Thursday, March 26, 2009

Worried About Too Many People In the Sandbox? Governance to the Rescue!

This week, we learned that agencies are hiring “new media directors.”

As one who held a “web manager” job description for 10 years, I can tell you that I was a bit alarmed when I saw the new media directors’ duties that would include:

  • “The overall technical performance, maintenance, and development of websites outreach platforms
  • Interpreting and reporting various site statistics on a regular basis, and using these results to improve traffic and the effectiveness of the agency's content and outreach efforts”

Hey – those were MY duties! If I were still a web manager, I’d probably be more than a little concerned.

And then I heard that some CIOs are holding “social media” briefings in agencies. Hey, there’s a whole sub-group of the Federal Web Managers Council who thought they were the champions for social media! What’s the deal here?

Well, there’s good news: there’s plenty of room in this sandbox for everyone – web managers and new media specialists and CIOs. In fact, we need them all. But – and this is so critical – each of them needs to understand and respect what the others bring to the sandbox so they can work together, and not at odds. After all, we all want to build the same thing – an open, transparent government that delivers the services that its citizens want and need. We just need a governance structure to keep us organized.

So – let’s sort this out (and I’m writing this to web managers because…well heck, that’s what this blog is about). Web managers – new media directors will help you market the services you work so hard to provide through the web. They’ll open up new ways to carry the message that government has something for every citizen, help the public see what’s going on in their government (transparency), and help engage the public in the way their government works.

The CIOs will continue to evaluate and bring in new technologies to accomplish agency mission and management goals and to solve management problems. And the new emphasis for CIOs is to figure out how the often atrocious legacy data systems can be coaxed to spew out something that might be useful to the public, to use in ways they want to use it.

You need these folks. And they need you, web managers. They need you to do what you always have done so well: serve as editor-in-chief of websites that exist to deliver government services to citizens as effectively and efficiently as possible. You need to keep identifying “top tasks” – the cream of government services that citizens use most - and working with program managers to make those top tasks as easy to use as possible. You need to continue to look for content that is obsolete and redundant and little-used, so you can strip away clutter that makes top tasks hard to find and use. You need to make sure that the words on the website are words that citizens understand, and you need to organize content in sequences that are logical to citizens. You are the communication and service specialist. You make sure that government websites communicate effectively, so they serve citizens effectively.

Together, new media directors, CIOs, and web managers can be a powerful team. There’s plenty for everyone to do. But here’s the key: you need structure.

You need to figure out – right from the start – how you’re going to work together. Pin down those 5 “R’s” of governance I always talk about: Roles, Responsibilities, Relationships, Rules, and Review. Who does what? How/when will you relate and coordinate? Take a look at your rules (policies, publication procedures, and operating procedures) and see where they need to be adapted to incorporate new media, transparency, public engagement, and public access to data. Make sure everyone knows and understands them. And bosses – make sure you review performance and hold all the players accountable for doing what they’re supposed to do.

Beware: governance can’t be left to happenstance. It must be planned and communicated to all the players. In the absence of governance, you risk misunderstandings, inefficiency, and even chaos. Who has time for that? It won’t just “all work out.” When you have so many players, working for different bosses, you must have a governance structure.

Who should create this governance structure? Well, I have been a proponent of a top level Web Policy Council... But absent that Council, I’m thinking Macon Phillips, New Media Director at the White House; Vivek Kundra, Chief CIO at OMB; and – ut oh…there’s no one at that top level to represent the Web Managers. Hmm… Well, thank goodness - GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communication has stepped into that void. So GSA, with representatives of the Federal Web Managers Council, can front the web manager community.

This can be sorted out. It’s a big sandbox – everyone can fit. Get the governance in place, and we’re going to build an awesome open, transparent government that delivers the services that its citizens want and need (and pay for!).

Related post

It's Time for Governance

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Shout Out to Rachel Flagg – Headed to the Web Best Practices Team at GSA

If you’ve never met Rachel Flagg, you’ve missed something.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw her…we were doing a web clinic in Seattle, and Rachel was one of the Seattle staff who attended. She stood in the back of the room and beamed the entire time. After the session, I walked back to her and asked her why the big smiles. She said she was just so excited about what we were doing with the web. I liked her immediately.

Her rise in the web manager community has been earned. In 2001, Rachel became one of HUD’s first class of regional web managers (she manages web content for 5 HUD offices in 4 states); and she quickly proved herself to be a great leader and an outstanding web manager. She got involved in the work of the government Web Managers Forum, helping develop – among other things – a list of best practices in web management from other nations’ governments. In 2005, Rachel was chosen to be one of the first field representatives on the Federal Web Managers Council. In 2007, Rachel became Co-Chair of the Council, partnering with Sheila Campbell to lead this great group of government web managers in producing some excellent work, including the recent white papers on transforming online government and social media.

Now, Rachel is going on detail to GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communication to work with Sheila on Government Web Best Practices. There’s no doubt in my mind that Rachel will be a great asset to GSA. She’s a master strategist, a terrific writer, and a born leader. Her passion for serving citizens through the web is unmatched, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Now that she’s able to devote all her time to the web manager community, like Sheila, watch out! This dynamic duo will do even greater things.

If you don’t know Rachel Flagg yet – believe me, you will. And you’ll be as dazzled as I was!

Congratulations, Rachel (and Sheila)!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reach Out to Web Managers in the Field

In the past month, I’ve taught two courses for government web managers. I learned something important from those courses: there are still government web managers working around the country who are operating in a vacuum. They don’t know about or the government Web Managers Forum or all the requirements and best practices for government websites.

One class participant told me she doesn’t even know who else in her federal agency works on websites. Another one told me he gets no encouragement from his higher-ups to get together with other web managers and web contributors – even just in his own federal agency – to compare notes and collaborate. Web Managers Forum: you’ve got some outreach to do.

The Web Managers Forum has grown to more than 1,500 federal, state, and local government web managers from across the country. It truly is a community of practice success story and a tribute to the power of grassroots organization. This group, which is led by the Federal Web Managers Council, “meets” monthly on conference calls that often exceed 100 phone lines (with many people sitting in a room listening on one line) to discuss hot topics and best practices. They also communicate through a listserv and are moving to an online social networking site. This is all great news.

But think about it. If there are 24,000+ federal government websites out there, then there also must be a whole lot of people running those websites; and they’re not all sitting in Washington DC. There are many government “web managers” (including employees who may not have the title but still do that job) out in “the field" (the term used in Washington to describe everyone working for the government who is NOT in Washington). There are field web managers out there operating on their own, reinventing the wheel. You need to find a way to bring those web managers into your circle.

You need to get them up to speed with best practices and strategic plans and social media and other initiatives. You need to make sure their local perspective is integrated in the information and services you deliver to citizens. But most of all, you need to collaborate across government - and up and down, through the ranks - to improve the quality of all government websites and service to the public.

You need to advertise the Forum and, through every federal agency, regularly. You need to get out of DC and organize training sessions and meetings in major cities across the country. It’s much cheaper to take a small training team out to local venues – places where field web managers can drive in for the day at almost no cost – than to bring them into DC.

You need to organize and nurture local and regional cross-agency web manager forums and groups, encouraging them to meet and compare notes regularly, in addition to becoming members of the larger Web Managers Forum. You need to identify and cultivate regional web leaders who can serve as conduits and local organizers. And – most of all – we need those at the highest levels (OMB, agency heads) to recognize and ensure that all government web managers (including those who work under other titles but who perform web manager functions) – at all locations – are properly trained and are encouraged to collaborate, both throughout their agencies and across government.

Reach out. Seek out your peers in the field. Bring them into the community. Government web managers serve the public best when they serve together. Inside and outside of Washington DC.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kiosks - An Old Program That Still Has Potential

I’ll bet you didn’t know this. The federal government has a small, little-known, kiosk program that has produced great results serving citizens, particularly low-income citizens. Maybe – with a little TLC – it could do even more.

More than 10 years ago, HUD rolled out its first citizen “ATM,” – a touch-screen kiosk that provided basic information about HUD’s programs. It was then Secretary Andrew Cuomo’s baby. He wanted to harness technology to deliver information to citizens where they lived, worked, shopped, and played.

Eventually, HUD placed more than 100 kiosks around the country in locations specifically chosen because they are frequented by low-moderate income Americans – shopping malls, grocery stores, libraries, community centers, and street corners. Four years ago, EPA, Education, IRS, and Labor joined the effort, turning the “HUD Kiosks” into “Government Kiosks.” At a touch of the finger, citizens get simple, basic information – in English or Spanish - about buying a home, getting rental help in the local area (including a searchable list of government-subsidized rental units), retirement savings, free tutoring, student financial aid, poison prevention, and earned-income tax credits. And they can print it all out and take it home.

Because the kiosks are web-based, content can be updated quickly and easily. They’re not intended to be internet workstations – you can’t use the kiosks to surf the web. Content is light – about 100 pages – because they’re intended for quick service. Stop by, spend 5 minutes getting what you want, print, and move on. The ATM concept.

But what’s really terrific about the Government Kiosks is that they actually help citizens improve their lives. How do I know? Well, when the Bush administration came in, they commissioned a study of the program to decide if they should continue it. The answer? You bet! The study concluded that 74% of the 1,500+ kiosk users across the country who were observed and/or interviewed in the study acted on the information they found on the kiosks – from talking to a housing counselor to visiting a HUD office to returning to the kiosk for more information. Those are pretty impressive results.

But I also want to tell you about a personal observation. While I was working out of HUD’s Tucson Office, 4 years ago, I noticed a young man standing at the kiosk that was located right outside the office door. He seemed quite intent on copying something he’d seen on the screen, so I decided to watch for awhile. I walked across the street and checked my watch. 17 minutes later, he left. When I walked over to the kiosk to see what had interested him so much, I saw a list of local homeless shelters. If the kiosk helped him - or someone he knew - find a place to sleep...well, isn't that what public service is all about?

But, you say, pretty much everyone has access to the internet these days. Why do we need kiosks? Well, they serve a different purpose. They reach people who might not think to come to a government website for help. Or maybe a person has tried to use a government website but found it too complicated. Or maybe they just didn’t know the government had free tutoring programs, until they passed by a kiosk and saw it on the screen.

According to the February statistics (which you can find on the HUD website, for those of you who care about transparency), 31,000 visitors stopped by one of the 64 Government Kiosks currently operating.

I’d like to see the Obama team look into this program – see if it could/should be expanded…more kiosks in more cities with state-of-the-art equipment and publicity to let citizens know about them. Deliver government to more citizens. Maybe add real-time chat or other interactive citizen support services. Or don’t add anything. After all, it’s working.

Kiosks aren’t a new idea – but sometimes, old ideas deserve a fresh look.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Take a Deep Breath – We’ve Got to Be Patient

Mea culpa. Like my fellow Web Passionistas, I am guilty of being terribly impatient for the Obama team to make long-awaited changes in the way government does business through the web. I've read a good number of blogs and tweets, sounding the frustrations many of us share. A few weeks ago, I even sent a whiny email to Macon Phillips, complaining about the introduction of multiple new websites around the economic situation (,,, Sorry about that, Macon (at least I didn’t use all caps!). I know a lot of us are so eager to see change…we idealistically thought these folks would walk in the door, wave their magic wands, and – poof! – all better. Well, darn it…I think we’re going to have to be patient.

I'm sure the Obama team is as frustrated as we are. They came in with the same high expectations, only to face a dearth of office space, lengthy staffing processes, complex procurement requirements, and other laws and regulations that have been making government employees groan for years. For example, I know the privacy and accessibility laws and regs complicate jumping into some of the new technologies that most of us agree will help government interact with citizens. But it’s the right thing to do to protect the privacy of citizens who use government websites – citizens hold government to a higher standard on this issue. And we must make our web content accessible to all citizens (and if it’s not important enough to make it accessible, then – gee – maybe it shouldn’t be there at all).

It’s gonna take some time to get over these hurdles. They have to sort through the laws and regs and figure out which ones have to be preserved and which ones can be modified. I worked for the government for a long time; and one thing I learned is that you can accomplish most anything, if you just keep looking for options. I think this team is up to the task.

Now, if we haven’t seen progress a year from now, we can – and should - really yammer. And, sure, we should keep reminding them about the things that are really important to us – making top citizen tasks as prominent and easy-to-use as possible, transparency, engagement, and (my own personal pet peeve) downsizing the absurd number of government websites (each with its own look and feel) and unattended government web content.

But for now, let’s be patient, fellow Web Passionistas. If the past is prologue, it will be another 3-5 months before they get all the people in place. Macon and his team are working hard at the White House. Vivek Kundra just got his foot in the door at OMB; and while I know we all have high expectations of him, even Gandalf himself couldn’t bring about change as fast as we want it. Everything we’ve seen indicates these folks are on the right track. So let’s give them a chance.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

It's Time for Governance

I just returned from DC, where I taught another Web Manager University course. I always love teaching and seeing my former colleagues. But this trip was especially interesting because government web managers are truly excited about the connections they are making with the executive (read: political) level of government. And why is that so important? Because that strong connection has not existed in the past 14 years. Because that connection is absolutely essential if the issues that the Federal Web Managers Council spotlighted in their recent white papers are to be resolved. Because it’s time to create a true “governance” structure for government web management.

Lisa Welchman wrote a terrific blog post a couple of weeks ago about the progress our friends in the United Kingdom are making in consolidating and focusing their government websites, largely because they have strong web governance. She calls for similar top-level support and direction in the U.S. I couldn’t agree more that the top-level governance void needs to be filled. But – as always – how we do it is as important as what we do. It’s got to be the right players at each level, and there have to be the right, formal, connections between levels.

I think there are three key issues here.

1. First (and I do mean in this order), top government executives need to recognize and declare that government websites (at least those in the Executive branch) are major assets for mission achievement and public service – not just a jumble of massive bulletin boards for the plans and achievements of whatever administration is in power – and they must be managed that way.

Citizens are the primary audience for most government websites. Web managers know that. They also know that citizens come to government websites to get the information or services they want and need quickly and easily and get out. They don’t want to waste their time wading through photos of agency heads, press releases on agency actions, and way too many home page links to esoteric content, put there to appease the egos of agency managers who think what they do is so important that it warrants front-page feature.

The problem is that top political and career executives – at least in the past – either didn’t know or didn’t care that taxpayers see our websites as service centers that should be focused on their needs. So we need that top layer to get behind the notion that government websites are about serving citizens and that they must be run as the critical products that they are, with appropriate resources dedicated to their success.

2. Which brings me to issue two: government websites MUST be run by web managers who have appropriate knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). Fourteen years ago, when U.S. government websites were born, we didn’t have a cadre of employees with the KSAs to manage these assets. Now, we do.

Web managers must have 7 basic KSAs: leadership skills, communication skills (both writing and speaking), organizational skills, analytical skills, entrepreneurial skills, basic knowledge of the agency and its programs, and basic knowledge of web technology. Top agency web managers need experience in government web management, as well. Agencies need to hire web managers with these skills and train upcoming web managers to build these KSAs. They also need to be sure they have adequate numbers of skilled web managers to manage their websites.

3. Finally, issue three: we need a formal governance structure at the top that supports the wonderful and successful grassroots structure that already has emerged in the Web Managers Forum and the Federal Web Managers Council. That structure needs to address and coordinate policy-making and strategic planning for web content operations, across government.

So what do I propose? It’s pretty simple, really.

1. Create a governmentwide Web Policy Council, comprised (at least) of the Director of Communications at the White House (or his/her designees which could/should include the Director of New Media), the Director of E-Government and Information Technology at OMB, the Chief Performance Officer at OMB (and that might be someone who holds one of these other titles), the Director of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB, and the Chief Technology Officer (again, those duties may be subsumed by one of these other officials).

The Director of the Office of Citizen Services at GSA (or his/her designee) and the Co-Chairs of the Federal Web Managers Council should be participants in all policy discussions, so they can bring practical issues to light and carry back the thinking of the Web Policy Council to the web manager community. If there were a Director of Communications Policy at OMB (I so wish and believe there should be), that officer also should sit on this Council.

Each of these policy managers has a strong stake in the efficiency and effectiveness of government websites. In addition, it will be important for each of these players to coordinate his/her requests of government web managers with the others. The Policy Council presents the opportunity to establish priorities.

2. Sanction the Federal Web Managers Council as the implementation coordinating body for web policies. They already are empowered to develop and distribute guidance and directions on implementing OMB policies and to identify and publicize best practices. They just need public (re)endorsement. Further, the Federal Web Managers Council can raise issues to the Policy Council that need higher level guidance and/or support or coordination.

3. Take care of outstanding business. The Web Policy Council should do 3 things, right off:

  • Prepare a memo from the Director of OMB to all Agency Heads, informing them that web management policy and strategy will now be directed by this Web Policy Council and will apply to all agencies; that agency websites are to be viewed and used as public service centers, focusing on using the best available technologies to deliver services – especially “top tasks” - as efficiently and effectively as possible; and that they are to review and assign appropriate resources – including web managers with appropriate KSAs – to managing government websites. This memo also should sanction the Federal Web Managers Council.
  • Act on the White Papers prepared by the Federal Web Managers Council.
  • Develop and publicize strategic goals for web management for the coming year(s) to guide the Federal Web Managers Council and government web managers in all agencies. Everyone – top to bottom – must have the same vision and path, to accomplish all that must be accomplished.

It’s time to fill this void. We need a strong governmentwide, top-to-bottom governance system for managing government websites as the critical citizen service products they are.

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