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?

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