Monday, December 28, 2009


Well, here we are…at the end of another year. I don’t know about you, but I always use this last week of the year to reflect and get re-centered for the coming year.

As I looked through my blog posts over the year, I see a trend. I started out high on the optimism that comes with a new President, hopeful that all wrongs would be righted and all dreams would come true. Well, needless to say, that didn’t happen. I really didn’t think it would…but I did HOPE.

I also looked through some of the email I’ve received from my web colleagues this year. Again, there’s that trend…high on hope at the beginning and, over the months, reality sets in. In some cases, there’s even despair. Well, yes, there are some worrisome things going on…pressure to push administration “news” overwhelming the great need to improve online services; a surprising (disappointing) number of new websites - some that look redundant, some that clearly are vanity sites, and many that show no real appreciation for usability standards – adding to the already enormous bloat of online government information; and in some cases, experienced and knowledgeable web managers being pushed aside (and even out) for trying to do what they know citizens want.

But there also are good things happening…the web manager community as a whole has come together and is being recognized for their ideas; government websites are being used to engage citizen participation in unprecedented ways; and some of the threshold issues in web management that need to be resolved are being aired and discussed at the appropriate levels. All in all, not a bad year. But what’s next? What will the new year bring? More important, what can I (and you) do to make it better?

Well, here’s where the title of this blog piece comes in. Believe! Let me digress a bit.

A few weeks ago, I walked into Macy’s mothership store (the one on 34th St. in New York), and I looked up to see a huge sign that said, “Believe!” It was their Christmas theme, and there’s no doubt that all those kids dropping their letters to Santa in the big “wish box” were taking it to heart. For some reason, that sign really struck me. It got me thinking about what everything comes down to – knowing what you believe…following your own beliefs. Keeping them in site. Using them to ground you when the going gets tough AND when you’re high on success. Reviewing them periodically to make sure they’re still right, and – if they are – recommitting yourself to upholding them. Showing in your actions what you believe in your head and heart.

So, as I reflect on the past year in the world of government web management and the possibilities for next year, here’s what I believe:

I believe in public service. I believe it’s a noble profession that attracts people who want to serve, not sell, and who want to help others, not themselves. I believe that public servants are committed and smart and resourceful and capable of solving any problem and overcoming any obstacle. I believe that once you’re a public servant, you’re always a public servant – that it’s a life-long passion, not just a job. I believe that, if you are a public servant, you do what you can (even if it’s only lobbing in some ideas through a blog) to help citizens.

I believe in courage and common sense. I believe that the best of us take risks to do the right thing. I believe that we don’t give up – that we keep looking for ways around the “no’s” and that we push on, despite the obstacles. I believe that best practices come from common sense approaches.  I believe that if we trust our common sense, show courage even when we feel powerless, and speak up even when we face disapproval, we can solve any problem and achieve any goal.

I believe in the power of the community. I believe that we serve best when we serve together. I believe in building critical mass and sharing what we know and using the combined knowledge, wisdom, and talents of our colleagues to cause real, positive, lasting change.

Above all, I believe in doing the right thing for the American people. I know that if we use this value as our compass and articulate our goals based on this belief, we cannot be wrong. And I believe that if we do right things that serve the public well, then we have succeeded.

These are my beliefs. Maybe some of them are your beliefs, too. Whatever…maybe – like me - you’ll use this last week of the year to sit down and think about what you really believe in. Get yourself re-centered. And then think about what you can do next year to show that you “believe!”

Happy New Year, one and all!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Time For a Re-Think of

When was born, a central links directory of the government was a huge asset. Now, however, citizens turn to Google for lists of links. So if is to add value, I think it’s time for a major re-think of its purpose. It’s an important discussion…one that impacts - and therefore should involve - the whole web manager community - and beyond.

So what could do that no one is doing now? To me it’s obvious. There’s a huge void that needs to be filled. We need a one-stop “government service center.” We need a place where we citizens can go and find everything we need to know about the most used, most important government services. We need it to be written in terms we understand, with as few steps between getting to the site and leaving the site a satisfied customer, as possible. We need one place to draw the very best advice and service that government has to offer, synthesized so that citizens don’t have to go from link to link, agency to agency, trying to figure out what their options are. We need content that says, “start here” and “have you thought about this?” We need decision trees…is this your situation? Go here. Is that your situation? Go there.

How do you do that? Turn into a CONTENT site – not a links site. Focus on top tasks – starting with the things that citizens are most worried about today…how do I find affordable housing? How do I keep my home? How can I put healthy meals on the table when I don’t have much money? How can I send my kids to college? I just lost my job - where can I find a new job, and what can I do to keep a roof over my head and feed my family until I get that new job? I’m a Boomer and was planning to retire – what are my options in this economy?

Turn the staff into content leaders. Convene teams from across agencies, around the services citizens want most. Include agency web managers and web writers, but also subject matter experts. Involve plain language experts. And for Pete’s sake, get some usability experts involved from planning through execution and evaluation.

Get citizen involvement – don’t sit around and second-guess what makes sense to citizens. And make that involvement routine, to keep the content fresh, focused, and on target. Use new media to tell citizens about this new content. Make that part of the strategy. Cycle experienced agency web managers through GSA to help with the effort. Give the staff editorial responsibility – we need someone who can say, “no, we’re not going to use that junk” and “yes, you DO need to re-write that content to make it more citizen-friendly.”

Start small and build. Don’t wait until you get it all together and then roll out a new website. Get a couple of services together and put it up. See what works, what doesn’t; and then do more. Call it a pilot, to get started.

Add a human component. Use that wonderful online chat service that already has to assist citizens through these services. Bring in subject matter experts who can actually answer citizens’ questions – not just refer them to more links. Many years ago, I talked about the need for governmentwide “ombudsmen” – government employees with broad knowledge about a variety of government services whose job is to just work with citizens – online – to help them navigate government processes when they stumble. Maybe it’s time to give that idea another look-see.

Use this as an opportunity to start downsizing the inventory of government websites and consolidating government web content. Write MOUs with the agencies, getting them to agree that – when the content is absorbed into - they’ll pull it off the agency site. Eventually, experiment with consolidating services through layers of government, so citizens don’t have to know whether what they need is federal, state, or local.

OK – you may agree or not. But here’s the bottom line: I’m convinced it IS time to come up with a new paradigm for  Let’s think big.

Update December 15:  GSA has just posted a link on the front of asking the public to join the discussion about's future.  This is your chance to weigh in - please do!

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Power of Watching and Listening

Gerry McGovern’s newsletter this week is all about the power of watching and listening to the people who use your website. According to Gerry, observing actual behavior really is the only way to know how successful (or not) your site is. It’s all about making sure people can find and do what they want, as fast as possible, and come away with the right answer. It’s all about making sure you don’t waste your audience’s time.

Pretty simple – right? Makes perfect sense. Yet how many web managers and web contributors and - dare I ask? - government managers who want their content to be prominent on agency websites have actually watched and listened to people using their websites?

In almost every class I teach, I ask how many people do - or have done - usability testing (which is using various techniques to watch and listen to people using your website). I’m always surprised how few hands go up. Government websites have been around for 15 years now, but we’re still trying to sit in our offices and second-guess our audiences. Or worse, we use our sites to tell our audiences what we think they should know. Now, there may be some people out there who want government to decide what they should know. But I don’t know those people.

From early on, I knew that listening was key to the success of a web manager. It probably came from those counseling courses I took in grad school. I took to heart what people said or asked in their emails and what they said when I talked to them on the phone or at public demonstrations of HUD’s website. I used what I learned, and I think it helped.

But I confess…it took me years to actually watch someone use the site, in a usability setting. And when I did, I was stunned at what I saw. Sure – some content worked well. Yay! But other content that I thought we had made so obvious and easy, wasn’t. Words that we thought everyone understood were confusing. People took wrong turns. People thought through problems differently than we had. People wasted their time, trying to get an answer on our website. After watching for 15 minutes, I got religion.

Do yourself – and your web audience – a favor. Put aside those site traffic reports and customer satisfaction surveys, and spend some time really listening to and watching people use your website. What you learn will give you the power to make your site better.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

5 Government Services to be Thankful For

I crusade for better online government service because I have seen what we can do, when we put our minds (and common sense) to it. Here are 5 examples of really great citizen services available right now.
  1. Airport status and delays: I use this tool every time someone I know is flying. At a glance, you can see where airports are running behind, so you can adjust your expectations accordingly. Sometimes this service is more effective in predicting flight delays than the airlines’ own “flight status” tools.
  2. Hold my mail: Most of us leave home on business trips or vacations, at some time. This convenient little service lets you take care of holding your mail – and releasing the hold – in seconds. I love its simplicity!
  3. Find sex offenders living in your neighborhood: OK – this is a little clunky. You have to agree to the terms before you get to the form. Then the default search option is to search by a specific name. You have to figure out how to search by zip code, which – to me – should be the default. But all-in-all, it is easy to use; and the results are helpful. Good service for house-hunters, parents, and neighborhood watch groups.
  4. Ask an expert about food safety: This is a pretty simple service that offers multiple ways to find out if the foods you are eating – or want to eat – are safe. It gives you options to call 24-hour, 7-day hotlines; type in a question and see if the FAQ database can help; or, within fairly tight time limits, chat online with an expert. You also can find out about food recalls and sign up for alerts. Turkey day…I’m thinking this might be a good URL to keep handy!
  5. Real-time chat on I am a huge fan of real-time chat services. It lets citizens talk to a human being, when they can’t – or don’t want to - wade through all the printed material. It really makes you feel as though your government cares about you, personally. I’ve used the chat a couple of times, and I found it pretty satisfying. I didn’t have to wait long in line. The reps were able to understand my questions fairly quickly. And they were able to point me in the right direction for answers, even if they couldn’t provide the answers themselves. Hours are weekdays only; but they do go until 8 pm ET, so people can still use the service after they get home from work. I wish every agency provided this service. And I wish it were available 24-7.
What do these services have in common? They have a simple purpose, and they’re easy to use (if not always easy to find). The people who wrote these web pages understand what citizens want and know how to provide it in ways that make sense to them.

‘Tis the season of thanksgiving – so I truly am thankful for these smart, effective, citizen-oriented services. And now, my Christmas list:  let’s see more!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Do the Service - Earn the Image

Two recent articles jumped out at me this week. The first is an article in Government Executive Magazine summarizing the results of a recent Gallup poll on citizens’ satisfaction with their government. They aren’t. The second was a blog piece by Alex Hawkinson on Social Media Today: “Why Customer Service Is the New Marketing.” OK. Let’s connect the dots.

Citizens aren’t happy with their government. Why? “The poll found that the most important factor in the public's satisfaction is an agency's ability to resolve problems reasonably. Other categories included, ‘Willing to work with me,’ and ‘Delivers on promises.’" In other words, the public wants better customer service. Though the article didn’t go on to define what that means, I’m guessing they want to find government services easily. They want straight answers when they ask questions. They want government to listen to them and react to what they’re saying in a personal way. They want to understand what the government says back, so they can use it to fix their problems. They want government to follow through – in a timely way. They want the government to be reasonable. That means reasonable from a citizen’s point of view – not government’s point of view.

So government has a bad image with the public, at least according to this poll. Hopefully, it wants to improve that image. How do you do that? Hawkinson nails it. If you want to promote yourself, then provide great customer service. You start with the great customer service. You earn the image. You don’t earn the image by trumpeting how great you are. You earn it by being great. Period.

Oh – by the way…according to the Gallup poll (and this is in line with what other polls have found), the number one way citizens interact with government is through the internet. That would be a good place to start.

One day, this will sink in. One day, some one or some group at a high enough level in government to make it happen is going to say, “OK – we get it, we care, and we’re going to do something about it.”

Please, oh please - do!

Related posts:
It’s Time for a Citizen Services Summit
Reality Bites
News Flash! Government Websites Are Not Newspapers!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Plain Language: the Key to Serving Citizens

I was an English major in college. My mom was an English teacher. All my life, I’ve valued words; and I always have believed that you communicate only when you choose the right words and put them in the right order. So from the day I became HUD’s web manager, my number one personal goal was to improve the way government talks to citizens. Make it easy. Make it conversational. Make it useful. Use the words citizens use.

When I met Annetta Cheek, from the Center for Plain Language, I found a soul mate and a cause that I could really get behind. Plain language – using words your audience understands – seems like such an obvious objective for government. If we don’t communicate effectively, we don’t serve effectively. And yet, we just don’t invest the time and energy to write plainly, especially on our websites.

In a recent survey sponsored by the General Services Administration (GSA), respondents were asked to choose 3 things that we could do to improve government websites. Number one answer (chosen by 62%)? Write in plain language.

Thursday, November 12, is World Usability Day. “Usability” is a simple concept: make things easy to use. And this year, “plain language” is the focus of World Usability Day. GSA is coordinating some wonderful FREE opportunities to learn more about usability and plain language. Take advantage of them!

Tomorrow - on World Usability Day - stop, take a look at your website, pick a page, and re-write it in plain language. Don’t think about it – do it. Challenge the other web managers and web contributors in your organization to do the same thing. At the end of the day, post those pages. And next week, pick a day and do it again. Make a commitment to rewriting at least the top pages and most-used pages of your website within the next 6 months. It’s the very best thing you can do for your audience. It’s the key to serving citizens.

Related Links
Plain Language Is a Win-Win-Win

Friday, November 06, 2009

It’s Time for a Citizen Services Summit

Last week, I published my assessment of what’s happened in the past year to implement the Federal Web Manager Council’s White Paper: Putting Citizens First – Transforming Online Government. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what could kick-start real progress in implementing the vision of this paper…and a broader government-wide commitment to Citizen Services. So here it is: I think it’s time to have a Citizen Services Summit. Bring together the best and brightest to tackle these challenges and get things moving.


Pull together a few (no more than 50) top citizen services managers, advocates, and experts from within and outside of government for a one-day summit. Use the White Paper as the starting point – no point reinventing the wheel. And since data shows that citizens are accessing the government via the internet more than any other way, it makes sense to start by looking at services that are (or should be) delivered online. But pay special attention to that Recommendation 12 that calls for making sure citizens get the same answer no matter how they interact with government.

Rather than a gab-fest about what could be, make this a product-driven day, resulting in a plan – with specific follow-up actions. Keep the focus on improving citizen services, and discuss technology only within that construct. Hire a professional facilitator – one who can keep the group on course, with no personal agenda.

Who Should Be There?

Well, of course, representatives of the Federal Web Managers Council and some of the folks at GSA who are responsible for government-wide Citizen Services (Martha Dorris, Teresa Nasif, Bev Godwin, etc.). Representatives from OMB who deal with accountability and productivity. Representatives from the White House communications team (especially the New Media group). Representatives of the government Public Affairs Officers. Vivek Kundra and/or representatives of the CIO Council. People inside government who can make the outcomes happen.

And just as many people from outside government…because they can bring a fresh perspective and additional knowledge to the table. People like Gerry McGovern (international expert on web customer service), one or more established usability/user-centered design experts (Jakob Nielson, Jared Spool, Kath Straub, or others), web communication experts (like Ginny Reddish and Annetta Cheek, from the plain language movement), someone from Pew’s Internet and American Life project, someone from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, and key government advocates who are willing to get involved in action (like Craig Newmark). Make it a politically balanced group by including people like David Almacy, former Bush White House internet director. Maybe include some think tank folks who are studying how government serves citizens through the internet. Maybe a representative or two from other nations (like the UK or Canada) who are making real strides in improving citizen services online.

What Would They Do?

Start by looking at the evidence – what do we know about what citizens want from their government, online? Examine usability data and customer satisfaction data and other evidence. Then look at the current status – what’s working and what isn’t? But don’t spend too much time on this – it’s not rocket science. We don’t need more debate – we need action. Give participants some (or all) of this background before the summit and tell them it’s “homework.” Use the in-person time to craft strategy and plans.

Establish some ground rules, like “check political agendas and sales pitches at the door” and “data and evidence about what citizens want and need will trump what we THINK they want or need” and “great service is job one – period.”

Go through the White Paper, identifying exactly what needs to happen to implement each recommendation (e.g., issue a memo or train staff) and, as important, who needs to act to make it happen. If you hit a contentious issue, table it for the time being; and come back to it later. Make this a positive, results-oriented, collegial gathering.

At the end of the day, recap the actions planned, make sure everyone knows what he/she has agreed to do to help, and put the plan in writing. Share it widely and publicly. Track completion.

How Do We Set This In Motion?

I’m thinking GSA, with its government-wide “citizen services” mission, is the logical organizer/convener. The Web Managers Council has to be involved in all aspects, from identifying invitees to developing the background data and information to articulating the status and barriers to implementation of the White Paper. Web Managers have a huge amount of knowledge to share. Advocates outside government can help by endorsing the idea in blogs and Tweets and talking to their friends inside government, to encourage action. And raising their hands to join in.

The White Paper laid out a vision that we all should support – a vision that requires a real cross-government (and, in some cases, maybe beyond government) commitment to working together to fix problems, break down barriers, and do what needs to be done to make U.S. government websites the most citizen-friendly service outlets in the world.

Let’s not just talk about it – let’s do it!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Web Manager Council’s White Paper – Is There Progress A Year Later?

About a year ago, the Federal Web Managers Council published a terrific White Paper entitled: Putting Citizens First – Transforming Online Government. Their analysis and recommendations were based on the many years of experience and observations of this highly-skilled, highly-committed cadre of public servants. The White Paper was presented to the Obama transition team in November 2008 and published on It received high praise from key players, open government advocates, and web experts, both inside and outside government. The government web manager community was optimistic that real change was on the way. So, I wondered…has anything changed in the past year to make government websites more citizen-focused?

To recap, the White Paper envisioned that when the American people use government websites, they would find:

  • Easily identifiable, relevant, accurate, and up-to-date information;
  • Well-written content that they understand the first time they read it;
  • Common easy-to-use tasks that many of them seek;
  • The same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, live chat, read a brochure, or visit in-person;
  • Feedback on their ideas, including what the government will do with them; and
  • Critical information, accessible to them if they have a disability or aren’t proficient in English.

It went on to make 14 critical recommendations, to achieve that vision. Let's see how they're doing on each.

Recommendation 1: Fund “virtual” office space as part of agencies’ infrastructure. Until the Obama administration has an opportunity to complete a budget cycle, we won’t know the result of some recommendations – like this one. We’ll pass for now.

Recommendation 2: Appoint an editor-in-chief for every government website, and make sure prime space on government websites is dedicated to information the public wants and needs. I hear there is a list of .gov domains (though the public can’t access it). I also heard that the transition team collected some data about websites, last spring, though I don’t know what’s been done with it. As far as I know, there still is no comprehensive, reliable list of all government websites (including .edu’s, .com’s, .org’s, and any others), so there’s no way of knowing if each official site has a designated editor-in-chief. This recommendation should be a top priority because without highly skilled web editors-in-chief at the helm, working together across agencies, it’s pretty tough to implement other important changes to improve government websites.

On the second part, I fear we’re losing ground. A number of government websites are using “prime real estate” (usability experts say that is the top left-hand quadrant of the computer screen) to publish news about the initiatives of the agency/administration – not to help the public find the services or complete the tasks they want and need. In some cases, we’ve even seen agencies move top citizen tasks out of prime real estate down to less-viewed areas. Score: minus 1.

Recommendation 3: Develop job descriptions and training requirements for web content and new media jobs. To my knowledge, there has been no movement to create standard job descriptions for web managers. Several years ago, the Web Managers Forum developed a draft job description, so there’s a starting point. This action probably is not a top priority, but it certainly is an important step toward improving web governance. We’ve had government websites for 15 years now. It’s hard to believe there’s no official web content manager job description. GSA and the staff at Web Manager University are working on core training requirements, so that’s positive action. Score: ½ point

Recommendation 4: Identify core customer tasks, and develop performance standards for those tasks. This has been the goal of the web manager community for several years. Regrettably, I haven’t seen much progress (Homeland Security’s recent commendable home page update excepted). This is a high priority, and all it really takes to get it going is political will. Score: minus 1.

Recommendation 5: Use social media to create transparency and help people accomplish their tasks. Lots of good news here. Many agencies are using social media/web 2.0 to market their wares, and GSA has done a terrific job spearheading an effort to develop terms of service agreements with social media site owners to facilitate that progress. Kudos! The Web Managers Council established a sub-council to build best practices, sample policies, and strategies. All good. Score: a big plus 1. I’m looking forward to seeing these tools used for real, substantial two-way collaboration.

Recommendation 6: Develop guidelines for disseminating content in universally accessible formats. Vivek Kundra seems to be pushing the envelope on offering data in accessible formats, at least in terms of the data provided through It’s the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a good start. Score: plus 1.

Recommendation 7 – Set stricter standards for approving new, or renewing existing, government websites; and designate a lead agency to coordinate content common to multiple agencies. Team Obama quickly “got it” that 24,000+ government websites is a ridiculous waste, not to mention confusing to citizens. But since many new sites have sprouted in the past few months, with no apparent commensurate weeding out, the massive mess of government websites continues to grow. Not good. We need better controls. More websites do not make better government. Serious slippage – not progress – on this one. Score: minus 1.

Recommendation 8: Conduct regular reviews to ensure web content is accurate, relevant, mission-related, and written in plain language. Archive content that isn’t used frequently. Do some/many/most agencies have formal review processes? I don’t know (I doubt it). But spend a few minutes on most any government website, and you’ll see that there’s been little progress in writing in plain language. Plain language specialists tell us when your primary audience is the general public, you should write at an elementary reading level. Look at a few pages on a government website. Is the writing clear? Is it written at the appropriate level? If you don’t communicate well, you don’t serve well.

A couple of agencies are working on - or considering -archives for outdated or less-used content (HUD recently introduced the long-planned, but that’s not a groundswell.

Improving the quality of government web content is a big deal, and it should be a priority. There are plain language trainers in the government and many great web writer-editors. A mandate would help, but web managers and web contributors don’t need to wait to be told to do this. Score: minus 1.

Recommendation 9: Follow the best practices in web search. Web Manager University offers courses Search Engine Optimization. But, again, good writing practices (especially using key words) is a huge part of SEO. And – back to Recommendation 8…not seeing improvement there.

Recommendation 10: Solicit public opinion and analyze customers’ preferences. Do user testing before releasing major improvements to any current website or launching a new website. Several agencies are using customer satisfaction surveys, and some agencies have found ways to seek public comments about their websites and/or services. Nothing new there.

But user testing clearly is not happening (or if it is, you aren’t listening). Many of us have been surprised to see obvious usability problems on some of the new and radically revised governmentwide sites. With all the usability help available (GSA has a usability specialist on staff, HHS has a usability testing lab, has a ton of information and resources, and Web Manager University has faculty who are usability specialists), there really is no excuse for creating government websites that are anything less than state-of-the-art in terms of usability. This should be a no-brainer. U.S. Government websites should be the most easy-to-use websites in the world. They’re not. Score: a big minus 1!

Recommendation 11: Publish a summary of common customer comments and explain resulting actions. The White House has done a good job posting public comments on their specific public participation initiatives – they should be applauded. Score: plus 1. I haven’t seen much of that on agency sites. Much more work to do on this.

Recommendation 12: Provide multiple ways for people to contact government, and ensure information is consistent across all channels. While nearly all agencies advertise multiple ways to “contact us,” I don’t know of any efforts to ensure that the answer you get is the same, no matter how you ask the question. It would be interesting to do a little testing (and maybe I will).

Recommendation 13: Establish standards and guidelines and fund staff for multilingual websites. This is largely a funding issue, so I’ll withhold judgment on that one for a few months. We’ll see what happens once all the agencies receive their FY 2010 full appropriations.

Recommendation 14: Make government websites fully accessible to people with disabilities. Government web managers and CIOs have been keyed to this issue for many years and are trying mightily. The whole social media/web 2.0 initiative presents a new wrinkle. Need to keep working on this.

Bottom Line

Good progress in a few areas. Painful slippage in others. The jury’s still out where recommendations required funding. So what needs to happen next? Three things.

  1. Web managers should move out on those things they can make happen themselves, like starting to re-write the most critical content in plain language and doing usability testing. Neither of those things needs to cost anything more than a shift in priorities and time. Resources are available within government to help. Many of you have taken my course – use that simple writing quality review exercise to get you underway. Step into the void, web managers!
  2. The Web Managers Council needs to look at the White Paper again and nudge action. What needs to happen to implement each recommendation? What needs to be done first? Think about whom, in the higher echelons, can make the decisions to implement these recommendations. In some cases, it could be GSA. In others, it might be someone at OMB or the White House. You know who the players are now, so help them know what you need them to do. If someone needs to issue a memo, draft it. If someone needs to meet, try to set it up. Get the data the transition team collected – maybe that will help you form your strategy. Let your bosses and advocates know what’s going on so we can help.
  3. Those who thought this White Paper was good in the beginning should act. If you’re inside the government, do what you can to help web managers cause these changes. If you’re outside the government, blog, talk to your high-level friends, and stir the pot to get these critical issues resolved.

This White Paper was darned good. The Federal Web Managers Council worked hard to think this through and get it right. These are changes that, if adopted across government, truly can improve citizens’ experience with their government. Lots of people agreed on that, months ago. Let's not let this drop.

PS – if progress is occurring that I’m not aware of, I hope you will leave a comment!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Reality Bites

Once in awhile, I come across a real life story that serves as a perfect reminder that the federal government still has much work to do to make citizen services easy to use. A good friend passed along this recent experience, when he tried to go online to make a tax payment. Maryland made it very easy for him to complete the task. The IRS…well, not so much. But I’ll just let him tell the story in his own words.

For Maryland, I logged into In something like 4 or 5 clicks, I found the right place to pay the taxes online. A quick check for bank routing numbers and a calculation of how much we should pay, and we were all done. No muss, no fuss…took me all of maybe 15-20 minutes.

So now, on to Federal.

I began by going to I forget how long it took me to find the payment links. I just know it took me a while--a long while. (It's actually on the front page, but how anyone would know you want EFTPS, I have no clue.) I then go to the EFTPS website, which is the “Electronic Federal Tax Paying System.” Oh, but I'm not actually there. It's a page talking about EFTPS. I have to click on the link and then on the other link saying I acknowledge I'm leaving the IRS site (to go to another IRS site!)

I get to and click on the link to make a payment. But, I need to login. Ok, so I have to "Enroll" to get a login. (Um, you know this is for a single payment, right? But, never mind...). So, I click the link to enroll (buried at the bottom of the page), then the link acknowledging the privacy act, then realize I’m on the page for “businesses.” I back out and notice at the top of the first page that there's a radio button I have to change to “individual.” Ok…so click the radio button, go to the bottom of the page, click the next button, acknowledge the privacy act again, and just that easily I get to the form to fill out to enroll.

Are you still with me?

Ok, at that top of the form is the statement that it takes up to 15 days to enroll. I can't make a payment yet. They have to enroll me and it could take up to 15 days. So, I fill out the form and hope for the best. A few weeks later, I get a notice that I'm enrolled and here's my PIN. Great, I'll go pay our taxes!

Umm, no. I go back to the EFTPS site to try to make a payment, but I have to sign in. It asks me for my SSN... check, I know that one. Then my PIN... check, got that in the mail. Then my "Internet Password." Password? I never set a password. So, I click the link for "Need Internet Password." It gives me a phone number for a voice mail system that tells me to call this other number for a different voice mail system to be issued my internet password. I dial the other number, key in my SSN, my PIN, and my Tracing number and they give me a temporary password.

Remember, how this all took me about 15 minutes to do with the State of Maryland?

So, I go back to the EFTPS site again, type in my SSN, my pin, and my temporary password and am successful. Well, successful in getting to the page to set my permanent password. Which, of course, has to be between 8 and 12 characters, contain at least one capitalized letter and one lower case letter, numbers and a special character (but only certain special characters). After two tries I finally get it to accept a password, and then I'm logged in. Great... I think. Now, to pay those taxes!

First I have to pick which form to use, put in my information, tax year, "effective date" (?) and hit submit. Voila! Taxes paid.

Can you guess which government entity I'd prefer to pay my taxes with electronically? The only reason I'd use the federal online system again is I can't imagine how complicated this would be if I had to deal with offices and people.

If you’ve read my other blog posts, you know I’m adamant that government agencies need to focus like a laser on making their top citizen tasks easy to find and easy to use. That’s how you earn public trust. That’s how you make citizens proud of their government and satisfied that they’re getting their money’s worth, when they pay those taxes. If you had any doubt that I’m telling the truth, go back and read my friend’s story again. That’s reality, folks.

Monday, October 05, 2009

How Do We Measure Success?

One of the smartest government web managers I know, Gwynne Kostin, published an interesting blog piece yesterday, pointing out how numbers may not measure what you think they do. The ever-astute Sarah Bourne,a government web manager at the state level, added a comment to Gwynne’s post, echoing those concerns and adding that measuring what really counts – achieving a task – is tough to do. It got me thinking: how do we measure the success of government websites?

Seems important to start by understanding what government websites are supposed to do.

  • Provide services to the public. We’re talking about the services that taxpayers pay for and that are the mission of government agencies.
  • Offer opportunities for citizen engagement and collaboration. This is the whole Gov 2.0 frontier that web 2.0/social media has opened.
  • Help make government transparent by publishing the most critical information, decisions, and data that the public wants and needs.

So…how do you measure a website’s effectiveness at carrying out those objectives? Here are some ideas.

Objective: Provide services to the public

Measure 1: How long does it take to complete (successfully) the most critical tasks/services?

As a reminder, most people who come to government websites come for a purpose – to do something, to complete a task, to use a service. They have busy lives; so they want to get in, get it done, and move on as fast as possible. Government’s job is to make those services easy to find and easy to use. So measure how long it takes an average person to use those services and then see if you can make it easier, faster.

Some of you will recognize this as usability testing. Pick your 3-5 top services/tasks, and run routine scenario tests of a half dozen (or more) typical users.

“You want to buy a home and don’t know how. We’re going to watch you find the answer on HUD’s website. We aren’t testing you – we’re testing our website. Tell us what you’re thinking as you go through the process.”

How many wrong turns did they take? What words didn’t they understand? Can you cut steps? Can you organize it better? Can you use other words to help them find the right path, get to the right result, faster? Measure how long it took them to complete the task. Then make improvements and see if you can trim that time.

Objective: Citizen engagement/collaboration

Measure 2: Percent of ideas considered and adopted.

Citizen engagement isn't just asking for input. It's doing something with it. Does it matter if a million people contributed ideas, if you don’t accept any of them? Does that make citizens feel part of their government? Does that increase public trust? On the other hand, if only 10 people contributed ideas, but you adopted 6 of them, isn’t that what collaboration is all about? Isn’t it about working together to make government better?

I know. Sometimes we get ideas from the public that just seem silly or are obviously (to us) unworkable. I wonder - is that their fault or is it partly our fault for not really collaborating…for not giving them enough background and guidance so that they can submit ideas that are possible and useful…for not giving them enough opportunities to discuss ideas – go back and forth – so the outcome can be a legitimate option?

It seems to me that the goal of engagement and collaboration is to come up with – together – positive outcomes. So I’d measure success by the percent of ideas accepted. And I’d make it my goal to improve the collaborative process so that percentage of positive outcomes increases over time.

Objective: Transparency

Measure 3: Percentage of data systems available to the public.

Yes, I know that transparency isn’t only about data. It’s about decisions and ideas under discussion, too. But I don’t know how to measure those. I do know that every agency is supposed to have (and publish) an inventory of all its data systems. So what percent of those systems (or the data from those systems) is available to the public?

And A Fourth Measure

My friend, Jeffrey Levy, at EPA ran an interesting little contest a couple of weeks ago. He asked us to guess what percentage of the EPA website is viewed at least 100 times a month. The answer? 3%. Does that number seem stunning to you? Probably not, if you’re a government web manager who routinely reviews his/her stats.

And there’s the flipside…what percentage of the website isn’t viewed EVEN ONCE during a month? I’ll bet it’s higher than you think.

Maybe one of our goals should be to improve that ratio. Increase the percentage of the website that is used often, and decrease the percentage that isn't used at all. Focus our resources on making the most-used content truly great. And stop wasting resources maintaining content that is never used. Make that content available upon request. I think citizens would view that as a good value and responsible government. So…

Measure 4: Percent of the website used by at least 100 people every month compared with percent of the website not used at all.

Why do we care about numbers? For bragging rights? To compare ourselves to others? Or to help us make our websites better? I’m going with that last one. Gwynne is right. Numbers can be deceiving. Let’s use numbers that really measure our success in doing the things that matter.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

News Flash: Government Websites Are Not Newspapers!

Last week, I was talking to a friend who is a private sector usability specialist. I asked her if, like me, she is noticing that some agency websites seem to be slipping backwards, featuring agency news rather than top citizen tasks on their home pages. She said that, indeed, she and her colleagues are observing the same thing. It appears that agency public affairs staffs are really getting into websites (and web management) – which is a good thing – but they haven’t yet learned this truth: the public comes to government websites to do things – perform tasks - not read the news. They go to newspaper sites for that.

I can appreciate the learning curve. I also can appreciate that Public Affairs folks have a different mandate than agency Web Managers. Public Affairs is responsible for marketing. Their clients are the agency chiefs. Web Managers are responsible for making sure websites serve the public. Their clients are the audiences. So the disconnect is understandable.

But here’s the thing: turning government agency websites into newspapers is not what the public wants or expects. As important, it is the antithesis of what President Obama has urged of all government: participation, collaboration, responsiveness to/trust in the citizens who ARE the owners of government.

Putting news and press releases as the featured items at the top of government websites shouts, “me, me, me” – not “you, you, you.” It is not furthering transparency – it’s obscuring service and engagement. In several cases, I’ve seen agency news (including photos of agency officials) crowding out and pushing down links to what the public really wants – top tasks..those services that they pay taxes for. This is a step backward.

There's no blame game here. People are just trying to do their jobs with all the tools available. The point is that you need to recognize the trend (because we who are looking at you certainly see it) and stop it in its tracks before it gets worse. Maybe you Web Managers invite Public Affairs Officers to some briefings on the facts that you have…the data and evidence (site traffic statistics, usability data, customer satisfaction data, performance measures, emails from the public) that shows conclusively what the public wants from their government websites. If you are a Public Affairs officer, maybe you ask for such a briefing. Maybe you bring in some noted authorities on the subject of government websites and usability research and let them present their findings to the Public Affairs Officers and agency chiefs and Web Managers, together, so there can be a good discussion about how government websites should be used to serve and engage the public and achieve the President's goals.

Successful websites are audience-centered. That’s not an opinion – that’s a fact. So please…let’s get our government websites back on track. Let’s use them for service and engagement and collaboration – not as surrogate newspapers. Let’s make them shout “you, you, you.” It’s the right thing for the President’s objectives. It’s the right thing for the American public.

Related Links
What Is the Role of Government on the Web? (3 parts)
Government website survey: from organization-centric to citizen-centric

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Holding Out for a Hero

Remember that song from “Footloose” – “Holding Out for a Hero?” I’ve been humming that song all day. Maybe that’s all the government web manager community really needs: a hero.

In the very early days of web management at HUD, I had a pivotal meeting with then Deputy Secretary Dwight Robinson to decide where the Web Team should live, organizationally. The web team had come-to-be in a small special projects staff in the Office of the Secretary, but we thought it was time to find a more permanent home. At that meeting, Dwight decided he didn’t want to put the web team either in the CIO’s office or in Public Affairs. He liked the way we were “entrepreneurial” (his word) – working across the agency, organizing and fostering collaboration to create our “one HUD” website - and thought that was the best way for us to stay. So he decided we would report directly to him. And then – as I sat there with him – he picked up the phone and called each Assistant Secretary, telling them exactly what he expected them to do to support the agency web team. After that, he left us pretty much alone. When we hit a real snag – one we just couldn’t solve on our own – we could go to him, and he’d pick up the phone and solve it. Beyond that, he let us do our jobs.

Dwight was my hero. He understood the value of our grassroots operation. He also understood the need for a hero.

Web Managers are much like Community Organizers. We're out there beating on doors, trying to stir up new ideas for using the internet to serve citizens. We’re breaching silos…getting people to work together across organizations and across government to create good, consolidated audience-centered web content. The most successful among us are those who stay loose, working directly with managers and staff as needed, respectful of - but not mired in - pecking order. In fact, it’s when we get locked into a hierarchy (silo) that we get stymied. Armed with our passion to improve service to citizens, we've caused governmentwide change - not through delegated management authority, but through critical mass.

It actually works pretty well - except when some higher up who fails to appreciate the body of knowledge that goes into good web management and/or the fact that government websites should be citizen-focused wants to do something harebrained. Then, we have no advocate or authority to counter that. That's where our grassroots structure fails. That’s when we need a hero.

Here's the thing. Government doesn't know what to do with a grassroots operating structure. I think that's why, after nearly 15 years, we still have no official "web manager" job classification in the federal government or a standard web governance structure. What other function can you think of that has knocked around government that long without a handbook on how it will be done? But how does government condone that kind of management? How does government live with that kind of ambiguity?

So, you may wonder, what about all that talk in my earlier posts about needing a Chief Web Officer at OMB? Have I changed my mind? Maybe. Still pondering. What I do believe is that our grassroots operation has worked pretty well up to now. Maybe we should be glad there’s no official line manager at OMB (or anywhere else) that pigeon-holes us in a hierarchy. Look how much we’ve accomplished just by banding together and building critical mass. Maybe all we really need to do is look for that hero.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

My Web Design Pet Peeves

Normally, I try to make these blog posts pretty positive. But today - I’m grumpy. I just finished going through more than 50 government websites (at all levels of government), to prep for a couple of web management courses I’m teaching soon; and way too many of them have some really bad design habits that frustrate the heck out of me. So - in hope that some web manager will read this, recognize one of these offenses, and fix it - here they are, friends…my current top three web design pet peeves:
  1. Large photos or graphics billboards in the top left/middle of the home page that cycle through 3-5 different views. Why in the world has this trend caught on? Why in the world would web designers think that a web audience wants to sit there for 10, 15, 30 seconds or more, waiting for these things to cycle through? Honestly, I just want to scream when I see one of these images (and they seem to be all the rage these days).
    Have you ever actually talked to people who are trying to use your website to find out if we like this practice? Yes – a picture often can be worth a thousand words. But why do you waste important front page space – space that could be used to get me to what I really want – to show me pretty pictures or tell me cute little stories or show me what YOU think should be important to me? It makes me think you don’t know (or care about) what I want to do on your website. Enough. Use Amazon or Google or Craigslist as your model – be utilitarian. Pretty pictures do not make me like you better. Efficiency – helping me get to what I want – makes me like you better. (Oh - and PS...I made this same design mistake several years ago when I managed the HUD website. And I got the same feedback I'm giving you now).
  2. Photos of government agency officials. I thought we’d dealt with this problem long ago, but – no – they’re still all over the place. So here’s the thing, agency heads. You don’t own that agency. We - the people - own it. It isn’t your agency. It’s our agency. If we want to know who’s currently serving us as head of our agency, then we’ll go to the “about this agency” page. Please don’t use our websites for personal publicity. It’s incredibly annoying.
  3. Welcome messages. So passé. We don’t want or need to be “welcomed” to your website. Do you think your welcome will make us stay longer? No. All it does is waste space and give us more words to wade through, trying to find what we came for. Please – spare us.

I beg of you, government web managers (and/or those who tell government web managers what to do)…do some usability testing. I’m pretty sure you’ll find out that most of us don’t want this junk cluttering up our government websites. Fast, efficient, effective service – that’s what we want. Amen

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Creating An Agency Web Strategy – How You Do It Is As Important As What You Do

About 10 years ago – toward the end of the Clinton administration – I got a memo from HUD’s Deputy Secretary directing me to lead an agency-wide Web Management Task Force to develop a comprehensive web strategy for HUD. I was totally surprised and deflated! Had he lost confidence in me as HUD’s Departmental Web Manager? Was he questioning my leadership and policy recommendations? But once I got over my initial shock, I realized that this was a brilliant idea! What better way to get agency-wide buy-in to a single web strategy than involving managers and key staff from across the agency? What better way to make the case for our budget needs than to have an agency-wide task force say, “This is what we need, as an agency?”

The Deputy Secretary gave me 4 weeks to complete our work and make our recommendations. I assembled key SES and GS 15 managers and high level staff from every program area, the CIO and other key support offices, and the field – in all 14 people. We involved 22 other staff, many of them organization web managers or web coordinators, to help us collect information and do our analysis. We split into teams, interviewing every one of HUD’s 100 existing web managers, a number of program managers, and web directors at 5 “best practice” federal agencies and 5 private “best practice” organizations (e.g., Washington Post online).

The task force identified 4 major issues impacting HUD’s ability to use the web efficiently and effectively, to implement the agency’s mission and the administration's goals:

  • Issue 1: Implementing "electronic government" at HUD will require a cultural change, from the top on down.
  • Issue 2: Staffing is inadequate to accomplish web management responsibilities.
  • Issue 3: Training for Web Managers is inadequate.
  • Issue 4: HUD lacks leadership in managing the technical web infrastructure to ensure that it is adequate to support the demands of electronic government.

Under each of those issues, we made 3 strategic recommendations. We briefed the Deputy Secretary, and he adopted every single one of our recommendations.

Further, even though administrations (and parties) changed within months, the plan survived. Why? Well, for one thing, it wasn’t a political effort. It was a task force entirely of career employees who were considered leaders in the agency. Second, the task force had developed sound strategic recommendations based on good research and analysis. And third (and most important), because career employees – who don’t change with administrations – were involved in creating the plan, they had a stake in advocating for it and making it work.

And what did I learn from all this? That how you do something can be as important as what you do. Getting key managers and staff across the agency together, doing good research, arguing out the pros and cons of our ideas, and presenting it (and getting credit for it) as a single unit bought HUD’s web team more good will, more support, and more agency pride than anything I could have done on my own.

OK – that’s nice. What’s that got to do with today?

Well, despite the fact that we’ve come a long, long way in creating cross-government web policies and strategies, despite the fact that we now have an active and effective federal Web Managers Council, despite the fact that web managers are enjoying much-deserved praise and support from high level administration executives and industry leaders, there remains a void at the agency level. The number one complaint I still hear from my web colleagues is: “I can’t get my bosses to support me. I can’t get my agency to listen and go along. I want to implement these improvements, I want to try social media, I want to feature our top tasks, but I can’t get my bosses to agree.” It’s the major stumbling block for real progress in web management across government: getting that agency-level support and buy-in for a good solid web management strategy.

So here’s a thought. What if the Director of OMB challenged every agency to establish an agency-wide task force, modeled on HUD’s? The goal would be to develop a long-term, agency-wide strategic plan for web management at that agency, incorporating both agency-specific needs and goals and governmentwide goals and directives.

Direct the agencies to comprise those Task Forces primarily of career managers and staff. Take politics out of it. Make sure the agency web managers are part of the effort – after all, they know most about the day-to-day challenges. But include program staff and field staff, CIOs, Public Affairs, key managers and top staff.

Provide an advisory council - with thought leaders like Vint Cerf and Craig Newmark and Micah Sifry and web content and plain language specialists like Gerry McGovern and Annetta Cheek and Thom Haller - to serve as a resource to these agency efforts.

Require each agency task force to review and consider documents like the Web Managers Council white papers, recommendations from the CIO council, and recommendations from Macon Phillips and Vivek Kundra and Beth Noveck and other key administration officials with a stake in how government uses the web.

Use the Web Managers Council to monitor progress and results and to publish best practices.

What better time than at the beginning of an administration - when every part of every agency is scurrying to develop plans and goals that will rely in some way on the web - to come up with a single agency-wide strategy for web management? And what better way for agency web managers to present their challenges and get that buy-in and support they so need to move forward?

Having a strategic plan is obvious. But remember: how you do it is as important as what you do, if you want to make sure that plan works.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Anticipate While You Innovate

Last week, two events reminded me how important it is to think ahead and anticipate issues, even as you’re being innovative with social media.

First, I posted a blog piece that mentioned the Department of Homeland Security’s Facebook page. Later that same day, my friend, Gwynne Kostin (who manages Homeland Security’s web presence) posted a comment on that blog piece, correcting me. She said that the Department does not have an official Facebook page. So I went back to the DHS Facebook page I had seen. Yes, it is called “Department of Homeland Security.” Yes, it has the DHS seal. Yes, it shows the Department’s website as the point of contact. Yes, it includes the Department’s mission statement. And the discussion items look like official announcements (one mentions the Secretary). At first glance, it appears to be an official website, even to this experienced former web manager. The only clues that it’s not official are these:

  1. The intro says: "This Group is dedicated to the Department of Homeland Security, and all of its supporters and affiliates." As I read it again, I realize this probably is not the kind of language a government agency would use to introduce its page – even on a social networking site.
  2. The page administrator is in Cheyenne Wyoming. Not Washington, DC. That’s probably the best clue that this isn’t an official government page. Normally, federal government web content is managed from Washington.

Why does should this concern us? There are more than 1,600 members of this Facebook page. I wonder how many of them joined, believing they were becoming part of an official government discussion group. I wonder how many of them think that the comments they post in the discussion room are going to government officials and being considered in official policy-making. Will it impact public trust if they find that they’re being ignored?

Look-alike government pages on social networks are tough to deal with because you don’t control the website. But maybe some agreement across government to use common branding (e.g., always use an official seal and always use the words: this is an official site of the U.S. government) would help. If it appears that fraud is involved (someone is purposefully trying to impersonate a government agency to deliver misleading information), you can and should notify your legal department. Probably the most effective thing to do, for now, is to monitor social media sites to keep track of any sites that look like government sites. At least know who’s out there. Watch the discussions and jump in to let folks know where they can find the official web page.

The second event that got me thinking about the perils of innovation occurred at the end of an audio course for federal, state, and local governments that I taught last week. A participant asked me if I had any recommendations on ways to port their web content to their social network page. I responded that, not only am I unaware of any porting software, I don’t think they should be reposting official government web content on a social networking site. We have so much duplication on government websites as it is…I’d hate to see more. The person who asked this question is just trying to do what her bosses want her to do. And there’s another aspect of this issue…bosses who decide they need to be part of the social media wave, without having a “why.”

As with all innovation, you can stumble into those pitfalls if you don’t think ahead.

Social networking sites could be a good supplement to official government websites…maybe a good way to recruit employees and raise awareness of important public issues. Maybe a good way to do Q&A with the public. Maybe a way to have discussions. Note that I used the word “maybe.” Because the only way you should take on any new work is if your agency has the staff to manage it (write it, post it, monitor it, follow up on comments/discussions, update it). Most government agencies don’t have the staff to manage the content they already have posted, so be sure to give ample thought to how you’re going to juggle all this new content. That’s true for words, videos, audio files…anything you post anywhere. It’s all official content that has to be managed.

Web managers are starting to craft policies for, and best practices in, using social media. They will serve as important guidance and are much needed. But you don’t need to wait to be told what to do. There is enough experience now – just look around. Take the time to identify and address those potential pitfalls. Anticipate while you innovate.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Confession: I Don’t Want to Be “Friends” With the Government

I’m a Facebook junkie. It’s the first thing I look at in the morning and the last thing I look at before I go to bed. I visit it several times during the day. Why? Because I love the day-to-day updates from my friends and family. It helps me keep in touch with them. It’s a place where I know I’m going to be with people I know (at least a little) and like. So last night, I finally admitted to myself that – though I support government’s foray into social media - I just don’t want government agency updates mixed in with all my friends' and family's. I don’t want them in my “social network.” And I turned them all off. I don’t want to be “friends” with government agencies.

Early on, I was eager to see what government agencies were doing on social networking sites, and I “friended” or “fanned” (new verbs?) several. A couple – specifically EPA and – have done a nice job with their Facebook presences. They get it that these are social networks – places where people are informal; and what they post and the words they use reflect that awareness. That is not true of some other agencies. In fact, some (and I won’t embarrass them here) just use Facebook to post their press releases. Not seeing too many “likes” on those announcements. Duh. Press releases are not friendly. And most people I know don’t like to be bombarded by propaganda in their social settings (harsh, but true).

Unfortunately, over time, even the friendly agency status updates started to annoy me. They seemed intrusive in a place where my friends and family and I are hanging out. So I gonged them.

It looks to me as though interest is (and I’m being charitable) modest at this point for government presence in social networking sites. EPA’s Facebook page has 2,200 fans, as does Department of Homeland Security’s Facebook page has 1,600 members. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has 163 “fans.” Considering that Facebook has some 75 million users in the U.S. alone, not sure that government is doing a resounding business in that realm.

Would I search out government agencies on Facebook or My Space to find government information? Hmm – I don’t think so. I’d go to or the agency website. Or I’d just do a search on the web.

Do I still think government has a place in social media? You bet. Twitter (and other microblogs). Feeds (web, email, and mobile phone). Huge potential! In fact, a must. YouTube…at least for agencies with an education mission (Smithsonian, NASA, etc.). I’m not convinced yet that people go to YouTube to be informed. I do know they go because they’re curious. So that might be a reason to be there…if you have the right content. Again – forget that press stuff. Boring.

I follow my local government on Twitter, and I’m grateful for their helpful and responsible Tweets on weather alerts, traffic snarls, and community issues. I subscribe to both email and mobile phone feeds from my local/county governments’ “alerts” page. As long as they Tweet/feed useful, practical information that I want and need (and don’t over-do it!), I think this is a great way for government to use social media/web 2.0. If they start sending me press releases or bombarding me with Tweets every 10 minutes, I’ll gong them, too.

I think it’s fine to do some experimenting – see what sticks. But at some point, I think it’s best to put your investment where data shows a real payoff. I don’t think government has to be (or even should be) everywhere, to benefit from social media.

Are my opinions and actions an aberration or a trend? Time will tell. So what do you think?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Now the Real Innovation Begins

The Obama administration unleashed a tidal wave of innovation, and no where is that more apparent than in the web world. My former colleagues are finally emerging as heroes of innovation, freed from obscurity by fellow innovators in and outside of government. It’s been gratifying to watch people like famed web pioneer Craig Newmark discover and champion the web manager community…a community that has labored behind the scenes for so many years, trying to turn a federal government that considered itself “wholesale - not retail” into a citizen-centered services provider. The spirit of innovation has permeated camps and conferences and blogs and email discussions and social networking spaces for the past 6 months; and I don’t think there is a government web manager out there who isn’t floating in a sea of new ideas, stirred by the passion to serve. This is a very good thing.

But at some point, innovation in government always hits that brick wall of reality: the responsibility not only to serve citizens but also to respect and protect their rights and needs. Citizens count on government to do the right thing. Security and privacy and accessibility and open competition and fairness are important to citizens and the reality that government faces. These responsibilities can hobble innovation, and some innovators try to suppress or ignore these responsibilities - seldom a successful strategy. But I don’t think that’s going to happen this time.

I think these innovators will use their creativity and passion and “crowd-sourcing” to look at constraints and problems in the ways responsibilities have been managed in the past and find new ways to do the right thing for the American people. In most cases, it’s the processes that are the problem - not the principle involved. I think these innovators have what it takes to make the processes better. Heck, we all know it’s usually harder to fix what is than to do something entirely new. But I think these folks are up to that challenge. So let the real innovation begin!

Three interesting blog pieces caught my attention recently. The first is a very well done piece by Gwynne Kostin, who manages web operations at Homeland Security and is on the Federal Web Managers Council. It’s entitled, “What Is the Most Important Thing;“ and in it, Gwynne ponders how government can move forward with the promise of social media and other possibilities, while confronting the realities of existing legislation and policies. She likens it to an intersection, where innovation and responsibility to the public cross paths. How can we all get to our destinations?

The second, “Mixed Feelings About OGI Conference,“ by Jaime Maynard (portions repeated in Gwynne’s blog and posted originally on Govloop - a social networking site that is a wonderful innovation in itself) expressed the frustration that some (many?) government web managers are feeling as they go to camp after camp, conference after conference, and hear all the exciting things going on at other agencies - particularly in the area of social media - when they can’t break through the red tape or reticence of their own agencies to begin similar innovations.

The third piece is a reality check done by Tanya Gupta called, “Why Do Governments Keep Getting Technology Wrong?” Tanya reminds us that citizens still can’t find what they want on government websites and don’t understand why it’s so hard for government agencies to get that right.

Gwynne’s piece comes from an optimistic innovator who has experienced success and is frustrated by - but realistic about - the responsibilities that are hindering progress. She wants to address the issues at the intersection of innovation and responsibility and find some peaceful resolution so everyone can move forward. No doubt in my mind that Gwynne will be a leader in that effort.

Jaime is just plain frustrated. She probably represents a sizable portion of the web manager community who feels powerless to try new things. And then there’s Tanya, who reminds us of that elephant in the room - the one that some would rather circumvent than fix - those enormous government websites that need to be rewritten, reorganized, and reduced. Web managers know what Tanya wants. They’re just tired of trying to fix these out-of-control websites with no support. Hello - innovators?

We have skilled, passionate innovators in all the right places who can turn on their creative juices and find ground-breaking ways to carry out government’s responsibilities better. I think they’ll find ways to get rid of outdated processes and mandates and replace them with new, improved ways to achieve the same objectives. I think they’ll deal with the obstacles to making government websites really useful to citizens (don’t give up hope, Tanya!). They get it. And I think these energizer bunnies can do it!

As for you innovative web managers in agencies not yet caught up in the innovation cyclone... don't despair. You can still be innovative. Maybe you can’t move out on social media yet, but maybe you can come up with innovative approaches to fix those websites that so disappoint Tanya and other citizens. You can be ready with ideas for that time when your agencies do get onboard this change train. You can seek out innovators in and outside of your agencies and build alliances - start your own crowd-sourcing. You can get involved in the web manager community’s efforts to develop new initiatives. To paraphrase that old serenity saying: change what you can, accept what you can‘t change, and be smart enough to know the difference. There are always opportunities to be innovative.

Exciting times. Lots of new energy. Lots of pent-up energy being released. Social media,, public-private collaboration - all the new stuff is good. But I’m just as pleased to see these innovators turn their collective energy and talents to fixing the old stuff - helping government carry out its responsibilities better. That’s a huge - and difficult - challenge. Now the real innovation begins!

Monday, July 13, 2009

A National “Communicating” Strategy

Periodically, I review my older blog posts to see if I’ve changed my mind on something or if I want to jaw on a pet issue again. Today, I went back to a post from January 2008 where I laid out my fantasy strategy for improving the way government communicates with its citizens. That post was a follow-up to a white paper I had written and sent to every member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which was evaluating the reauthorization of the E-Gov Act. Well, I never heard boo from a single member of that Committee – you win some, and you lose some. But as I went through the post, I thought, “this is still good stuff.” The only thing I’d change is the title. Instead of calling it, “What’s Missing From E-Gov? The Mandate to Communicate,” I’d call it, “What We Need Is a National Communicating Strategy.

Government’s communication problems aren’t limited to the way it provides services online. It’s more pervasive. Citizens often just can’t understand what government is saying…in publications, on the phone, on the internet. If the public can’t understand our services because we don’t explain them well or if the public can’t use our services because they’re too complicated or if the public doesn’t know about our services because we haven’t gone to them to tell them, then we aren’t serving effectively. If we don’t communicate effectively, we don’t serve effectively. Those concepts are inextricably linked.

Too often, government focuses on process – not results. We can tweak and tune our communication processes all we want; but if we aren’t communicating effectively with our audiences, it’s all for naught.

How to fix it? Government needs a comprehensive “communicating” strategy…a strategy that improves communication processes within the context of improving results. Are we getting the job done? Does the public understand what we say the first time we say it? Were they able to learn or do, based on what they read or heard? Are they able to use our services easily, without help? Are there citizens who walk away from, or avoid, our services because they just don’t understand them? Are we using the right delivery mechanisms (websites, print, phone, new media, etc.) to reach the intended audiences? Are we reaching out in the right ways to the right audiences?

I’d like to see Government work with Pew and/or other researchers to find out how we’re doing – are citizens able to understand what we say? - and how we could do better. Based on those outcomes, I’d like to see agencies consolidate and coordinate communication efforts within and across government, based on what the public wants and needs, cost effectiveness, and common sense. I’d like to see them prune and sharpen and restructure accordingly. Test the changes before implementing them permanently, and keep testing and re-testing to make sure they’re still achieving the results we want.

I’d like to see communications professionals and citizen service experts (web content managers and experts, new media directors, public affairs officers, experts in public engagement, plain language experts, writers, audience analysts), both inside and outside government, brought in/put in charge of getting this right. If that includes public/private ventures and/or partnerships with other levels of government (federal, state, local), that’s all the better.

I’d like to see government establish performance measures in terms of results:

  • How many more citizens did we serve because we are communicating better and because we improved our outreach?
  • Did we reduce the time it took them to get the service?
  • Were they able to understand/use it on the first try?
  • Could they get help quickly if they couldn’t use it on the first try?
  • Did we keep looking for breakdowns, and – when we found them – did we fix them quickly?

And, of course and absolutely – I’d like to see government involve the public in this strategic planning process. Heavily and routinely. Asking for both their experience and their ideas. And not just from your offices in Washington DC or through surveys. Get out of your offices and actually talk to the public, and listen to them. Communicating to improve communicating.

I think we need a national communicating strategy…a strategy that focuses on results. A strategy that shows that government cares that citizens can really use the services we provide. A strategy that addresses the question: are we really communicating?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Balancing Transparency With Volume and Accuracy

Transparency is a terrific concept. Heck, government web managers were trying to make our agencies “transparent” from the get-go. Oh, we didn’t call it that back in 1995. We muttered the mantra: if it can be public, then it should be public. But it was the same concept. We worked hard, scouring the nooks and crannies of our agencies to shine the light on everything that had been said, published, decided, or discussed. We built up huge websites, full of everything imaginable. We ended every meeting or conversation with, “and let’s put this on the website.” Now, we have wonderful new ways to inform and serve citizens through the web – new ways to make our agencies even more transparent…blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and videos on YouTube and wikis and more. But I’m worried.

I worry about the fact that we couldn’t keep up with the web content we had 5 years ago. I worry that, despite noble goals, web managers have not been able to trim their bloated websites or take down websites that no longer are needed. I’m guessing way more new content has gone up than has come down, in the past 5 years. Who is monitoring all this content to make sure it’s current and accurate? How are web teams and program managers dealing with all that volume?

And now, with new content going up on sites not even belonging to the agency (e.g., Facebook, YouTube), who is monitoring that content to make sure it’s current and accurate? Who is making sure that those blog posts done by officials who have left the building are pulled down or moved to some archive area? How are you making sure that important information contained in those posts is maintained?

I worry about this. Why? Because public trust suffers when you publish content that is outdated or no longer accurate. What if someone uses that content to make a decision or take an action that turns out to be bad or wrong? What if your outdated content contradicts other official government content that is current? What does that do to public trust? How does it make your agency look?

Isn’t part of doing the right thing making sure that everything is right?

So what’s the answer? Well, I guess one strategy is to just do nothing and let nature take its course. If you hear about something that’s wrong, fix it. No news is good news. Maybe that strategy will work…for awhile… But I’m optimistic…I think you want to get this right. So here are a few management actions that could help:

  • Certification: When we finally faced this problem at HUD, we started a quarterly content certification program. Every quarter, each top executive had to certify, in writing, to the Deputy Secretary that all his/her organization’s web content was current and accurate. The very first quarter we used this process, one sub-organization alone pulled down some 5,000 files that were obsolete. And every quarter thereafter, web managers scrambled to make hundreds of content corrections discovered in the review process. It’s not a perfect process, but it’s a good start. I’d like to see every agency adopt a similar review process.
  • Archives: Five years ago, Sam Gallagher (at HUD) had the great idea to create a separate “archives” site…a website that would contain all those reports and memos and initiatives from former administrations, information about programs that had been killed or expired, old funding decisions, and other content that was no longer current, but that the public – especially researchers and historians – might want to use in the future. Every page would be clearly labeled “archive,” and the public would be warned that the content was no longer being reviewed. Even the URL for the content would include the term “archive.” Great idea. Every agency should consider it.
  • Metadata: I’ve had mixed emotions about metadata. Is it really worth the effort? Well, I think it is IF you really use it to manage your content. If you do no more than use “creator” (listing the organization) and “date created,” you can sort out older content and know which organization to hold accountable for review. Put in a “last reviewed” date, and you can flag anything older than 3 months or 6 months and make sure it’s checked. The trick, of course, is to establish standard metadata across the agency and make sure all content contributors are entering it. Then you (the web manager) have to make the time to pull reports and use them to monitor and update content. It can be quite a process…but it also could really improve the quality of your content.
  • Tagging: I hope your agency has policies and procedures that specify what you post and, more important, who can post content on outside websites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. That will help control your content. In addition, some of these sites allow you to “tag” the content with generic terms that can help people who search on those terms find that content. Establish rules for tagging and use standard tags on any content your agency posts, and you should be able to search on those tags to find and review your content. Again, you need to do this regularly to make sure your content stays current and accurate.
  • Spring cleaning: Let’s not forget the most obvious action: reduce the amount of content you have to manage. An annual “spring cleaning” initiative can work wonders. Challenge your web managers and contributors to go through their content and see where they can consolidate or edit or delete. Use your stats to identify those pages that are never used (come on – we all have them). Either make them worth visiting or just get rid of them.

Transparency is great! But in your quest to be open with the public, don’t lose sight of the importance of making sure all that content is correct. Maintaining public trust is worth the effort.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Oh Top Tasks, Where Art Thou?

For the past 5 years, the Federal Web Managers Council has had one priority: improve the efficiency and effectiveness of citizens’ top tasks and make it easy for citizens to find them. Why are “top tasks” so important? Typically, the public comes to a website to do something…I want to get a passport…I want to buy a home…I want to sign up for food stamps. They want to accomplish those tasks quickly - get in, get it done, get out, and move on to something else in their busy lives. If you want to satisfy your customers, you put those frequently-used tasks (think of them as the most popular tasks) where citizens can find them easily…you put them on the screen where the web user’s eye goes first.

So I got to wondering…how easy is it to find those popular tasks?

Nicole Burton – GSA’s Usability Specialist – uses this chart when she teaches courses on website usability. It’s based on user experience, showing how people scan a web screen. The red areas are the places their eyes go first; yellow areas second; and green areas third. If you want your web audience to pay attention to something, then, you should put it in the red area.

I went through several of the Cabinet-level agency websites, doing two things:
  • Before I visited the site, I picked one or two “tasks” I thought a large number of citizens might want to complete and then I tried to find a path to those tasks on the home page; and
  • Once I got to the site, I tried to identify that agency’s top tasks by the wording and placement on the home page.

My experience was mixed. I’ll give you a just a couple of examples.

On the EPA site, my pre-determined tasks were:

  1. I want to know what environmental problems are in my neighborhood
  2. I want to do something to protect the environment

Good news. I did find a path to the answers for both. In a section called “My Environment,” I can type my zip code and get maps and other information about the environment in my area. I can “Pick 5 for the environment” or click on “Protect the Environment” and get clear and specific ideas for things I can do to help the environment. So EPA gets an A for letting me achieve my top tasks. But placement should be better. “Pick 5…” and “Protect the Environment” are in the red quadrant – but just barely. “My Environment” is in the lower left corner of the screen – in the green area (and my screen is set at 1680 X 1050, so I see more content in a screen than others may see).

A large rotating billboard graphic at the top of the screen takes up a lot of space. Might be better to shrink (or get rid of) that (annoying) feature and move the top tasks up. Still, I think EPA does a pretty good job.

On the Department of Interior site, I looked for a list or a map showing the national parks. Surely that would be a top task. I thought I’d hit a “bingo” right off the bat. First thing I see in the navigation column on the left is: How Do I…” and the first item is “Get a National Parks Pass.” OK – it’s not exactly a listing of parks, but I figured this could be a path to that list. Wrong. I came to a very wordy and long press release.

I looked through the rest of the topics in the left…webcams, For Teachers, For DOI Employees…I don’t see anything there for me. In fact, I don’t see anything in the first screen about national parks. So I started scrolling down. In the lower right of the second screen (and this home page is way too long - over 4 screens), I found a link to the National Park Service website. When I clicked on it, it went to an (annoying) pop-up that, indeed, did have a link to a map of parks. So I was eventually able to complete my task – but it took a lot of work. Further, I really wasn’t sure what Interior’s top tasks are, based on my review of the home page.

Oh top tasks, where art thou?

I’ve come to 3 conclusions.

  • Top tasks probably are there – somewhere - on most agency level sites…but they can be very hard to find. Often they’re mixed in with more esoteric items or links. Often they are articulated using terms that the general public wouldn’t recognize or use. So the best practice here is to separate the top tasks from other links and to use terms that the public uses to describe the task. Action words (e.g., apply for passports, learn how to buy a home) really help.
  • There’s no consistency across government about where to place top tasks on the home page. Something as simple as agreement across government to put the top tasks on the left side of the home page, in that top “red” quadrant could make it easier for the public to find and use top tasks across government.
  • There’s no consistency across government about how to label top tasks. Again, something as simple as agreement across government to put the links to top tasks under a header, “Do you want to…” or “Most Requested” or “Most Popular” could make the public’s experience so much better.

One thing more…and it’s important. How you organize your website says a lot about your priorities. Many of the cabinet agency sites I reviewed use much of the “red zone” space on narrative, topics, or links that promote the agency or the administration, when most of the public comes to government websites looking for narrative, topics, or links that get them to the tasks they want to complete. Frankly, it’s annoying to have to wade through that organization-centric content when I just want to do what I want to do. I'll think better of you if you put my needs first.

Oh top tasks, where art thou?

Related Links

Top Task Management For Websites (Gerry McGovern)