Thursday, September 03, 2009

Holding Out for a Hero

Remember that song from “Footloose” – “Holding Out for a Hero?” I’ve been humming that song all day. Maybe that’s all the government web manager community really needs: a hero.

In the very early days of web management at HUD, I had a pivotal meeting with then Deputy Secretary Dwight Robinson to decide where the Web Team should live, organizationally. The web team had come-to-be in a small special projects staff in the Office of the Secretary, but we thought it was time to find a more permanent home. At that meeting, Dwight decided he didn’t want to put the web team either in the CIO’s office or in Public Affairs. He liked the way we were “entrepreneurial” (his word) – working across the agency, organizing and fostering collaboration to create our “one HUD” website - and thought that was the best way for us to stay. So he decided we would report directly to him. And then – as I sat there with him – he picked up the phone and called each Assistant Secretary, telling them exactly what he expected them to do to support the agency web team. After that, he left us pretty much alone. When we hit a real snag – one we just couldn’t solve on our own – we could go to him, and he’d pick up the phone and solve it. Beyond that, he let us do our jobs.

Dwight was my hero. He understood the value of our grassroots operation. He also understood the need for a hero.

Web Managers are much like Community Organizers. We're out there beating on doors, trying to stir up new ideas for using the internet to serve citizens. We’re breaching silos…getting people to work together across organizations and across government to create good, consolidated audience-centered web content. The most successful among us are those who stay loose, working directly with managers and staff as needed, respectful of - but not mired in - pecking order. In fact, it’s when we get locked into a hierarchy (silo) that we get stymied. Armed with our passion to improve service to citizens, we've caused governmentwide change - not through delegated management authority, but through critical mass.

It actually works pretty well - except when some higher up who fails to appreciate the body of knowledge that goes into good web management and/or the fact that government websites should be citizen-focused wants to do something harebrained. Then, we have no advocate or authority to counter that. That's where our grassroots structure fails. That’s when we need a hero.

Here's the thing. Government doesn't know what to do with a grassroots operating structure. I think that's why, after nearly 15 years, we still have no official "web manager" job classification in the federal government or a standard web governance structure. What other function can you think of that has knocked around government that long without a handbook on how it will be done? But how does government condone that kind of management? How does government live with that kind of ambiguity?

So, you may wonder, what about all that talk in my earlier posts about needing a Chief Web Officer at OMB? Have I changed my mind? Maybe. Still pondering. What I do believe is that our grassroots operation has worked pretty well up to now. Maybe we should be glad there’s no official line manager at OMB (or anywhere else) that pigeon-holes us in a hierarchy. Look how much we’ve accomplished just by banding together and building critical mass. Maybe all we really need to do is look for that hero.

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