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.


Jed said...

I'm embarrassed that I haven't read this before. I've been preaching many of these things over the past few months and I'm afraid people will think that I was just ripping you off!

Anonymous said...

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Joan Stepsen
Wise geek