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 USA.gov, 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

2 comments:

Steve said...

Candi, great to see you posting again these days. I agree that web site consolidation would be beneficial but the realist in me doesn't think this will happen. Your posts prompted me to post on this topic myself at: http://uxpub.blogspot.com/2007/01/so-many-government-web-sites-so-little.html. Would be interested in your reaction.

Candi Harrison said...

Hey, Steve – so great to hear from you!

Well, I’m going to argue with you on this one, for a couple of reasons. First, though the eventual outcome may favor your view more than mine, I hope that will be the result of serious thinking and effort, rather than giving into a fatalistic excuse. True, I am an optimist. But I have reason to be optimistic. I’ve seen many amazing things happen because a few good people believed in doing the right thing. I do believe that we can cause at least some consolidation of content by pushing the absolute. To give web managers and agencies an “out” from the start is counter-productive.

I absolutely know that it’s the right thing to do, for citizens, to merge as much content as possible. All kinds of data show that people choose better when there are fewer choices. From my own experience, it is hugely frustrating to pick through usa.gov searches or Google searches, trying to find where to start and what to believe.

But I think the real issue here isn’t consolidation – it’s editing. There is too much government content and most of it is written very poorly. If we could end up with a slimmed down version of usa.gov, make it more than a links directory, and serve up the absolute top most needed/used citizen services, that would be a huge success.

I do think someone has to start saying no. Agencies managers and political leaders have proven they can’t. Their self-interest is too strong. I think the best hope is to find someone in the next administration who might see the value in some centralization, who will make it a political agenda item. That’s what worked in the UK. In the meantime, the more web managers are ready for that step – and buy into it – the better.

I guess I’d just hate to see US government web managers give up or take the easy way out, before they even tackle the issues and sort through the data. I think you have to aim for the best - for the right thing to do. Isn’t that the American way?