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.