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."