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.

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