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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder how DOJ will defend their choices on to lobby Congress: