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!