make us look like one government (which is what the public thinks we are!). And – here’s a biggie - it would save a boatload of money that currently is being spent agency-by-agency for web design. We could hire the best usability and design specialists to put it together, and we’d still save money across government.
What do bosses get? Significant cost savings and very visible evidence that they’re making government more efficient and effective.
What do we get? We can use our funds to do other things: improve critical tasks, eliminate outdated content, and develop new functionality. Also, it may help stop the proliferation of government websites – at least if the motivation is only to look different.

3. Split out “top tasks” and “message” content and feature them on their own governmentwide websites. Use for critical tasks (the tasks that many citizens want to find and use). Create for information about the goals and accomplishments of the administration. Let Public Affairs offices manage that content, and get it off agency websites. Agency websites, then, could remain libraries for other public information and sources of information and services for business partners.
What do bosses get? Better management and visibility for “message” information and a legitimate claim that they improved service to citizens.
What do we get? Solutions to long-standing design conflicts. We’d eliminate those front-page press releases and pictures of political bosses that use valuable real estate, making it hard to spotlight other important information. And our critical citizen tasks would be featured on, making it easier for citizens to find them. It also might help us toward the longer range goal of consolidating content, by topic, across government.

So what would you wish for across government? Across your agency? If you don’t know, you’d better start thinking about it right now.

Transition offers a wonderful opportunity to reassess and to start in new directions. But the window of opportunity may be very short, and it may not open again for 8 years. So be ready. Know what you want. As important, know how to ask for it. Be ready to present your requests so that bosses see the value to them, as well as to you. If you do, you just might find that your wishes will come true!

PS: This same advice works at the state and local level, too!

Related links:
What Are We Going to Be?

Serving the Public – What Lies Ahead

Common Look and Feel – Maybe the Time Has Come

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What Are We Going To Be?

Government web managers are at a real crossroads. Since government websites began to appear – back in 1995 - web managers’ primary goal has been to stir up business for the website. We begged, borrowed, and linked (no “stealing” with the web!) to create more content, to make as much government information public as possible and to serve as many citizens as possible. But here we are now, with these behemoth websites that are trying to be all things to all people. And it just isn’t working. There’s too much to categorize and maintain effectively. We don’t have the horses to keep up with it. The key services (aka “top tasks”) that most citizens want are buried among information that may be interesting to just a few people. And on top of all that, our bosses want to use the prime real estate on our sites to advertise their accomplishments (I’ll call this “message”). What’s a web manager to do? More important…what are our websites going to be?

The Web Managers Forum has been encouraging web managers to identify the top tasks and focus on improving them, both in placement and in efficiency. It’s a great idea and a worthy goal, since it acknowledges the fact that citizens want – and expect – to be able to get basic government services online. And if you don’t believe that there is a real need to fix these tasks, just take a half hour and see if you can find what citizens want on government websites. Seeing is believing.

I’ve been fascinated to listen to colleagues who are bewildered by this effort, often because they don’t know where to begin. Why isn’t this obvious? Why haven’t they been featuring top tasks all along? And then it hit me: they’re confused because they’ve got conflicting goals. If your goal is to create the great online government library, how does that jell with featuring only the top tasks (and “clearing out” the clutter that makes it hard to find them)? How can you feature top tasks when your bosses want you to feature their initiatives and successes? I think we have to step back and hash this out. We have 3 goals operating across government – and each is a worthy objective, with a vocal constituency. We need to figure out how to address them, while – at the same time – straightening up our websites so they don’t continue to look like schizophrenic free-for-alls that many of them have become. I think there are some options.

One option is to simply pull off the administration “message” into a separate website called “USANews.” Put it under the aegis of the White House communications office, and let the Public Affairs Officers populate and manage it. The media and those who want to find out what the administration is doing will have one-stop shopping, rather than having to go looking at each agency website. Agencies will continue to have the ability to put forth their messages. If we pulled out the “message” content, at least our agency websites only would need to balance the goals to publish everything, while featuring top tasks.

Another option is to feature top tasks on a separate website called “USAServices.” The tasks would remain on agency sites, but web managers wouldn’t have to be so worried about stripping away other content, to feature them. They’d be organized by topic – not agency – on the USAServices site.

Since we’re all facing a lack of resources to really manage all the content on our sites, maybe we should consider setting up a common content management system that dumps content into one major “USAInfo” site. Ask NARA, working with a consortium of internet librarians and records management officers, to guide classification; and make content creators (agency program managers) responsible for keeping content current or pulling it down. At the same time, web managers could turn agency sites into slimmer, trimmer, more usable service centers, focusing on top tasks.

Or, if we’re reluctant to give up control of any of the three goals, maybe we could just set up agency sites with three tabs (similar to news, services, information. If we did it across government, our audiences soon would learn which category suits their purposes. could aggregate the content under each tab, across government.

We do have 3 goals, and each is legitimate. None of them is likely to go away. So we need to deal with them. And there are solutions. The place to start is to recognize the problem and start working together to sort it out. We need to figure out what we want to be.

One caution: don’t wait too long…the citizens are getting restless!

Related links:
Serving the Public - What Lies Ahead

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Doing the "Big Think"

From the beginning, the internet has challenged the creativity of government web managers who struggle to improve the reach of citizen services, amidst the constraints of government. The list of strategic issues has not dwindled over time. In fact, it has lengthened.

Last week, I taught a leadership course for web managers, part of Web Manager University’s spring curriculum; and we spent a good part of the afternoon talking about some of the broad strategic issues that web leaders face, including:

What should/can government websites be? Massive libraries? Most requested/used tasks? Can we manage the growing volume of information? What does the public really want? What does the public really use? How do we keep information accessible without overwhelming the public with its mass?

Managing more with less…how much are we really spending on web operations? Do we know? When someone asks (and they will), can we justify it? Can we find ways to share web management resources across government? Can we add new technologies and uses of technologies (wikis, blogs, interactive media, etc.) while maintaining the quality of current content?

Consolidating content operations within agencies…can we consolidate content operations (web, publications, call centers) so we create content once and deliver it in many ways? How do we make sure the public is getting the same answers, no matter how they receive the information? Do we have staff that are skilled in writing and editing content, based on a sound understanding of citizens as the primary audience? Should each agency have an “Office of Citizen Services?”

Consolidating content across government horizontally…the public thinks we are one government, yet we promote agency (organization) websites. Should we rethink how content is organized across government? Could it be organized by topic, instead of organization? Could we serve content through one (or a few) sites, instead of 24,000? Can we consolidate “top tasks” across agencies?

Consolidating content across government vertically…citizens don’t know which level of government provides what services How can we integrate content among levels of government?

Common “look and feel,” taxonomy across government… More than 24,000 federal public websites, each with its own design and taxonomy…can we bring some commonality across government to improve our service to citizens? Is it the right thing to do?

The students in this class came from all parts of government web organizations: field offices, tech operations, small sub-agencies, and agency web teams. They weren’t the top agency web managers, but – at least by the end of the day – they realized they are web leaders. They discussed these big issues, and more, enthusiastically. They engaged. They enjoyed it. And they did a great job delving into strategic challenges we all face. They did the “big think.”

It’s a mistake to assume that, if you aren’t on the agency-level web team, you don’t need to spend time analyzing broad strategic challenges. You do. The government needs web leaders at all levels – especially those out in the field and down in the branches of headquarters operations – to be part of problem-solving. You can’t just sit in your corner of the world and assume/hope that someone else is doing the thinking. You have to stick your head up and look around, see what’s coming down the pike, and talk about it. You have to help your agency web manager and web managers across government lead change, no matter where you are in the organization.

And agency web managers: you need to create opportunities for emerging web leaders to do the Big Think. You need their insights and help to meet these challenges. You need to stimulate discussion and encourage these leaders to spread their wings. We need web leaders at all levels to create the critical mass that enables change and progress.

Strategic thinking isn’t just the responsibility of the top web managers in the organization – it’s the duty of every single person in the content management community. So look around you. Start a conversation with other web leaders. Do the big think!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Can YOU Find What Citizens Want on Government Websites?

We want citizens to think of government websites first, when they have an everyday problem to solve - don’t we? We want them to use our websites (collectively) to do all sorts of common tasks – find a home, get answers about household poisons, prepare their kids for school, get the best medical information. And citizens WILL come to our websites repeatedly – if they continue to have good experiences…if they consistently can complete the tasks they want to complete in a reasonable amount of time.

Like it or not, citizens think of “the government” as a single entity. And – like it or not - citizens make judgments about all government websites, based on their experiences with any government website. So it’s in the best interest of each of us to know how all of us are doing. How do you do that? It’s simple. See if YOU can find what citizens want on government websites.

Here’s a little test. Take a half hour, and see how many of these questions you can answer. Here is the only rule: you only can use government websites to do your research. You may use or Google’s U.S. Government search
to help you. But that’s it. These are common scenarios that any citizen might encounter. Ready? Go.

1. Housing: Your younger brother is a school teacher, making $35,000 a year. He’s single. He wants to buy a home. He lives in Iowa. He’s only got $5,000 saved for a down payment and closing costs, so he hopes there might be some government programs that could help him. He has no idea how to buy a home, and he doesn’t know where to begin in the process. You’ve volunteered to help him figure out what steps he needs to take.

2. Health: Your 75-year-old mother-in-law has just been diagnosed with gall bladder disease. She has to see her doctor tomorrow to discuss options for treatment. She has no idea what the gall bladder does, much less what this disease means. She only has Medicare, so she’s concerned that the best treatment won’t be covered. She’s called you asking that you help her figure out what’s going on, what to expect, and what questions to ask.

3. Food: Your office has decided to “adopt” a low-income family for Christmas. One of the things this family desperately needs is help buying healthy foods, on a very tight budget. They probably qualify for some government programs, but they don’t know what. As important, they really need some tips on how to buy healthy foods, on a low-income budget. At least 2 of the children are suffering health problems as a result of obesity. You’ve been given the task of coming up with some advice for them.

4. Education: Your neighbor’s daughter is a good student – not top of the class, but in the top quarter. Her parents had some hard times, and they just don’t have the money to send her to college. You’re thinking that there must be some government programs that could help this promising young woman go to college, without creating a debt so heavy that she’ll never be able to dig out.

OK – so how did you do? Could you complete your tasks quickly? Could you find what you need easily? Was everything written so you could understand it? Were the searches helpful, or did they overwhelm you? Did the most useful information turn up high on the list? Did you believe that you got comprehensive information?

If you had a great experience, then woo hoo! That’s victory for all of us. But if you didn’t have such a great experience – if you found it easier or harder in some cases than in others – then let’s talk about it. Let’s use the Web Content Managers Forum and the Web Managers Advisory Council to raise concerns and think about better options. If we want citizens to come to government websites, then we have to work together to make sure all of our sites deliver efficient and effective service. We do serve best when we serve together.

Monday, March 05, 2007

What If Our Bosses Don’t Want to Be Educated?

For years, government web managers have bemoaned the fact that we can't make the progress we hope to make because our “bosses” don’t listen to us. They don't give us credit for knowing what we’re talking about (because anyone who uses the internet thinks he/she is an expert in web design), don’t understand that you can’t give front page links out like chits, and don’t get it that citizens don’t want to see photos of political officials on the front pages of government websites. Sound familiar? I’ll bet. So, for years, we have talked about how we need to “educate our bosses,” so they’ll understand and support us (and let us do our jobs).

Now, as I reflect – and as I continue to hear my former colleagues talk about the need to “educate their bosses” – it occurs to me that maybe we’ve been barking up the wrong tree. Maybe it's time to realize that strategy isn't working. Maybe our bosses don't want to be educated. Maybe they have too much else on their minds. Maybe we should use what has worked for us before: the power of our grassroots community...the power of critical mass.

Look at the change we caused just two years ago, with the recommendations to OMB we made through the Web Content Management Working Group. We didn’t suggest that everyone start doing a bunch of new things. No – we went out and found those “best practices” that already were being used in many or most agencies, and we asked OMB to incorporate them into policy. The result was that agencies that hadn’t implemented the practices (in many cases, because they couldn’t get their bosses’ support) now had a mandate. Further, now that the practices have been sanctioned, they will be less susceptible to changing bosses and changing administrations.

If one web manager wants everyone in the agency to start using standard metadata so that search engines can help citizens find what they want more easily, he or she may not get very far. But if several web managers in several agencies get together and decide to use the same metadata and if the staff jump onboard and agree to start harvesting certain content by using that metadata, you can cause change. You can control your own destiny.

So, yes – do keep briefing your bosses and telling them ways they could help you improve your websites. Do share your knowledge of your audiences – especially citizens. Do seize opportunities to use management support to make your websites and content practices better. But be realistic. Your bosses have a lot of other things to worry about. So instead of getting frustrated and feeling powerless when your bosses don’t give you a blank check, apply your energy and leadership to something that works. Build critical mass. You can cause right things to happen. You just have to work together to do it.

"Change from the top down happens at the will and whim of those below.” --Peter Block

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Couple of Thoughts about Governance – Thought Two…Across Government

Everyone who knows me or who has read prior blog entries knows I am a strong advocate of cross-government web governance. I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do and the only way to achieve the quality web content that the public (aka – taxpayers) deserve. But I do think getting from where we are to a successful cross-government governance structure is tricky. Why? Because we’re going to be moving from the current (and long-standing) grassroots governance structure to a centralized governance structure. And existing grassroots leaders – often agency web managers – aren’t going to be eager to give up their autonomy. I’ve been there – I know. So the key is to use that leadership within the cross-agency structure.

“Well, of course,” you think. “That’s what the Web Managers Advisory Council is for.” Yes, the Advisory Council is an important part of this process. But I don’t think it’s enough to effect the kind of change in governance I hope for.

I’ve already written that I think GSA’s Office of Citizen Services should be given the lead – and the authority – to coordinate web content operations across government. If GSA is given that role, they need to implement it with great thought and complete understanding of what they’re undertaking. In my opinion, the first thing they need to do is hire a few of those experienced agency web managers – those grassroots leaders. Get those skills and that perspective on the staff. Build goodwill. Further, it would be great to rotate agency web managers through the Office of Citizen Services routinely, to keep the agency perspective fresh within the Office of Citizen Services and to give agency web managers a taste of the big picture point of view.

Four years ago, when we formed the Web Content Management Working Group, we agreed that how we went about developing our recommendations to OMB was as critical as what we recommended. We knew we had to involve all the key players - in a meaningful way - and listen to all the key constituencies or – no matter what we recommended and no matter what OMB said – change wouldn’t happen. The same concept applies here. The only way cross-government governance will work is to seize the power of the existing grassroots leadership and incorporate it in the new governance structure.

A Couple of Thoughts about Governance – Thought One...At the Agency Level

CIO or Public Affairs? Public Affairs or CIO? The debate of the past 12 years lingers. No doubt it will become an issue – again – as the administration changes in 2009. I’m not sure why these are the only two choices (more on that in a minute), but if they are – why hasn’t this been settled long ago?

The logic seems clear. Websites – at least internet websites – are about interacting with the public. CIOs aren’t about the public – they’re internal service providers. They exist to serve internal clients – the program managers. They don’t interact with the public, nor should they. They don’t have staff who are knowledgeable about the public, nor should they. They don't have writers and editors on staff, nor should they. Public Affairs, on the other hand, is all about the public and writing and editing. The fact that most Public Affairs operations focus entirely – or almost entirely – on the press aside, if the only two choices for the web content management function are the CIO and Public Affairs, then the answer to this long-standing debate seems clear. It’s Public Affairs.

But wait – how about another option? Actually, two.

One of the really great guesses that the executives at HUD made way back in 1995 – and subsequent executives have retained – is that the web management function belongs with the chief management officer in the agency - in HUD’s case, the Deputy Secretary. Why does that make great sense? Two reasons. First, agency websites should be about mission and program delivery. The chief management officer is the top official in charge of day-to-day achievement of mission and program delivery. So it’s a perfect match. Second reason…the Deputy Secretary is organization-neutral. The CIO and the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs are peers on the organizational chart, along with all the other chief program officers. If there is a disagreement with a web policy, can the CIO or Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs really tell a peer “no?” Of course not. Either they’ll acquiesce (which is deadly for the website) or the issue will get elevated to the Deputy Secretary anyway. So why not just put the function with the executive who really has the final say?

But here’s an even better option: create a new organizational unit with a single mission: serving the public. Staff it with people who are experts in audience analysis and communications. Set it apart from other organizational components – so it remains neutral – and give it the authority to act as editor-in-chief for all program content served by any means to the public. I won’t go on more here – I’ve already written about this in prior entries (linked below). But I do think agencies have to get a grip on the fact that there is a huge "public" out there that is neither business partner nor press, and their web governance structures need to reflect that fact.

Related links:

Serving the Public – What Lies Ahead?
Somebody Needs to Say “No”

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Serving the Public – What Lies Ahead?

Well, the Presidential election looms near. Actually, it’s 18 months away…but heck, all the candidates are already out there campaigning. I guess we should be thinking ahead, too! So, let me rub my hands together, pull out my crystal ball, and offer some ideas about the way things might look in 2012, at the end of the first term of the next President...with the right leadership and a little bit of political will.

1. Agencies manage content – not websites

  • Agencies have consolidated all operations or “channels” for delivering content to citizens into one “Citizen Services” organization, headed by a manager and staff who are expert writers, editors, and communicators. Content is created once and delivered in a variety of ways – websites, call centers, publications, video, audio, podcasts, cell phones, Dick Tracy wristwatches, etc.
  • Citizens can get content through multiple channels. So, for example, if they start by calling a call center number, they may be led through using a website, watching a podcast, participating in an online live discussion, or using some other content delivery mechanism. Content is seamless from one channel to another.
  • The term "web manager" has been replaced by "content manager."
  • Content for the public uses a standard taxonomy that is developed by a cross-agency group of content managers.
  • Lead content managers in each agency must be certified by Content Manager University, having completed courses - or proven proficiency - in plain language, writing for the public, editing for effectiveness, management analysis, usability, audience analysis, and other skills needed to create and manage excellent content.
  • Content managers work across agencies to identify and create content “continuums,” to add value to the audiences’ experience. These continuums help the audience know where to begin, next steps, and related options, across government.
  • Agencies get content development and management assistance through central contracts managed by GSA’s Office of Citizen Services, in such areas as audience analytics, technical support, and other common commercial functions.

Why? Well, it just makes good sense to consolidate content creation so you do it once and use it many ways. Why have one staff creating content for a website and another staff creating content for a call center and yet another staff writing publications? Shouldn’t everyone be saying the same thing? Why reinvent the wheel just because you’re serving content through a different technology? Isn’t it logical that it’s more efficient – and certainly more prudent - to have one great group of writers and editors, who truly understand and know how to communicate with the public, developing content rather than multiple and separate staffs?

2. The federal government appears as one, on the web.

  • GSA's Office of Citizen Services coordinates the Citizen Services operations across government, ensuring that content on common topics is consolidated, that duplication is eliminated or at least mitigated, and that the public gets consistent content no matter how they receive it.
  • 5 cross-agency websites serve as the entry points for all government information served on the web. These 5 websites – and only these 5 websites - are marketed to the public. The public no longer has to figure out which agency to ask, and they don’t have to remember a multitude of URLs…just 5:
  1. is the entry point for the general public to access the most requested information and services. Its scope remains limited and focused on the content (tasks) that most citizens and visitors to this country want and need.
  2. is the entry point for business partners and state and local governments to access key information and services. It links to additional information on agency sites, grouping those links by topic so businesses and governments are sure to find all the information they need.
  3. is the site for information about the initiatives and achievements of the current administration. It is managed by the White House communications office and the council of Public Affairs Officers.
  4. is the entry point for all military information and services. It is managed by the Department of Defense.
  5. serves as the library of government information from the Executive Branch. It is managed by NARA and the council of records management officers and is staffed with web librarians who help categorize its content. contains content that is esoteric (sought by a limited audience) or obsolete and/or is considered official records, including content from prior administrations.
  • Agencies are limited to a single website, and those websites follow a standard design that has been developed by an interagency content council working with GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and usability experts. Agency websites exist to feed the 5 USA websites. Agency websites are not marketed as separate entities.
  • Cross agency portals have been taken down. Instead, information and services are organized by topic and displayed through the 5 USA sites, harvested through use of metadata, XML schemas, content management systems, and other technologies.
  • GSA’s Office of Citizen Services has the authority to pull domain names and use other sanctions to ensure that these operating rules are followed.

Why? Let’s face it – most citizens think they have one government. Sure, they know that there are many different agencies. But they think of the government as a single entity. That’s why they get so frustrated when they try to enter “the government” through an agency and hit a dead end. “Don’t you people talk to one another? Can’t you just get me to the right place? What do you mean, ‘no?’ Why are you telling me something different from what that other agency told me?”

Citizens don’t know – and don’t want to know - how the government is organized. Why do we force them to search through more than 24,000 federal websites to find what they want? There is ample data to show that people make better decisions when there are fewer choices.

Let’s stop competing and start cooperating. Let’s stop spending millions of dollars to design and maintain more websites than we can count and, instead, go with a standard design that meets all usability criteria and that the public will recognize.

3. Citizens can talk to a human being, when they believe they need to.

  • USAServices, as the central call center for the US Government, can respond to questions on any government topic. Staff are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; and strict protocols ensure that the public isn’t kept waiting more than 5 minutes to speak to a human being.
  • The 5 USA websites offer real-time online Q&A chats, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These chats are staffed by program experts trained in cross-agency content.

Why? Shoot – you know why. You’ve made phone calls and ended up in one of those awful, never-ending phone trees…”press 3 for English…press 5 for an appointment…all our operators are busy now…bye-bye.” Or you’ve done that Google search that turned up 5,285 results on “what is a gallbladder.” Excuse me - could someone please tell me where to start?

Sometimes you just want to talk to a person. And since you’ve paid your taxes, shouldn’t you be able to do just that?

Fantasy or prophecy? That depends. Turning visions into reality will require courage, stamina, innovation, organization, cooperation, and – in some cases – sacrifice. Sure, some of it depends on political will. But a whole lot of this can be achieved through good grassroots leadership and coordination. It will mean sticking out our hands and reaching across agencies and functions. Can we do that? I think so.

In the end, it comes down to this: what is the right thing to do? If it’s the right thing, then we have to find a way to do it. And to guild the lily, here are some other words of encouragement:

"Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do." --John Wooden"

"Don't be afraid to take a big step when one is indicated. You can't cross a chasm in two small steps." -- David Lloyd George

“The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become” – Charles Dubois

"There are three kinds of people: Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who ask, 'What happened?'" --Casey Stengel

Monday, January 29, 2007

Somebody Needs to Say “No!”

Government websites have been around for more than 10 years now. Both content managers and their audiences have matured, and our websites have grown by leaps and bounds. They’ve developed relatively unfettered by social (or legal) mores and norms. But the days of letting our little darlings sprout with carefree abandon are over. It’s time for discipline. It’s time for everyone to play in the same sandbox. It’s time to grow up. It’s time for someone to say, “no!”

Why is this important? Because the American people deserve better. They deserve government content that is focused, clear, and written in terms they understand. They deserve to find concise, logical information on a topic that’s important to them, organized in ways that make sense (not organized by federal agency!). They deserve one-stop shopping; they shouldn’t be forced to weed through the 24,000+ (and growing everyday!) federal websites. They deserve websites that focus on the services and information that they need most, not these behemoths that make finding what you want more like searching for a needle in a haystack.

I think it’s time for a governmentwide web “editor-in-chief.” We need someone to implement rules and consequences to make sure government websites stay on the straight and narrow, that duplication is eliminated, and that content is well-written. It’s time to stop issuing new government domain names willy-nilly and start requiring agencies to tighten their belts when it comes to websites and web content. It’s time to take down all those obsolete cross-agency “portals” that haven’t been tended in years. It’s time to tell HUD and VA and USDA that they must work together to develop one comprehensive, but concise, source for government housing information, rather than forcing citizens to hop from agency to agency to figure it out. It’s time to say to agencies that if you don’t get it right, it’s coming down. It’s time to support those web managers who often feel like lone rangers out there, trying to get their agency executives to do the right thing.

I’m not talking about censorship (so calm down, folks). I’m talking about discipline. No self-respecting print publication would let its section chiefs do their own thing. They have limits. Editors make choices – we’ll use this content and not that – to keep their publications manageable and focused. They take out the red pens and cross out content that is poorly written or duplicative or (perish the thought!) contradictory. They say, “no.” That’s what we need in the federal government. We need a strong, non-partisan (so no political appointees, please) professional web communicator to cause agencies to play together and to make sure that the federal government – as a whole – does its best to serve citizens online.

Are we talking about OMB? No, absolutely not. OMB is concerned about high level policy. It doesn’t want to get into operations. I think we’re talking about GSA’s Office of Citizen Services. It’s already established. It has the right aims. It already has good staff (though it would need more). It has, which already serves as the de facto leader of the web manager community. What it lacks is the cross-agency authority to bring agencies in line. I think it’s time to give them that authority.

It’s time to grow up, websites. I know – you don’t like having to play with those other guys. You’ve enjoyed doing your own thing. But we serve best when we serve together. It’s time.

Related links

Stop the Proliferation of Government Websites

Working Best When We’re Working Together
Practice What You Know

Friday, January 19, 2007

Follow Those Brits!

Last week, the BBC website published a startling article: “Government to Close 551 Websites!” The article went on to describe the “transformational government” initiative underway in the UK, which will eliminate more than half of 951 government websites, consolidating content in two (that’s right, TWO!) “supersites:” “Directgov” (for citizens) and “Business Link” (for partners). At the same time that I celebrated this brilliant accomplishment of our neighbors across the ocean, I cringed as I thought of the more than 24,000 U.S Government websites that we force Americans to navigate.

Why did the Brits undertake this change? Well, because that’s what their citizens want. They want it to be easier to find the information and services they need. They think there’s too much information out there – most of them are interested in only a percentage of all that “stuff” that government agencies publish. They’d like to have one-stop shopping, and they’d like related information to be organized in ways that make sense to them. Duh. Do British citizens differ from American citizens? No. Americans want the same thing. We hear it all the time. Our stats prove it. Duh. Oh, and by the way, this UK initiative also is going to save millions of pounds. Duh.

So the question is this, U.S. government web managers. Are you going to just sit there and let the Brits outshine us? Or are you going to do the right thing and start getting rid of those esoteric and often outdated or obsolete websites? Are you going to start working across agencies to combine content in ways that make sense to citizens and partners or are you going to stay in your little organizational fiefdoms and drown in the proliferation of useless content? Are you going shift your focus to writing and editing the words so that citizens understand them, instead of worrying about yet another “redesign?”

I’ll tell you what. Take a look at Directgov. It’s plain – no fancy graphics or waving flags. It’s simple – basic content organized in logical ways, using terms that real human beings use. It’s effective. It demonstrates that the government agencies understand what their citizens want and how they might ask for it.

We’ve done so many wonderful things with the web in the U.S. Government. There is much to be proud of and many shining examples of really terrific citizen services. But they get lost in the forest of all those darned websites.

Three years ago, the Web Content Management Working Group established a goal to make U.S. government websites the most citizen-centered and visitor friendly in the world. Well, someone got there before us. But let’s not let that stop us. Let’s do the right thing for the American people. Follow those Brits!

Related links
Practice What You Know

Common Look and Feel – Maybe the Time Has Come
Stop the Proliferation of Federal Websites!