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 amazon.com): news, services, information. If we did it across government, our audiences soon would learn which category suits their purposes. USA.gov 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