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: