Thursday, September 17, 2009

News Flash: Government Websites Are Not Newspapers!

Last week, I was talking to a friend who is a private sector usability specialist. I asked her if, like me, she is noticing that some agency websites seem to be slipping backwards, featuring agency news rather than top citizen tasks on their home pages. She said that, indeed, she and her colleagues are observing the same thing. It appears that agency public affairs staffs are really getting into websites (and web management) – which is a good thing – but they haven’t yet learned this truth: the public comes to government websites to do things – perform tasks - not read the news. They go to newspaper sites for that.

I can appreciate the learning curve. I also can appreciate that Public Affairs folks have a different mandate than agency Web Managers. Public Affairs is responsible for marketing. Their clients are the agency chiefs. Web Managers are responsible for making sure websites serve the public. Their clients are the audiences. So the disconnect is understandable.

But here’s the thing: turning government agency websites into newspapers is not what the public wants or expects. As important, it is the antithesis of what President Obama has urged of all government: participation, collaboration, responsiveness to/trust in the citizens who ARE the owners of government.

Putting news and press releases as the featured items at the top of government websites shouts, “me, me, me” – not “you, you, you.” It is not furthering transparency – it’s obscuring service and engagement. In several cases, I’ve seen agency news (including photos of agency officials) crowding out and pushing down links to what the public really wants – top tasks..those services that they pay taxes for. This is a step backward.

There's no blame game here. People are just trying to do their jobs with all the tools available. The point is that you need to recognize the trend (because we who are looking at you certainly see it) and stop it in its tracks before it gets worse. Maybe you Web Managers invite Public Affairs Officers to some briefings on the facts that you have…the data and evidence (site traffic statistics, usability data, customer satisfaction data, performance measures, emails from the public) that shows conclusively what the public wants from their government websites. If you are a Public Affairs officer, maybe you ask for such a briefing. Maybe you bring in some noted authorities on the subject of government websites and usability research and let them present their findings to the Public Affairs Officers and agency chiefs and Web Managers, together, so there can be a good discussion about how government websites should be used to serve and engage the public and achieve the President's goals.

Successful websites are audience-centered. That’s not an opinion – that’s a fact. So please…let’s get our government websites back on track. Let’s use them for service and engagement and collaboration – not as surrogate newspapers. Let’s make them shout “you, you, you.” It’s the right thing for the President’s objectives. It’s the right thing for the American public.

Related Links
What Is the Role of Government on the Web? (3 parts)
Government website survey: from organization-centric to citizen-centric


Walter said...

This is very well stated. I've been blogging as a councilman for years, and no question people react better to requests and to surveys. I've often wondered if my news posts are virtual trees falling alone in a virtual forest.

That said, there's still an important news function. If the news has to do with the street I live on, I will want the kind of detail that government provides (because news sites barely cover my town) Government sites can and should provide news, but to be most effective it needs to be targeted to the interests of the reader. We need tech in which someone can plug their address, and see if any city news applies to them. If there's a major development being proposed for near my home, news sites may not be writing about it yet but I will be darned grateful to the govt website for informing me.

fifelskik said...

Interesting argument, although I believe it is a straw man. What's with the 'Either-Or'? You don't even need a very sophisticated government website these days to handle both news briefs and services on the homepage. Also, I think it's my duty to promote a primary source of information (govt. news) rather than solely letting the secondary outlets (newspapers) be the only ones putting their take on what's important for our residents to know. Kristy Fifelski,

David said...

The news/media/press is not here to tell us (citizens) everything, but to check/balance what the government says. They are the fourth estate. They cannot check information if it is never presented. The government is here to serve folks, and perform some basic duties. But that does not undermine their informative role. That informative role can itself be a service. Let's not make too much of some of these distinctions. I think that we often neglect the opportunity to inform our citizens and residents, and the news gets to tell the whole story, which often lacks important details and plain merit in the absence of our piece. (It almost seems as if we are the fact checkers when we inject the truth back in after the story runs.)

I am not a marketing/PR wonk. I work out of our IT department. I just hate how caught up we get in some of these things, as if they were some religious doctrine. We don’t know what will work from town to town from day to day. Let's just do what is right and trust God to bless those efforts.

Years ago, the media was here to provide the rest of the story (or tell us what the government didn't). Today the press' role is shifting to one of advocacy. That is an important distinction, and it changes their motivation and our reasonable expectations of them.

As web managers (whatever that means), we can do more than one thing: web pages are more than 1px x 1px. They can have more than one link, and provide more than one piece of information (about services and/or news).

This is not black-and-white. So let's balance our efforts, and forget making new rules for everything. Some of us have great newspapers that people have reasonably come to rely upon: leave the news to them. Others have terrible or no papers: do it yourself. Some news agencies need to be balanced: do that. Some governments have more services to offer, and don't have the resources to publicize that information on the web: there's no blood in those turnips.

Do what you can reasonably afford to do in a real effort to serve your public best. You have to sleep with yourself. Assess what your real problems are there, and be careful about your reliance on conventional wisdom. It does not fit everyone. Running a site (and a jurisdiction for that matter) takes real work. It's not enough to read studies and mimic others. But, hey, it's not all anecdotal either: there is "wisdom in the multitude of counselors".

So, in the end, there are no hard and fast rules about this stuff, except of course that there are no hard and fast rules. Right? This is not an excuse to keep doing what you are doing, but a reminder that experts get it wrong, and you are accountable for your content, so post and provide it thoughtfully with an eye to helping the folks you work for. That is what you will answer for.

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