Sunday, December 21, 2008

As You Plan Ahead, Think About What You Want to Leave Behind

I went through 4 Presidential transitions, as a federal employee; and there's one mistake that I've seen new administrations make too often: they fail to institutionalize their initiatives. They don’t create the infrastructure to make their good ideas integrate them so well into everyday government operations that they can’t be undone (at least not easily). Thus, when the next administration comes to town, those changes can be wiped out with the stroke of a pen.

What does this have to do with web management? Everything. Government web managers are rejoicing that the Obama administration is not only web-savvy, but that it is listening to them. The transition teams have been spot on, asking the right questions about the use of the web in carrying out agency mission. They’ve been open and receptive to the ideas offered by government web managers, including the Web Managers Council White Paper. Hallelujah!

But here’s the caution: as you implement change, be sure you put in place the policies and organization and processes and people to make those changes last. In other words, as you plan ahead, think about what you want to leave behind.

So…specifics – right? Well, here are a few that come to mind.

  1. Sanction the federal Web Managers Council as the official cross-government policy/procedure clearinghouse and coordinating body for web content (comparable to the CIO Council’s role in technology coordination), and (this is the really important part) establish policies and procedures to connect that body to the Chief Technology Officer and OMB. This group of federal web managers has done an exemplary job using grassroots organization and best practice to bring about improvement in all government websites. Give them the boost of official recognition and the ear of top executives, and watch out! They know what needs to be done – let them do it.
  2. Designate GSA as the lead agency on web content management and give them both the mandate and the staffing to coordinate content management across government. That means staffing up the Office of Citizen Services with some agency web managers – either through hiring or extended details – to bring agency experience and enhanced credibility to the leadership effort. It also means hiring expertise in specific areas – like audience analysis – that agencies can tap into.
  3. One of those areas of expertise needs to be plain language. Hire a plain language expert (I’d go after Annetta Cheek, who has been carrying that torch for a long time, but there are others) to the GSA staff (or as a consultant). Lead an effort to slim down and clean up the most used web content. Charge all Cabinet agencies, plus other agencies that interact with the public often, to pass governmentwide “plain language standards” (established by the Web Managers Council working with the plain language experts) for at least the 50 web pages most used by the public, within the next 6 months.
  4. Charge all agencies to post a box with direct links to their 3-5 “top tasks” (those services that citizens want/need the most) on the front page of their websites. Have the Web Managers Council coordinate this effort. Come up with common language and common placement, so citizens will know exactly where to look, no matter which government website they visit. I personally like the “I Want to…” box on the USDA website, but there are other models. Where top tasks overlap agencies, establish links (or better yet, consolidate content…but that’s another blog post...). Publicize this achievement to the public so they know it’s there and so they know you care about their wants/needs. Once the public comes to expect this level of service, THEY won’t let it be wiped out with the stroke of a pen.
  5. Establish a governmentwide web content review and certification process. Now. In 4 years, that will be just part of standard operating procedures. And it’s the right thing to do.

Change is good. Change is needed. The trick is to make it lasting. Make sure the good things you do will be there after you go. Institutionalize change, right from the start.

Related link: So Many Possibilities...But Where to Begin?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Dear Santa…Here’s My Christmas List…

Santa...I know you’re really busy trying to offset this worldwide economic crisis and all…but I’ve been a really good citizen this year, and I’ve trimmed my Christmas list to 5 items. Five is a good number, don’t you think? So here goes...
  1. I want to go to and type in my zip code and pick a couple of topics – housing and health – and find out everything the government (federal, state, and local, if possible, please) has to offer me. Then I want to click on a link and have an online real-time chat with a knowledgeable government employee who can answer my questions and give me objective advice about my options, even if that means giving me information from multiple agencies. And I’d like to be able to do that day or night, any day of the week.
  2. I want to go to Facebook (because I spend time there every day) and - if I choose to be a “fan” – see “status” reports (NOT spin-ettes put out by Public Affairs) from agencies that interest me. Like “today we’re thinking about new public policies on student loans.” And I can choose to “comment.” Or not. Or enter an online discussion with agency experts, outside experts, and other citizens. If I do comment or offer an idea, I’d like to trust (that’s an important word) that a government employee actually will read it, consider it, and – hope springs eternal – take it into consideration. And if it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to know what happens to my comments and ideas.
  3. I want to be able to call a government agency and get the same answer that I get from a government website...and I want to be confident enough that there actually is some internal coordination that I (as a citizen) don’t have to a) check to be sure it’s the same and b) write to that/some agency to tell them they aren’t the same so I need to know which is right.
  4. I’d like to read 10 simple words instead of 100. I’d like to have the 3 best options instead of 20. I’d like to know where to start the process, instead of confronting 25 links listed in alpha order. I’d like some help – like a decision tree – so I can figure out what government program might be best for me. I’m not stupid. I just don't have time to read a library of government information from umpteen agencies, sort it out, analyze it, and try to figure out what the heck it all means. I’d rather have expert government analysts do that. I paid a lot of taxes last year…I think I deserve that service, don’t you?
  5. I want all government websites to look alike. I honestly don’t care which one is prettiest. I honestly don’t care if one is an award winner (I'd like all government websites to be "award-winning" quality). I just want to figure out where the topics are and what the words mean one time, and I want to be able to navigate all over the government with that knowledge. I want to be able to recognize a government website in one quick glance – because it looks like all the other government websites I visit. Then I know I can trust (there’s that important word again) it.

I’ll understand if you can’t bring me everything this year, Santa. If you could bring one or two, I'd be really happy. And whatever you can’t get me this year, that’s OK…I’ll just put it on my list next year. I figure if I keep asking, maybe I'll get what I want, one day. Thanks for listening (there's another one of those important words), Santa.

Monday, November 24, 2008

So Many Possibilities…But Where to Begin?

I’ve been doing a lot of treadmill thinking about what I’d suggest if I were advising the Obama team on government websites. So many exciting ideas floating around - great ways to improve public service via the web - and they all require resources. So I think I’d suggest that the Obama team start by getting a handle on what they’ve got to work with. Then they can make good strategic decisions about how and where they can re-direct resources to these new initiatives. Here are three ideas:

  1. Do an inventory of all government websites. Yes, count them. Find out what purpose each plays, who the audience is, how much traffic they’re getting, and what they cost. What do they contribute in terms of mission achievement and/or service to the public? I’m guessing you could make some decisions right off the bat about eliminating redundancy, closing obsolete sites, and targeting consolidation. See where you can free up resources to do other things better, faster, smarter.
  2. Do an inventory of “top tasks.” Find out what the public really requests/uses/needs most often, across government. Agency web managers should be able to list their top 3-5 tasks by looking at their data and email, over time. Pick ten or so of those top tasks; and use the Web Managers Council to convene cross-agency working groups of web managers, content experts, staff, and maybe even citizens, for each of those ten. Have each working group look at the content currently available across government (’s topical links directories should help). Figure out how to eliminate duplication, consolidate where possible, and – this is something we just haven’t done well across government – put the content in some logical order (maybe it’s steps…”start here;” maybe it’s decision trees…if this, then that; maybe it’s categories) so the public can use it more easily. Target these top tasks for web 2.0 applications - maybe how-to videos; maybe outreach through social media. Get a plain language expert to work on the project. Then put all this on If this works, do more.
  3. Start a governmentwide web content certification process. Some agencies do this already. Bring discipline to content management by putting the onus for quality on the right players – the organization managers who create and own it. Require managers all the way up the chain to certify to the agency head – on some regular basis – that the content their organizations have posted on their websites is current and accurate. Hold them accountable. There’s nothing like telling managers that their performance ratings will be affected if their web content is wrong or outdated, to put focus on the importance of quality. Chances are this also will help keep web content to a manageable mass.

A good baseline is a good place to start. It should help identify the resources needed to turn some of those wonderful possibilities into reality.

Related links: Shines The Light On a Big Problem: Redundancy

Forewarned Is Forearmed

Friday, November 14, 2008

Transition Tests Leadership

Ah – I remember it well…during the last transition, new requirements for our website were coming from all directions. Web managers and team members all over the Department were being urged by the new political team to do this, that, and the other. Many of the new political staff didn’t give a hoot that the Department had policies and procedures for what goes on the website and how it gets there, nor did they care about making sure we retained our goal to look like “one HUD.” It was every branch/division/office for itself.

Transition was a great opportunity for rogue web team members, itching to do their own thing, to go off in their own direction. All they needed was the ear of a new political aide (who probably was unaware of Department web policies), and they had their sanction. Indeed, we eventually saw a major section of the Department break off and create its own website. That we were able to retain as much stability and make as much progress as we did was a minor miracle. And HUD wasn't the only government agency facing this phenomenon.

The last transition was a huge challenge to the leadership abilities of government web managers. This transition will be no different.

How do you keep a web organization together and on track, when you have no legitimate (delegated) authority over all the players? How do you show the incoming political executives and aides the value of a unified strategy across the agency and across government, to improve government websites? How do you keep all you’ve accomplished from falling apart? You have to lead!

It’s as simple (and challenging!) as this: you have to get in to see the new team; and you have to articulate what you want to do and where you’re headed, in terms that this political audience understands. You have to persuade them that it’s the right thing to do for the American people. You have to show your passion for, and conviction in, the strategic direction of the web manager community. You have to know your message and stick to it. You have to repeat it over and over, like a broken record. And you have to make sure that your entire web team can articulate the same principles and direction.

You must be a strong leader to be successful in managing government websites - always. But your leadership abilities have never been more critical than they are now. Hold your team together through your leadership. Inspire them – and your new bosses – to work together across the agency and across government to create websites that provide first-class service to the public. Speaking as a citizen, we are counting on you to do that. Lead!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Ready, Set, GO!

Finally, the Presidential election is behind us! We have our new President-elect, and the very good news for government web managers is that President-elect Obama is web-savvy and very ambitious about using technology to make government more open and transparent to its citizens. So…are you ready?

The transition teams are moving into your agencies right now. You’ve been planning for months. But just in case you still need some pointers on strategy, here are three.

Make an appointment to meet with the transition team TODAY! Find out the name of at least one person on your agency’s transition team and call or email that person, asking for no more than 30 minutes to brief him/her on the agency’s web plans. Go to that meeting well-rehearsed.

Plan a 20-minute presentation, leaving 10 minutes to answer questions and to ask how you can help them succeed. Give them just 3 pieces of information:

  • Who are we serving? Describe your web audiences and what they want/use most (top tasks). Use a few stats, and explain why those stats are important to the new administration. Don’t overwhelm them with “what is” because they’re going to be more interested in “what will be.”
  • What are the goals for improving public service via the web? Give them a copy of the Web Managers Council White Paper, and describe how the web manager community is working together to improve all government websites. Again, make sure they understand how this will help them implement their objectives.
  • What help do you need from the new administration? Tell them what policy changes you need to improve service to the public. If your governance structure needs to be fixed, that should be one of the first items on your agenda. Talk in terms of the value of these changes to the new administration. Keep it short; keep it positive.

Make sure your name and contact info is on each piece of paper you leave behind. Offer to meet again to discuss specific goals and strategies.

Tip for success: take a member of the Web Managers Council with you to this briefing. Show that the community stands together.

Meet with your web organization. You must keep your web team informed. Tell them whom you’ve met, what you’ve said, and what’s been said to you. Your team may be getting information, too. Pool your knowledge to get a better picture of the new team and what they want and need. Players and information will be changing quickly, so find a good way to communicate regularly with your web organization.

Stay plugged in to what’s going on across government. Don’t skip over that email from the Listserv or the Web Council leaders – you need to know what other web managers are learning. Listen in to all Forum calls. Check frequently. We serve best when we serve together. So keep alert to information your colleagues may be getting or giving – it could really help you be successful with the new team!

It’s an exciting time! Change is good. You’re prepared. Be steady. Ready, set, GO!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Work Together Through This Transition

It’s just weeks away…the both longed-for and feared “T” word: transition! It doesn’t matter where your politics lie…when you’re a Fed, you psych up for this event. New bosses. New initiatives. New energy. New challenges. And a new opportunity to show how government web managers are working together to improve public service.

The federal Web Managers Council has crafted a strategy for achieving cross-government goals. They based it on ideas from the web manager community. It’s all right there. Now you have to sell it to the new administration. You have to tell them why it’s important to your agency, to all agencies, and – most of all – to the public. You have to convince them that it’s critical and worth their attention and support. So here’s a thought: if it’s a web community plan, why not do your briefings in web community teams?

How you convey a message often is as critical to success as what you say. If your message is "we have a cross-government strategy," couldn’t you underscore your point by having 2 or 3 web managers from other agencies with you? It's that whole actions speak louder than words thing.

Be strategic. And remember: we serve best when we serve together.

Related links:
5 Things Government Web Managers Should Do Before Transition
Three Wishes

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Leading Strategically

Gwynne Kostin, web manager at Homeland Security, jumped right into a leadership role after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. A member of the federal Web Managers Council, Gwynne marshaled government web managers into information “lanes” and managed a governmentwide effort to provide consistent, concise information for hurricane victims, relatives, and friends. It was a real milestone in the government web manager community –the first time we really worked together to create and manage content on a specific topic, across government websites. Gwynne recognized a management problem and stepped in to provide a strategy and the leadership to solve it.

Since then, Gwynne has led subsequent disaster responses, improving the process each time. She doesn’t wait to be told what to do. She just does it. That’s real leadership.

Now, Gwynne has done it again. As part of the government’s most recent response to devastating hurricanes, Gwynne developed a “widget” – a piece of computer code – that shows 6 simple links:

Federal Hurricane Response

  • Get Prepared
  • Find Friends & Family
  • Health & Safety
  • Donate & Volunteers
  • What Government Is Doing
  • En espanol

This widget appears on the Homeland Security website and – from there - can be copied by other web managers and placed on their own websites, helping the public get the same consistent hurricane information from the government, no matter which website they visit. It saved time and effort for individual web managers because they didn’t have to replicate or create their own set of links; and it provides commonality across government, a bonus for the public. Once again, Gwynne identified a management problem – need for quick, consistent information across government – and used a web 2.0 technology to solve it.

One of my greatest concerns about the Web 2.0 revolution is that web managers will use these technologies and applications because they’re “cool” – not because they are the right solution to a management problem or goal. Gwynne Kostin has demonstrated the right way – the strategic way - to do it. That’s real leadership.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

An Inventory Is A Place to Start

24,000 + federal government websites…where do you begin to address that massive amount of clutter (not to mention overlap, waste, vanity, etc.)? A good inventory is a place to start.

Federal web managers would be doing their new bosses – and all Americans – a big favor if they just simply count the websites. Collect basic data:

  • Title
  • URL (.gov, .mil,, .com, .edu – come on…ferret out all those hidden sites!)
  • Purpose (that should be entertaining)
  • Average monthly visitors (unique visitors per month, over a 3-6 month period)
  • Cost (ah-ha! No cheating. Count FTE – both full-time and at least half-time, contracts, and IT costs, at a minimum)
  • Calculate a cost/visitor ratio

Put it all together (Web Managers Council) and see what you’ve got.

Want to help the next President (and his team) figure out what they’ve got and what they need to do next? Start with an inventory. I double-dog dare you.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Another Voice on Common Look and Feel?

Darrell M. West, formerly of Brown University and now of the Brookings Institution, has released his latest review of e-gov: “State and Federal Electronic Government in the United States, 2008.” Like most federal web managers, I have some concerns about West’s studies…how is it that an agency’s score can change so dramatically from year to year, when virtually no changes were made to the website? But that question aside, West’s reviews always are interesting reading.

One recommendation that West makes in this year’s report really jumped out at me. It’s way down on page 8, under “Policy Recommendations:”

“The most striking discovery while researching state and federal websites was the importance of consistency. States that had websites that were completely inconsistent from one agency to the next were harder to navigate, because each site seemed like an independent entity. Sites that were consistently formatted, however, were much easier to use because one knew where to find certain links with the prior knowledge of their relative locations on other state sites.”

And in a box on that same page:

“Agencies should have layouts similar to the portal page so that users can automatically identify that agency’s website as a government unit.”

On this concept, I am in total agreement with Darrell West.

Years ago, we figured out that if an agency used a common template for all of its component offices and divisions, it makes us look better to the public; and, more important, it makes it easier to use our website(s). I remember when I forced all of HUD’s field and Headquarters offices to move to a single template, back in the mid-1990s. I was nearly tarred and feathered. I was pulling all the creativity and fun out of web management. I was too controlling. I was hated. But you know what? It was the right thing to do. The public loved it. We immediately began getting email from our website visitors saying how much easier it was to use the site and how much it made us look like a single, unified agency, speaking with one voice.

Many federal agencies now “get it” and have pulled all (or most of) their component sites into a single look and feel. USDA did a dynamite job doing just that a couple of years ago. So if it’s the right thing to do across an agency or – as West suggests – a state, why wouldn’t it be the right thing to do across the federal government?

Further, I agree with West that agencies should have layouts similar to the portal page, so that visitors recognize us as a unit. The portal for the federal government is You’ve heard me harp on this over and over – it’s a great design, it’s been tested and tested for usability, so why not use it across the board?

Read Darrell West’s report. It’s worth it. And keep mulling over that idea about a common look and feel across the federal government. The time for tough love may be coming.

Friday, August 15, 2008 Shines the Light on a Big Problem - Redundancy is a terrific website. I love the design – simple, uncluttered, pretty easy to use. The team has done a good job sorting through and categorizing thousands (and thousands and thousands and…) of links to government websites. And in doing that, they have exposed one of government’s biggest problems: redundancy. Duplication. Overlap. Waste.

Go to and pick any topic…let’s say “Family, home, and community.” That’s a category that touches all of us. Drill down through “Homes and housing” to “Home buying and financing.” On that list, you find 12 links that mention “loan,” “mortgage,”
“finances,” “down payment,” or some derivative of these terms. These links lead to information at or from at least 6 different federal agencies (some are publications posted on the Pueblo, Colorado site). One of them takes you to another page of links on mortgages, from even more agencies. Two of the links on that page go to mortgage calculators (one from Ginnie Mae; one from the Federal Reserve).

OK – I’m a citizen looking to my government to give me some good, objective tips on getting a mortgage. And you expect me to plow through all this stuff, sort the wheat from the chaff, and figure out where to start? Come on, folks. Don’t you people talk to one another? Can’t you pull this together in one easy, step-by-step guide? Don’t we pay you to make our lives easier – not harder?

There’s nothing like seeing these long lists of links, topic-by-topic, to recognize inefficiency. I didn’t take time to read through all this info (few would), but I’d be willing to bet there’s at least some duplication (duh) and possibly even some conflicting advice. After all, when you let that many different players publish without coordination or editing, you’re bound to find some conflicting opinions.

We who work(ed) in the federal government know that duplication and lack of coordination across government is rampant. But the internet has really exposed this problem to the public.

So how do you solve it? Well, we’ve already got a model in many agencies: distributed authorship. You create one template with a good set of rules, put someone in charge of enforcing those rules, and let many authors contribute to a single website. You make sure that each topic has a good editor who sees to it that redundancy is eliminated and conflicts are resolved. You scrap all (or at least most) of those individual government websites and use those resources to create content for that single site…content that incorporates all the facts, tips, and services from all the relevant agencies, content that leads the reader through the steps. has sorted out the topics. We know which agencies need to work together, to pool knowledge and resources. The next step is to agree on the goal. That will take courage and humility (it’s hard to give up autonomy). Would it be easy? No. Is it the right thing to do? Yes.

Related links:

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Today’s Government Web Team Needs to Cover the Bases

Government websites are evolving into service stations where the public can drive up, find and use the service they want, and drive away quickly. Government agencies are starting to use the power of “social networking” sites to deliver information and advertise services. Government web managers are paying more attention to what the public wants and are using sophisticated metrics and usability tests to make sure they get it right. And – more than ever – the public is clamoring for websites that talk their talk…that communicate. So what kind of web team do you need to handle this big job? You need one that has all the knowledge, skills, and abilities to cover the bases.

If I were creating my “dream team” today, here’s what I’d want (and let’s just pretend money is no object):

1 Content Manager (note: I did not say “Web Content Manager” – more on that later). GS 15.

  • Major functions: Overall leadership and strategy for content management operations. Representative to agency executives and interagency efforts. Overall editor-in-chief.
  • Why? There’s got to be one leader at the top.

1 Deputy Content Manager GS 15.

  • Major functions: chief problem solver; chief surrogate for the Content Manager.
  • Why? You’ve got to have a trained and knowledgeable surrogate. You’ve got to build redundancies. And you’ve got to create a training ladder so that, by the time you need a new Content Manager, you’ve got one ready. Oh – and you’ve got to have a chief problem-solver…someone who can really dig in on those complex problems, sort them out, and come up with the right answers.

1 Technology Analyst (OK – you could call this person “Webmaster”) GS 13/14

  • Major functions: look for new technologies to carry out content goals; analyze how new technologies could be used to improve content; oversee technology contractors; liaison to CIO.
  • Why? You no longer can dump all that tech responsibility on the CIO. You need to have someone on your own team who can be looking down the road, who understands the content goals and can bridge the gap between communicators and the CIO staff. Whether the next President has an E-Gov Director or a Chief Technology Officer or some other IT lead at OMB, you need to have someone on your team paying attention to that side of the house.

1 Audience Analyst GS 13/14

  • Major functions: develop and analyze metrics; do usability testing; analyze email, correspondence, call-ins to determine what the public wants and what the agency is telling them; recommend new/revised content to meet audience needs.
  • Why? No more guessing allowed. The public expects us to know what they want and give it to them efficiently and effectively. You need an expert analyst who can make sure your content does just that.

1 Director of Local Content GS 13/14

  • Major functions: lead Regional Content Managers; develop local content; coordinate with agency program office outreach operations; direct marketing and outreach.
  • Why? The public wants that local touch. Sure, they want to know how to buy a home. But what they really want to know is how to buy a home in where they live (or want to live). Most agencies have field operations – you’ve got the people out there who have that local expertise. Use it.

1 Intranet Manager GS 13/14

  • Major function: manage the intranet.
  • Why? Employees deserve to have someone paying attention to their wants and needs, someone who will make sure content up-to-date and served in ways that make sense to them. No more making this one of many tasks assigned to one of your team members. Give it the resources it deserves.

2-3 Project Managers GS 11/12

  • Major functions: plan, coordinate, implement, evaluate specific projects such as training, management controls, quality control, documentation, quarterly certifications, foreign language pages, developing new content, editing, etc.
  • Why? So many projects – so little time! You need skilled project managers to make sure none of those balls drop. And this is a great training opportunity for aspiring content managers.

5-7 Regional Content Managers GS 13/14 located in agency offices outside of Washington DC.

  • Major functions: Lead content operations for an assigned geographic area; develop content by state (or city); direct marketing and outreach at the local level; editors-in-chief for local content.
  • Why? Folks in the field know this stuff. And you’ve got to have someone on site who can lead the effort, who have personal touch with the public

5-7 Deputy Regional Content Managers GS 11/12

  • Major functions: assist Regional Content Managers and act as surrogates
  • Why? Redundancy and assistance

1-2 Staff Assistants GS 7/9

  • Major functions: Assist in day-to-day operations of the content team, assist in project management
  • Why? Someone’s got to keep you going…cross those ‘t’s,” dot those “i’s.” And it’s a great way to pull entry-level employees into your career ladder, train them for bigger jobs.

OK – so why “content” and not “web content”? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, I believe that “web” limits the thinking of agency executives. When they hear or read “web,” they think of a website and computers – not about the tasks being served or the words on the page. They pigeonhole the content manager into a “techie” slot, rather than in the more appropriate “communicator” slot.

More important, I think it’s inevitable – and right – that, one day, all communications operations will be put under one organizational umbrella…websites, publications, call centers, and any other methods of content delivery. Someday (hopefully soon), government leaders will realize that we need to create content once and deliver it many ways. So let’s get those leaders thinking of us in terms of “content” management – not just “web” management. And when they staff those umbrella organization jobs...well, there we’ll be.

It’s transition time – use it. Get your staffing plan ready. Let your new bosses know what you need to run a successful contemporary government web team. The next President is sure to know the power of government websites. He is sure to make new demands that will affect you. This is a great time to take a hard look at your web team and make sure you’ve got what you need to cover the bases.

Related links:

5 Things Government Web Managers Should Do Before Transition

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Are We Ready for E-Democracy?

Steve Clift recently published a thought-provoking article called, “Sidewalks for Democracy Online,” part of the Personal Democracy Forum’s “Rebooting Democracy” series. Steve is a long-time proponent of “e-democracy” – creating government of and by the people – not just for the people, using the internet. I’m with Steve. Involving citizens in the work of government in meaningful ways is the right thing to do. We should have online forums. We should create online work sessions allowing citizens to interact with their government to define issues and solve problems. We should use social networking options and wikis to bring government and citizens together. We should draw on the energy and ideas and talents of the public to improve the work of their government. But I wonder…are we ready for e-democracy?

Is there enough real interest among citizens – beyond the advocates – in being involved in government to make it worth the cost? Is the government (at least the federal government) ready to take this on – to change its culture - even with a President who is behind it? Is Congress ready to fund it (because we all know that unfunded mandates never last)? Are we ready to do the kind of promotion that it will take to change the skepticism of the American people?

Let’s be honest - the current culture of the federal government – like it or not – is very authoritarian. It’s, “we know what’s best for you.” Come on, feds…when was the last time you were encouraged to go out and listen to citizens? Sure, we take comments on proposed rules; but don’t we sometimes put more energy into rebutting them than embracing them? Aren’t we more likely to pull out that regulation or handbook and tell a citizen, “no” than to talk with that citizen about options?

And on the other side...many citizens want their government to be all-knowing. They want to trust their government to give them the right answer. So – to some – creating e-democracy might cause dissonance. “I’m so glad you listened to and adopted my idea, Government; but that means you weren’t completely right in the first place. If that’s true in this case, is it true in others? Can we really trust you to be right? I thought we were paying you people our tax dollars so you can solve these problems.”

Actually, e-democracy is not a new concept for government. Many agencies made attempts in the past. In the late 90s, we jumped all over the online discussion possibilities at HUD. We had a number of discussion rooms, both for HUD partners and for citizens. Some were around specific topics. Some were pretty much wide open – “let’s talk about what citizens can do in their communities to make them better.” What we found – nearly across the board – is that we got very little citizen participation; and those that did participate often used the discussion rooms to ask specific questions about HUD programs. There really wasn’t much discussion.

The bigger problem was managing the discussion rooms. Though a HUD employee was responsible for each discussion room, too often they didn’t visit the rooms regularly. Thus, we’d see nasty comments from people who had asked questions that weren’t answered or discover other participants (non-government) giving wrong information. We also saw discussions going way off track; and in a couple of cases, we saw small groups of regulars basically hijack the discussion room for completely different purposes. Managing discussion rooms is a workload item that needs appropriate staffing. Without that staffing – we learned - they fail.

E-democracy could work. What would it take?

  • A change in culture. A President who makes it a priority, gets Congressional backing, creates the policies, dedicates the resources, and holds government employees accountable – from top to bottom – for results.
  • A change in values. Government managers and staff have to be rewarded for listening and discussing alternatives with the public – involving them in the process. They have to value a new way to do business.
  • Planning. Agency executives have to incorporate e-democracy in their management plans. They have to allocate appropriate (underscore “appropriate”) staff to engage in online forums, analyze and respond to citizen questions, take action on the solutions that are generated, and follow up to let citizens know what became of their ideas so they’ll want to participate again.

For our part, web managers need to think it through. We need to prepare. We need to use our experience to identify potential pitfalls and be ready with solutions. We need to develop practical implementation strategies based on a realistic assessment of resource needs; so if we’re asked, we can propose a sound, thoughtful, realistic method for ensuring success. We need to do this as a community - engaging those with knowledge, experience, and ideas - so we all can succeed.

E-democracy is a concept that is gaining attention from both parties. It’s a good thing. Are we ready?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Don't Make Your New Bosses Do All the Thinking

You’ve read their intentions, on their campaign websites. You’ve speculated and pondered what they may want to do, as far as the internet is concerned. But here’s the question: what should they do?

You’re the pros. You’ve been running government websites for a long time now. You know where the candidates are being idealistic and where they’re being practical. You know what policy issues will have to be addressed to make their promises come true. More important, you know what else needs to be done, to improve the way the government serves citizens. So what advice will you give them?

I’ve read a couple of interesting articles recently. Both got me thinking. The first was an article in the Wall Street Journal, “The Next American Frontier,” by Michael S. Malone. Malone talks about the change in America – especially in the behavior and expectations of young people. He describes many of them as “entrepreneurial” – wanting to work for themselves, do their own thing. How can we help our new bosses respond to this new generation of citizens? How can we help them use the internet to attract those young people to government service? Certainly work-at-home situations and virtual teams could help. What else could we suggest?

The second article was on…an article called “HisSpace,” by Marc Ambinder. It’s specifically about Barak Obama and his intentions to seize the power of the internet to involve the public in government. But the author wonders if Obama can succeed, if he’s elected. Can he meet the expectations of the public?

Read both of these articles. Share them with your web friends. Talk about them. Look for more “think piece” articles. Throw what you read into the mix, along with your experience and knowledge; and really think seriously about what we can do to help our new President (whoever he or she is) succeed. What can we propose to our new bosses to help them (and us) move toward the future?

Don’t make your new bosses do all the thinking. All three of the Presidential candidates are outsiders – they haven’t worked in the Executive Branch (OK – you might say that Hillary has been close…but she hasn’t been where you are). Give them a break. Do the right thing. Give them some meaty proposals - some really forward-thinking ideas that are based in the reality you know - that could really improve the way the government serves citizens.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Good Things Do Happen to Good People

I was absolutely delighted to see Sheila Campbell chosen one of the top 10 innovators in government information technology this week, with the presentation of the 2008 Technology Leadership Awards. Bravo, Government Computer News! You got it right.

Being a web innovator is a thankless job. It’s tilting at windmills, rolling the stone uphill, and all those other old (but accurate) clichés. I don’t know anyone who has worked more tirelessly to make government websites meaningful to citizens than Sheila.

I first met Sheila as she was coming off maternity leave, in 2004. We were designated co-chairs of a cross-agency working group charged with developing policy recommendations for OMB, in compliance with the E-Gov Act of 2002, Section 207. Sheila was on the FirstGov (now staff and was not especially well-known in the web manager community. But she dug into that task like the dedicated pro she is.

We had a tight deadline (mandated by the legislation); and we had a geographic challenge – I was in Tucson, and Sheila was in DC. That meant that she had to do all the legwork in Washington. Sheila earned her place in the web manager community – and my trust and respect – by going way beyond the call of duty. She’s a born leader, and she was a great partner on a pivotal project.

Since then, Sheila created a website for government web managers (, shepherded a new training academy for government web managers (Web Manager University), and – at the same time – served as a leader of the Web Managers Forum and Web Managers Council. Those are great credentials. But that’s not what makes Sheila such a deserving honoree, in my book. It’s her sincere passion for using the web to serve citizens that puts her on one of my pedestals. It’s how she puts her heart and soul into that goal. It’s how she worries about doing the right thing and how she pushes the web manager community toward better service. Sheila is a true “public servant.” She never loses sight of her raison d'être. She never gives up. She’s a true leader.

Way to go, Sheila! You definitely earned this affirmation.

Friday, May 02, 2008

When Web Managers Gather...

On Monday and Tuesday, some 450 government web managers from across the country will gather in Washington to hear new ideas, network, and - this year - build energy toward that action-packed time of change that comes with electing a new President. This annual meeting of the web manager community is perhaps the best use of their time all year, as far as the public is concerned, because – for a few hours – they are “government” web managers – not HUD web managers or State Department Web Managers or Indiana web managers or Chicago web managers. And when web managers start thinking and acting collectively, their power – and their results – increases exponentially.

For those couple of days, they raise their heads and look around at all that they have in common. They share ideas. They nod at common problems and common goals. They make notes about new ideas they want to try. They seek out one another at lunch or after a session to talk more about pet peeves or get more “how to’s.” They form alliances and talk about working together to make all government websites better. They take time to think about those they serve: the public. They get re-charged…they get excited. That’s a good thing for you and me, Citizen.

If you’re one of those smart web managers going to the Web Managers conference, have a great time! Soak it all up. Meet your colleagues. Seek collaboration. Get on board with the community’s plans for transition. Go home inspired!

(Oh – and if you aren’t going this year, be sure to sign up early next year. This is a “don’t miss” opportunity! It’s good for you. It’s good for those you serve.)

Friday, April 04, 2008

5 Things Government Web Managers Should Do Before Transition

A couple of weeks ago, I taught a Web Governance course for Web Manager University. To get ready for that class, I polled some of my former colleagues to see where web governance stands, across government. After all, we’ve been running government websites for 13 years now; so I expected that most agencies would have most pieces (roles, responsibilities, relationships, rules, and review) in place. Wrong! I was surprised to see how many lacked some of the basics.

With transition coming, web managers need to pin down their governance structures. Even if it’s not perfect, document what you’ve got – if only to show where there are holes. Find out what you're spending to run your website(s) and be ready to talk about return on investment.

Imagine a new boss walking in and asking you for your policies or procedures or management controls or strategic plan; and you reply, “I don’t have them.” What if your new boss asks what you're spending on the website and you say, "I don't know?" What if those new bosses walk in with a long list of ideas for using the web, and you don’t have a strategic plan and firm knowledge of your budget and resources so you can point out what trade-offs will have to be made to accommodate those new initiatives? You’d be putting your new bosses in the position of making a bad decision because you didn’t have the facts to help them make a good one. Not a great way to start.

Here’s my advice to government web managers. If you do nothing else, do these 5 things before the November election (and the arrival of those transition teams):

  1. Document everything NOW! Write down your existing governance structure, policies, publication procedures/standards, and operating procedures. Have them ready for the new team. Identify deficiencies and plans to correct them.
  2. Identify and document management controls (procedures) to prevent fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement of web content. Make sure you’re using them.
  3. Find out how much you’re spending to run the website(s)! Include FTE (staff) – both full-time and part-time – and contract dollars spent on content support. If you can find out technology costs, that’s good, too. Know your budget. Be ready to discuss return on investment and justify costs.
  4. Come up with at least one or two performance measures tied to mission achievement and/or public service. Traffic and customer satisfaction measures are not enough to justify a website.
  5. Develop/document a strategic plan. Be able to show your new bosses where you’re going and explain why, in terms of impact on mission/public service. Incorporate governmentwide goals. Include goals to correct deficiencies in governance structures, policies, procedures, and management controls, as well as goals for progress. Be ready to discuss all your initiatives (including web 2.0 initiatives) in terms of the strategic goals they help achieve.

Do yourself a favor. Get these ducks lined up. You’ll look like an effective manager and be on much better footing when you talk to your new bosses. Tick, tick, tick.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Is It Better to Give or to Receive?

In the mania that is “Web 2.0,” I wonder why no one is talking about message boards?

A recent article about the official who is managing the United Kingdom’s reorganization of government websites got me thinking. At the end of the article, this official mentions that he thinks government should get active on message boards, answering the questions of citizens. You know what? I’d kind of forgotten about message boards.

Many of us tried using message boards/discussion boards fairly early on, in the evolution of our government websites. I ended up taking ours down because – honestly – we just didn’t have the staff to manage them. We learned pretty quickly that you have to have someone – preferably a glib subject matter expert - who can step in to monitor the discussions, keep everyone on course, and correct any misconceptions. Once I took it down, I forgot about the message board capability. But this article got me thinking about it again.

Blogs are a great option for government agencies to deliver information to citizens in an informal way. They let government officials step out of the formal “governmentspeak” and behave like normal human beings. I’ve seen a couple of pretty good government blogs, including Gov Gab and EPA’s Flow of the River. Blogs do offer the opportunity for citizens to comment and respond. But it seems that few do. I wonder if we’ve got it backwards? I wonder if – as that UK official suggests – we should let citizens frame the questions, and government officials can comment or respond?

Maybe it’s time to resurrect that old message board/discussion board technology and see if it might have merit, in this “social” revolution. Maybe those officials who are writing blogs could serve citizens better if they spent that time answering the questions that citizens pose. Maybe we should reconsider our strategy. Maybe in addition to - or instead of – giving out advice, we should receive our cues from the people we serve. Something to consider.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Beware the "Google is King" Strategy

This morning, I read another article about what’s going on with government websites in Great Britain. For those who don’t know, they’re in the process of shutting down many (most?) of their websites, focusing on two supersites: DirectGov and BusinessLink. Actually, I like that idea.

But the thing the struck me about this article is that, apparently, some officials in Great Britain – like some of the officials at our own Office of Management and Budget – think that all we need to do is post our vast government libraries online and let citizens use Google to sort it out. It’s not a bad concept. But is it really “public service?” Is our only responsibility to the public to make information available? Or do we have a responsibility to help the public find what they want and use it?

I still think there is value to organization, navigation, and - most of all - pointing out a path to follow toward the goals citizens want to achieve, on government websites. That's the value that web managers/editors can add. That’s something that Google cannot do.

Web managers need to be ready to address the “Google is King” thinking because if that becomes our government’s web strategy, then web managers could end up being relegated to the role of (as Gerry McGovern calls it) "putter uppers."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What's Missing from E-Gov? A Mandate to Communicate!

Early this week, I mailed a copy of my assessment, "What's Missing From E-Gov? A Mandate to Communicate!" to each member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. That's Senator Joe Lieberman's committee, and they're working on reauthorization of the E-Gov Act of 2002 (E-Government Authorization Act of 2007, S. 2321, if you want to look it up). I made a plea to the Senators to consider adding some provisions to encourage (force?) government to communicate more effectively with citizens. Will I be heard? Who knows. Maybe one of the staffers will read it and ask some questions. I'd consider that to be a victory.

If you'd like to read the entire report, you can download it (in Word). If you'd just like a summary of what I recommended, here goes:

1. Issue a “Citizens Bill of Rights” to serve as the guiding principles – and government’s promise – for communicating with the public.

When citizens interact with their government, they should be able to:

  • Get the information or service they want without knowing which agency supplies it.
  • Get answers to their questions promptly, completely, and in words they understand.
  • Complete government transactions – including applying for programs and filling out forms – online, and those processes should be easy to find and easy to use.
  • Talk to a human being when they want to.
  • Get the same answers to their questions, no matter who they ask or how they ask them (online, in writing, on the phone).
  • Get clear and accurate instructions on where to start and what happens next.

2. Appoint a Director of Communications at OMB, comparable to the Director of E-Gov and responsible for governmentwide communications policies.

3. Designate GSA to be the operations center for government communications. Charge GSA to develop and implement a plan to coordinate the agencies and to consolidate content and communications across government. GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communication already has many of the right pieces, including the staff and USA Services. They just need the authority to bring it all together, across government. As part of the strategy, they could:

  • Establish a common design for most government websites. We’d save money across government (do you know how much it costs every time you design a website?), make it easier for citizens to use all government websites, and probably eliminate a lot of vanity websites.
  • Establish a common dictionary of terms, so agencies use the same words to mean the same things. Develop these terms based on words that the public uses and would recognize – not based on terms the government commonly uses. Train government writers to use them.
  • Create 3-5 “supersites” to serve as one-stops (but not just “portals” or link lists) for citizens. For example,
    o USAServices, where citizens would find brief, well-written narrative to lead them through the top tasks that they seek most often
    o USANews, where the public could find news and information about the administration’s initiatives and accomplishments
    o USAInfo, to serve as the library for important, but less requested information. Give it a great search engine.

4. Establish a senior level Chief Communications Officer at each Cabinet level agency and at other agencies that carry out programs of interest to citizens. Charge the CCO with overseeing and coordinating content operations (including web, print, telephone) so agencies create content once and deliver it in many ways. Create a staff with strong communication skills – writing, editing, and communicating with the public. While Public Affairs could be part of this operation, it has a distinct function and audience (press), not to be confused with the broader audience of “citizens.”

5. Issue a mandate to all agencies to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of current government communications (web, print, telephone) and to develop plans for streamlining and improvements, to include:

  • Identifying and improving the efficiency of those “top tasks” that many citizens seek.
  • Developing an inventory of all information delivery devices (including all websites) and justifying each.

6. Commission a study to assess how the public wants to interact with government in the future. Work with the Pew Research Center or another entity focused on how the public interacts with government to learn:

  • What critical information and functions the public would like to be able to get from the federal government that they can’t get now,
  • Which critical information and functions currently available to the public could be delivered better if it were streamlined or improved, and
  • Which critical information and functions the public think are most important to get from the federal government (“top tasks”).

    Use the results to direct improvements.

Agree? Disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts.