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 Because public trust suffers when you publish content that is outdated or no longer accurate.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 What if your outdated content contradicts other official government content that is current?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.

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