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!”