Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Can YOU Find What Citizens Want on Government Websites?

We want citizens to think of government websites first, when they have an everyday problem to solve - don’t we? We want them to use our websites (collectively) to do all sorts of common tasks – find a home, get answers about household poisons, prepare their kids for school, get the best medical information. And citizens WILL come to our websites repeatedly – if they continue to have good experiences…if they consistently can complete the tasks they want to complete in a reasonable amount of time.

Like it or not, citizens think of “the government” as a single entity. And – like it or not - citizens make judgments about all government websites, based on their experiences with any government website. So it’s in the best interest of each of us to know how all of us are doing. How do you do that? It’s simple. See if YOU can find what citizens want on government websites.

Here’s a little test. Take a half hour, and see how many of these questions you can answer. Here is the only rule: you only can use government websites to do your research. You may use USA.gov or Google’s U.S. Government search
to help you. But that’s it. These are common scenarios that any citizen might encounter. Ready? Go.

1. Housing: Your younger brother is a school teacher, making $35,000 a year. He’s single. He wants to buy a home. He lives in Iowa. He’s only got $5,000 saved for a down payment and closing costs, so he hopes there might be some government programs that could help him. He has no idea how to buy a home, and he doesn’t know where to begin in the process. You’ve volunteered to help him figure out what steps he needs to take.

2. Health: Your 75-year-old mother-in-law has just been diagnosed with gall bladder disease. She has to see her doctor tomorrow to discuss options for treatment. She has no idea what the gall bladder does, much less what this disease means. She only has Medicare, so she’s concerned that the best treatment won’t be covered. She’s called you asking that you help her figure out what’s going on, what to expect, and what questions to ask.

3. Food: Your office has decided to “adopt” a low-income family for Christmas. One of the things this family desperately needs is help buying healthy foods, on a very tight budget. They probably qualify for some government programs, but they don’t know what. As important, they really need some tips on how to buy healthy foods, on a low-income budget. At least 2 of the children are suffering health problems as a result of obesity. You’ve been given the task of coming up with some advice for them.

4. Education: Your neighbor’s daughter is a good student – not top of the class, but in the top quarter. Her parents had some hard times, and they just don’t have the money to send her to college. You’re thinking that there must be some government programs that could help this promising young woman go to college, without creating a debt so heavy that she’ll never be able to dig out.

OK – so how did you do? Could you complete your tasks quickly? Could you find what you need easily? Was everything written so you could understand it? Were the searches helpful, or did they overwhelm you? Did the most useful information turn up high on the list? Did you believe that you got comprehensive information?

If you had a great experience, then woo hoo! That’s victory for all of us. But if you didn’t have such a great experience – if you found it easier or harder in some cases than in others – then let’s talk about it. Let’s use the Web Content Managers Forum and the Web Managers Advisory Council to raise concerns and think about better options. If we want citizens to come to government websites, then we have to work together to make sure all of our sites deliver efficient and effective service. We do serve best when we serve together.

Monday, March 05, 2007

What If Our Bosses Don’t Want to Be Educated?

For years, government web managers have bemoaned the fact that we can't make the progress we hope to make because our “bosses” don’t listen to us. They don't give us credit for knowing what we’re talking about (because anyone who uses the internet thinks he/she is an expert in web design), don’t understand that you can’t give front page links out like chits, and don’t get it that citizens don’t want to see photos of political officials on the front pages of government websites. Sound familiar? I’ll bet. So, for years, we have talked about how we need to “educate our bosses,” so they’ll understand and support us (and let us do our jobs).

Now, as I reflect – and as I continue to hear my former colleagues talk about the need to “educate their bosses” – it occurs to me that maybe we’ve been barking up the wrong tree. Maybe it's time to realize that strategy isn't working. Maybe our bosses don't want to be educated. Maybe they have too much else on their minds. Maybe we should use what has worked for us before: the power of our grassroots community...the power of critical mass.

Look at the change we caused just two years ago, with the recommendations to OMB we made through the Web Content Management Working Group. We didn’t suggest that everyone start doing a bunch of new things. No – we went out and found those “best practices” that already were being used in many or most agencies, and we asked OMB to incorporate them into policy. The result was that agencies that hadn’t implemented the practices (in many cases, because they couldn’t get their bosses’ support) now had a mandate. Further, now that the practices have been sanctioned, they will be less susceptible to changing bosses and changing administrations.

If one web manager wants everyone in the agency to start using standard metadata so that search engines can help citizens find what they want more easily, he or she may not get very far. But if several web managers in several agencies get together and decide to use the same metadata and if the usa.gov staff jump onboard and agree to start harvesting certain content by using that metadata, you can cause change. You can control your own destiny.

So, yes – do keep briefing your bosses and telling them ways they could help you improve your websites. Do share your knowledge of your audiences – especially citizens. Do seize opportunities to use management support to make your websites and content practices better. But be realistic. Your bosses have a lot of other things to worry about. So instead of getting frustrated and feeling powerless when your bosses don’t give you a blank check, apply your energy and leadership to something that works. Build critical mass. You can cause right things to happen. You just have to work together to do it.

"Change from the top down happens at the will and whim of those below.” --Peter Block

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Couple of Thoughts about Governance – Thought Two…Across Government

Everyone who knows me or who has read prior blog entries knows I am a strong advocate of cross-government web governance. I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do and the only way to achieve the quality web content that the public (aka – taxpayers) deserve. But I do think getting from where we are to a successful cross-government governance structure is tricky. Why? Because we’re going to be moving from the current (and long-standing) grassroots governance structure to a centralized governance structure. And existing grassroots leaders – often agency web managers – aren’t going to be eager to give up their autonomy. I’ve been there – I know. So the key is to use that leadership within the cross-agency structure.

“Well, of course,” you think. “That’s what the Web Managers Advisory Council is for.” Yes, the Advisory Council is an important part of this process. But I don’t think it’s enough to effect the kind of change in governance I hope for.

I’ve already written that I think GSA’s Office of Citizen Services should be given the lead – and the authority – to coordinate web content operations across government. If GSA is given that role, they need to implement it with great thought and complete understanding of what they’re undertaking. In my opinion, the first thing they need to do is hire a few of those experienced agency web managers – those grassroots leaders. Get those skills and that perspective on the staff. Build goodwill. Further, it would be great to rotate agency web managers through the Office of Citizen Services routinely, to keep the agency perspective fresh within the Office of Citizen Services and to give agency web managers a taste of the big picture point of view.

Four years ago, when we formed the Web Content Management Working Group, we agreed that how we went about developing our recommendations to OMB was as critical as what we recommended. We knew we had to involve all the key players - in a meaningful way - and listen to all the key constituencies or – no matter what we recommended and no matter what OMB said – change wouldn’t happen. The same concept applies here. The only way cross-government governance will work is to seize the power of the existing grassroots leadership and incorporate it in the new governance structure.

A Couple of Thoughts about Governance – Thought One...At the Agency Level

CIO or Public Affairs? Public Affairs or CIO? The debate of the past 12 years lingers. No doubt it will become an issue – again – as the administration changes in 2009. I’m not sure why these are the only two choices (more on that in a minute), but if they are – why hasn’t this been settled long ago?

The logic seems clear. Websites – at least internet websites – are about interacting with the public. CIOs aren’t about the public – they’re internal service providers. They exist to serve internal clients – the program managers. They don’t interact with the public, nor should they. They don’t have staff who are knowledgeable about the public, nor should they. They don't have writers and editors on staff, nor should they. Public Affairs, on the other hand, is all about the public and writing and editing. The fact that most Public Affairs operations focus entirely – or almost entirely – on the press aside, if the only two choices for the web content management function are the CIO and Public Affairs, then the answer to this long-standing debate seems clear. It’s Public Affairs.

But wait – how about another option? Actually, two.

One of the really great guesses that the executives at HUD made way back in 1995 – and subsequent executives have retained – is that the web management function belongs with the chief management officer in the agency - in HUD’s case, the Deputy Secretary. Why does that make great sense? Two reasons. First, agency websites should be about mission and program delivery. The chief management officer is the top official in charge of day-to-day achievement of mission and program delivery. So it’s a perfect match. Second reason…the Deputy Secretary is organization-neutral. The CIO and the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs are peers on the organizational chart, along with all the other chief program officers. If there is a disagreement with a web policy, can the CIO or Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs really tell a peer “no?” Of course not. Either they’ll acquiesce (which is deadly for the website) or the issue will get elevated to the Deputy Secretary anyway. So why not just put the function with the executive who really has the final say?

But here’s an even better option: create a new organizational unit with a single mission: serving the public. Staff it with people who are experts in audience analysis and communications. Set it apart from other organizational components – so it remains neutral – and give it the authority to act as editor-in-chief for all program content served by any means to the public. I won’t go on more here – I’ve already written about this in prior entries (linked below). But I do think agencies have to get a grip on the fact that there is a huge "public" out there that is neither business partner nor press, and their web governance structures need to reflect that fact.

Related links:

Serving the Public – What Lies Ahead?
Somebody Needs to Say “No”