Sunday, April 26, 2009

When Web Managers Gather, It's Good For You and Me

Note: I posted this blog piece just before the last annual government Web Managers Conference, in May 2008. That wonderful conference is being held again this week, and I think it’s worth it to voice these thoughts again and cheer on my former colleagues.

This week, some 500 government web managers from across the country will gather in Washington to hear new ideas from administration leaders, network, and build energy toward implementing the initiatives that come with a new President. This annual meeting of government web managers
is a terrific use of their time, as far as the public is concerned, because – for a few hours – they are government web managers – not HUD web managers or State Department Web Managers or Indiana web managers or Chicago web managers. And when web managers start thinking and acting collectively, their power – and their results – increases exponentially.

For those couple of days, they raise their heads and look around at all that they have in common. They hear from thought leaders. They share ideas. They nod at common problems and common goals. They make notes about new ideas they want to try. They seek out one another at lunch or after a session to talk more about possibilities or get more “how to’s.” They form alliances and talk about working together to make all government websites better. They take time to think about those they serve: the public. They get re-charged…they get excited. That’s a good thing for you and me, fellow citizen.

If you’re one of those smart web managers going to the Web Managers Conference, have a great time! Soak it all up. Meet your colleagues. Seek collaboration. Get on board with top tasks and social media and all the other challenges and opportunities ahead. Go home inspired! And stay connected with your peers, after the conference. Strengthen those ties. You serve us best when you serve together.

Oh – and if you weren't able to attend this year (the conference is sold out!), be sure to sign up early next year. This is a “don’t miss” opportunity! It’s good for you. It’s good for those you serve.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Can’t We Have One Federal Government – At Least Online?

The public views the federal government as “one.” They say, “I pay my taxes to THE government”…not to “THE HUD” and “THE EPA” and “THE HHS.” Yes, I know…there are thousands of federal agencies and sub-agencies, and you are not accustomed to working together to present a united face to the public. But from a citizen’s point of view, you are THE federal government. So can’t you act like one, at least online?

Why should you act as one? Well, citizens don’t know which agency handles what; and frankly, we don’t care. We just want you to do it or fix it or answer it. We don’t like getting redundant or conflicting information, depending on which agencies we talk to. We want one answer – the right answer - and we want it fast. We don’t want to have to bounce from one agency to another to accomplish a task. We want seamless public service. We want you to tell us where to start and what to do next. We want you to connect the dots…don’t make us figure it out. You may be physically located all over the place, and you may report to different agency heads. But at least on the web, you should be one.

OK – you get it. So, what could the federal government do to look/act like “one,” at least online? Most of you have already figured this out. Do across government what many agencies already have done across the agency:

  • Organize content by topics – not by organizational components
  • Move to one common design
  • Establish one style guide (publication rules) that covers all content

Consolidate content around topics

We who managed government websites in the early days learned very quickly that citizens want content by topic – not by organizational segment. Today, I couldn’t find a single major government website designed around organizational components. Yet citizens have to navigate through multiple federal agencies to get all there is to know from THE government, on a subject. And they have to do their own analysis of all that content to figure out what works for them, filtering out duplication and – sometimes - even conflicting information.

Government web managers have talked about consolidating content by topic for many years. In fact, there have been some preliminary efforts in this direction. Certainly, one of the main goals of is to aggregate content across government, by topic. But is a directory of links. It does not attempt to consolidate and prune “like” content or tell citizens which links are better than others or tell you where to start and where to go next. Pick just about any topic page on, and you can see the problem. Way too much content…way too redundant…way too hard to figure out which is best for you.

Create cross-agency content groups on major topics (housing, food, health) convened by staff at, to sort it out…eliminate duplication…put it in logical sequences. Post basic information about a topic right on and then link to more specific or esoteric information on agency sites, organizing it in logical sections or sequences and using good link text to tell citizens exactly what they’ll find or what to look for when they get there.

Move to one common design

On this point, some of my colleagues are rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. In fact, this particular subject – adopting a common design across government - was so contentious when I was on the Federal Web Managers Council that we had to table discussion. But look what agencies are doing. They’re going to one common design. Even a huge agency like USDA has implemented a common design. Why? Well, it saves millions in designing and testing separate sites - money and time that could be used in much better ways…like making the writing more citizen-friendly and services more efficient. It makes the agency look like “one.” And – most of all – it makes it easier for the public to use all parts of the agency’s website(s). If it works across an agency, why shouldn’t it work across government?

In his report,” State and Federal Electronic Government in the United States, 2008,” Darrell West notes: “The most striking discovery while researching state and federal websites was the importance of consistency. States that had websites that were completely inconsistent from one agency to the next were harder to navigate, because each site seemed like an independent entity. Sites that were consistently formatted, however, were much easier to use because one knew where to find certain links with the prior knowledge of their relative locations on other state sites.”

Develop a common template. Do it through a partnership between the staff and the Federal Web Managers Council. Let agency web managers have their say. Test it to death for usability - get it right. Then use it both for agency sites and Make it easy for citizens to use all government websites. Make the federal government look like “one” online.

Establish one style guide (publication rules) that covers all content

What am I talking about? A good style guide or set of publication rules would help bring consistency and quality to online content, across government. It will make you look like “one.”

A good style guide tells web writers and editors how to do everything from formatting telephone numbers (do we use dots to separate phone numbers or dashes? Do we use parens around area codes?) to using the conversational second person (“you”) in writing to using key words strategically to help search engines.

The Federal Web Managers Council already has begun developing best practices in publication procedures/style guides. Many agencies have developed more extensive guides that can serve as prototypes. Coming up with one standard style guide/publication rules shouldn’t be a big stretch. Mandating its use governmentwide might be harder. It should come from OMB or the White House Office of Communications or GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communication, based on the recommendation of the Federal Web Managers Council.

Getting everyone under one set of content rules would be a huge step toward making the federal government look more like “one” online and making it easier for citizens to use all government websites.

Citizens think they have one federal government. It’s time to act like one – at least online. Come on, folks. Make it easier for citizens to interact with THE federal government.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The 5 “R’s” of Governance – Get It Right…Get It Done

Web governance has perplexed government web managers for years. Because web management has been – basically – a grassroots effort in the government (many government websites were born bottom-up…not top-down), web managers have struggled to get the attention of higher-ups to get the right pieces in place.

What are the right pieces? I think of it in terms of the 5 “R’s" of governance: Roles, Responsibilities, Relationships, Rules, and Review.

  • Roles: who, by job, must be included in the governance structure so that websites are managed and coordinated properly? Web managers. Public Affairs Officers. CIOs. Program heads (responsible for content on their programs). Contracting Officers (to make sure contracts for websites or content that will go on the web comply with agency web policies). A top management official (who has authority to issue policies all parts of the agency must honor). And others.
  • Responsibilities: what must each person do? What functions, related to web management, are they responsible for?
  • Relationships: with whom must each person interact and when? For example, if the CIO is planning to do maintenance on the servers, he/she should coordinate with the Web Manager far enough in advance to warn the web audience of outages.
  • Rules: what are the policies, procedures, and standards that keep web management moving along efficiently and effectively? How do you manage web content? How do you manage all the other activities that support the website?
  • Review: how do you evaluate performance, of the website and of the people with the various responsibilities for the website, of web governance? How do you make sure all the roles, responsibilities, relationships, and rules are being used? How do you know where there are problems in the governance structure so you can fix them?

In Spring 2008, I did a very quick and dirty survey of 14 web managers at the Cabinet agencies and select independent agencies, asking questions about governance. I was preparing to teach a Web Governance course, and I wanted to get a feel for the problem areas. I learned that most agencies have a way to go to get good, solid governance in place. For example:

  • 58% had not documented their governance structures. If the structure isn’t documented, how can you be sure that all the players know what they’re supposed to do (in fact, they may not even know they’re part of the governance structure!). Write down and communicate what you have – the roles, responsibilities, and relationships - even if it’s imperfect. Then make it better.
  • Most agencies (83.3%) had documented web policies. But only about half had documented publication procedures and/or a style guide that describe the rules for managing content. Only about half had documented operating procedures…how you run other web functions like training and marketing and analytics and communications and all those other functions essential to good web management. You need to write down what you do and how you do it. Everybody needs to know the rules to play by.
  • 70% had not documented management controls (though I suspect most have them). Management controls are a critical part of the rules. You have to protect the agency and the public from fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement (see OMB Circular A-123). How do you make sure that only authorized people post to the website? How do you make sure that content is correct? Write down your controls, and make sure you’re using them.
  • Most agencies measured customer satisfaction (81.8%) and site traffic (90.9%). But less than 2/3 did usability testing. Usability data is your best indicator of site effectiveness and top task efficiency…and one of your best justifications for improvements. Only about a third had performance measures that tie the website to mission achievement and/or public service. You need to have meaningful review processes to make sure your site is performing well.

The Federal Web Managers Council has encouraged agencies to work on web governance; and – hopefully - things have improved. Strong governance is a must, if you want to provide the best possible public service through the web. Governance needs to be reviewed periodically, to make sure all the right “R’s” are in place. That’s especially true as the new administration takes up the reins and new players (including New Media Directors, who should be part of governance) come onboard.

Take the time to get this right now – you’ll save yourselves a lot of grief later. And you'll serve the public better.

Related links
HUD's web governance structure and policies
HUD's web publication standards and style guide
HUD's web management operating procedures

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Proceed Until Apprehended!

I had many lucky breaks in my career; but one of the luckiest occurred back in 1993, when George Latimer - former Mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota - came to HUD to help new Secretary Henry Cisneros unleash innovation. George had been a very successful innovator as Mayor (you’ll see his name mentioned several times in David Osborne’s book, Reinventing Government) and had a strong track record. He was in charge of the Secretary’s “Special Actions Office,” a small staff to the Secretary that served as an incubator for new ideas.

Lucky me…George plucked me from the rank and file to help him navigate the government bureaucracy and keep things organized. Like the obedient public servant I had been trained to be, I waited for George to tell me what he wanted me to do. And the very first lesson George taught me was this: don’t make your boss do all the thinking. Figure it out. Make it happen. If there’s something you need the boss to do, bring in the options – along with the memo to sign; and we’ll make it happen. But don’t sit around waiting to be told what to do. And while you’re at it, be a little gutsy. Remember: it’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Whew! George’s philosophy opened a whole new world for me, as a public servant. What a terrific atmosphere for me to work in, as I became HUD’s first web manager and went through those first months of trial and error, growing a new form of service delivery. George taught me if you see a void that you think you can fill - in a right way - go for it. Proceed until apprehended!

I was reminded of George when I read a quote by White House New Media Director, Macon Phillips, at last week’s Government 2.0 Camp. When someone suggested to him that agencies will look to the White House for direction on innovation, he replied, “Go! Do it! Don’t wait for the White House to solve your problems. Learn, evangelize, and implement yourselves.” If George Latimer had been sitting in that audience, I can tell you he would have jumped to his feet and cheered loudly!

We who were the first government web managers learned quickly that, with no path to follow, you pretty much were on your own, figuring out what to do with government websites. As long as I based my actions on doing the right thing for the American people, I was OK. No one had a better answer, so I just proceeded (and I seldom was apprehended!). But now, government web managers often are shackled by bureaucracy that has become much more web-wise and cautious.

A new wind of innovation is blowing in government. But innovation only succeeds to the extent that people at all levels feel free to be innovative. That’s what George Latimer taught me, and that was Macon Phillips’ message. Figure it out. Make it happen. Involve the bosses when they’re needed to give an order or break down a barrier (and don’t forget to bring along that memo to sign!), but don’t wait for them to tell you what to do.

Whenever I speak to a group of government web managers, the last thing I say is, “Proceed until apprehended!” Thank you, George. Thank you, Macon.