Monday, October 26, 2009

Web Manager Council’s White Paper – Is There Progress A Year Later?

About a year ago, the Federal Web Managers Council published a terrific White Paper entitled: Putting Citizens First – Transforming Online Government. Their analysis and recommendations were based on the many years of experience and observations of this highly-skilled, highly-committed cadre of public servants. The White Paper was presented to the Obama transition team in November 2008 and published on It received high praise from key players, open government advocates, and web experts, both inside and outside government. The government web manager community was optimistic that real change was on the way. So, I wondered…has anything changed in the past year to make government websites more citizen-focused?

To recap, the White Paper envisioned that when the American people use government websites, they would find:

  • Easily identifiable, relevant, accurate, and up-to-date information;
  • Well-written content that they understand the first time they read it;
  • Common easy-to-use tasks that many of them seek;
  • The same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, live chat, read a brochure, or visit in-person;
  • Feedback on their ideas, including what the government will do with them; and
  • Critical information, accessible to them if they have a disability or aren’t proficient in English.

It went on to make 14 critical recommendations, to achieve that vision. Let's see how they're doing on each.

Recommendation 1: Fund “virtual” office space as part of agencies’ infrastructure. Until the Obama administration has an opportunity to complete a budget cycle, we won’t know the result of some recommendations – like this one. We’ll pass for now.

Recommendation 2: Appoint an editor-in-chief for every government website, and make sure prime space on government websites is dedicated to information the public wants and needs. I hear there is a list of .gov domains (though the public can’t access it). I also heard that the transition team collected some data about websites, last spring, though I don’t know what’s been done with it. As far as I know, there still is no comprehensive, reliable list of all government websites (including .edu’s, .com’s, .org’s, and any others), so there’s no way of knowing if each official site has a designated editor-in-chief. This recommendation should be a top priority because without highly skilled web editors-in-chief at the helm, working together across agencies, it’s pretty tough to implement other important changes to improve government websites.

On the second part, I fear we’re losing ground. A number of government websites are using “prime real estate” (usability experts say that is the top left-hand quadrant of the computer screen) to publish news about the initiatives of the agency/administration – not to help the public find the services or complete the tasks they want and need. In some cases, we’ve even seen agencies move top citizen tasks out of prime real estate down to less-viewed areas. Score: minus 1.

Recommendation 3: Develop job descriptions and training requirements for web content and new media jobs. To my knowledge, there has been no movement to create standard job descriptions for web managers. Several years ago, the Web Managers Forum developed a draft job description, so there’s a starting point. This action probably is not a top priority, but it certainly is an important step toward improving web governance. We’ve had government websites for 15 years now. It’s hard to believe there’s no official web content manager job description. GSA and the staff at Web Manager University are working on core training requirements, so that’s positive action. Score: ½ point

Recommendation 4: Identify core customer tasks, and develop performance standards for those tasks. This has been the goal of the web manager community for several years. Regrettably, I haven’t seen much progress (Homeland Security’s recent commendable home page update excepted). This is a high priority, and all it really takes to get it going is political will. Score: minus 1.

Recommendation 5: Use social media to create transparency and help people accomplish their tasks. Lots of good news here. Many agencies are using social media/web 2.0 to market their wares, and GSA has done a terrific job spearheading an effort to develop terms of service agreements with social media site owners to facilitate that progress. Kudos! The Web Managers Council established a sub-council to build best practices, sample policies, and strategies. All good. Score: a big plus 1. I’m looking forward to seeing these tools used for real, substantial two-way collaboration.

Recommendation 6: Develop guidelines for disseminating content in universally accessible formats. Vivek Kundra seems to be pushing the envelope on offering data in accessible formats, at least in terms of the data provided through It’s the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a good start. Score: plus 1.

Recommendation 7 – Set stricter standards for approving new, or renewing existing, government websites; and designate a lead agency to coordinate content common to multiple agencies. Team Obama quickly “got it” that 24,000+ government websites is a ridiculous waste, not to mention confusing to citizens. But since many new sites have sprouted in the past few months, with no apparent commensurate weeding out, the massive mess of government websites continues to grow. Not good. We need better controls. More websites do not make better government. Serious slippage – not progress – on this one. Score: minus 1.

Recommendation 8: Conduct regular reviews to ensure web content is accurate, relevant, mission-related, and written in plain language. Archive content that isn’t used frequently. Do some/many/most agencies have formal review processes? I don’t know (I doubt it). But spend a few minutes on most any government website, and you’ll see that there’s been little progress in writing in plain language. Plain language specialists tell us when your primary audience is the general public, you should write at an elementary reading level. Look at a few pages on a government website. Is the writing clear? Is it written at the appropriate level? If you don’t communicate well, you don’t serve well.

A couple of agencies are working on - or considering -archives for outdated or less-used content (HUD recently introduced the long-planned, but that’s not a groundswell.

Improving the quality of government web content is a big deal, and it should be a priority. There are plain language trainers in the government and many great web writer-editors. A mandate would help, but web managers and web contributors don’t need to wait to be told to do this. Score: minus 1.

Recommendation 9: Follow the best practices in web search. Web Manager University offers courses Search Engine Optimization. But, again, good writing practices (especially using key words) is a huge part of SEO. And – back to Recommendation 8…not seeing improvement there.

Recommendation 10: Solicit public opinion and analyze customers’ preferences. Do user testing before releasing major improvements to any current website or launching a new website. Several agencies are using customer satisfaction surveys, and some agencies have found ways to seek public comments about their websites and/or services. Nothing new there.

But user testing clearly is not happening (or if it is, you aren’t listening). Many of us have been surprised to see obvious usability problems on some of the new and radically revised governmentwide sites. With all the usability help available (GSA has a usability specialist on staff, HHS has a usability testing lab, has a ton of information and resources, and Web Manager University has faculty who are usability specialists), there really is no excuse for creating government websites that are anything less than state-of-the-art in terms of usability. This should be a no-brainer. U.S. Government websites should be the most easy-to-use websites in the world. They’re not. Score: a big minus 1!

Recommendation 11: Publish a summary of common customer comments and explain resulting actions. The White House has done a good job posting public comments on their specific public participation initiatives – they should be applauded. Score: plus 1. I haven’t seen much of that on agency sites. Much more work to do on this.

Recommendation 12: Provide multiple ways for people to contact government, and ensure information is consistent across all channels. While nearly all agencies advertise multiple ways to “contact us,” I don’t know of any efforts to ensure that the answer you get is the same, no matter how you ask the question. It would be interesting to do a little testing (and maybe I will).

Recommendation 13: Establish standards and guidelines and fund staff for multilingual websites. This is largely a funding issue, so I’ll withhold judgment on that one for a few months. We’ll see what happens once all the agencies receive their FY 2010 full appropriations.

Recommendation 14: Make government websites fully accessible to people with disabilities. Government web managers and CIOs have been keyed to this issue for many years and are trying mightily. The whole social media/web 2.0 initiative presents a new wrinkle. Need to keep working on this.

Bottom Line

Good progress in a few areas. Painful slippage in others. The jury’s still out where recommendations required funding. So what needs to happen next? Three things.

  1. Web managers should move out on those things they can make happen themselves, like starting to re-write the most critical content in plain language and doing usability testing. Neither of those things needs to cost anything more than a shift in priorities and time. Resources are available within government to help. Many of you have taken my course – use that simple writing quality review exercise to get you underway. Step into the void, web managers!
  2. The Web Managers Council needs to look at the White Paper again and nudge action. What needs to happen to implement each recommendation? What needs to be done first? Think about whom, in the higher echelons, can make the decisions to implement these recommendations. In some cases, it could be GSA. In others, it might be someone at OMB or the White House. You know who the players are now, so help them know what you need them to do. If someone needs to issue a memo, draft it. If someone needs to meet, try to set it up. Get the data the transition team collected – maybe that will help you form your strategy. Let your bosses and advocates know what’s going on so we can help.
  3. Those who thought this White Paper was good in the beginning should act. If you’re inside the government, do what you can to help web managers cause these changes. If you’re outside the government, blog, talk to your high-level friends, and stir the pot to get these critical issues resolved.

This White Paper was darned good. The Federal Web Managers Council worked hard to think this through and get it right. These are changes that, if adopted across government, truly can improve citizens’ experience with their government. Lots of people agreed on that, months ago. Let's not let this drop.

PS – if progress is occurring that I’m not aware of, I hope you will leave a comment!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Reality Bites

Once in awhile, I come across a real life story that serves as a perfect reminder that the federal government still has much work to do to make citizen services easy to use. A good friend passed along this recent experience, when he tried to go online to make a tax payment. Maryland made it very easy for him to complete the task. The IRS…well, not so much. But I’ll just let him tell the story in his own words.

For Maryland, I logged into In something like 4 or 5 clicks, I found the right place to pay the taxes online. A quick check for bank routing numbers and a calculation of how much we should pay, and we were all done. No muss, no fuss…took me all of maybe 15-20 minutes.

So now, on to Federal.

I began by going to I forget how long it took me to find the payment links. I just know it took me a while--a long while. (It's actually on the front page, but how anyone would know you want EFTPS, I have no clue.) I then go to the EFTPS website, which is the “Electronic Federal Tax Paying System.” Oh, but I'm not actually there. It's a page talking about EFTPS. I have to click on the link and then on the other link saying I acknowledge I'm leaving the IRS site (to go to another IRS site!)

I get to and click on the link to make a payment. But, I need to login. Ok, so I have to "Enroll" to get a login. (Um, you know this is for a single payment, right? But, never mind...). So, I click the link to enroll (buried at the bottom of the page), then the link acknowledging the privacy act, then realize I’m on the page for “businesses.” I back out and notice at the top of the first page that there's a radio button I have to change to “individual.” Ok…so click the radio button, go to the bottom of the page, click the next button, acknowledge the privacy act again, and just that easily I get to the form to fill out to enroll.

Are you still with me?

Ok, at that top of the form is the statement that it takes up to 15 days to enroll. I can't make a payment yet. They have to enroll me and it could take up to 15 days. So, I fill out the form and hope for the best. A few weeks later, I get a notice that I'm enrolled and here's my PIN. Great, I'll go pay our taxes!

Umm, no. I go back to the EFTPS site to try to make a payment, but I have to sign in. It asks me for my SSN... check, I know that one. Then my PIN... check, got that in the mail. Then my "Internet Password." Password? I never set a password. So, I click the link for "Need Internet Password." It gives me a phone number for a voice mail system that tells me to call this other number for a different voice mail system to be issued my internet password. I dial the other number, key in my SSN, my PIN, and my Tracing number and they give me a temporary password.

Remember, how this all took me about 15 minutes to do with the State of Maryland?

So, I go back to the EFTPS site again, type in my SSN, my pin, and my temporary password and am successful. Well, successful in getting to the page to set my permanent password. Which, of course, has to be between 8 and 12 characters, contain at least one capitalized letter and one lower case letter, numbers and a special character (but only certain special characters). After two tries I finally get it to accept a password, and then I'm logged in. Great... I think. Now, to pay those taxes!

First I have to pick which form to use, put in my information, tax year, "effective date" (?) and hit submit. Voila! Taxes paid.

Can you guess which government entity I'd prefer to pay my taxes with electronically? The only reason I'd use the federal online system again is I can't imagine how complicated this would be if I had to deal with offices and people.

If you’ve read my other blog posts, you know I’m adamant that government agencies need to focus like a laser on making their top citizen tasks easy to find and easy to use. That’s how you earn public trust. That’s how you make citizens proud of their government and satisfied that they’re getting their money’s worth, when they pay those taxes. If you had any doubt that I’m telling the truth, go back and read my friend’s story again. That’s reality, folks.

Monday, October 05, 2009

How Do We Measure Success?

One of the smartest government web managers I know, Gwynne Kostin, published an interesting blog piece yesterday, pointing out how numbers may not measure what you think they do. The ever-astute Sarah Bourne,a government web manager at the state level, added a comment to Gwynne’s post, echoing those concerns and adding that measuring what really counts – achieving a task – is tough to do. It got me thinking: how do we measure the success of government websites?

Seems important to start by understanding what government websites are supposed to do.

  • Provide services to the public. We’re talking about the services that taxpayers pay for and that are the mission of government agencies.
  • Offer opportunities for citizen engagement and collaboration. This is the whole Gov 2.0 frontier that web 2.0/social media has opened.
  • Help make government transparent by publishing the most critical information, decisions, and data that the public wants and needs.

So…how do you measure a website’s effectiveness at carrying out those objectives? Here are some ideas.

Objective: Provide services to the public

Measure 1: How long does it take to complete (successfully) the most critical tasks/services?

As a reminder, most people who come to government websites come for a purpose – to do something, to complete a task, to use a service. They have busy lives; so they want to get in, get it done, and move on as fast as possible. Government’s job is to make those services easy to find and easy to use. So measure how long it takes an average person to use those services and then see if you can make it easier, faster.

Some of you will recognize this as usability testing. Pick your 3-5 top services/tasks, and run routine scenario tests of a half dozen (or more) typical users.

“You want to buy a home and don’t know how. We’re going to watch you find the answer on HUD’s website. We aren’t testing you – we’re testing our website. Tell us what you’re thinking as you go through the process.”

How many wrong turns did they take? What words didn’t they understand? Can you cut steps? Can you organize it better? Can you use other words to help them find the right path, get to the right result, faster? Measure how long it took them to complete the task. Then make improvements and see if you can trim that time.

Objective: Citizen engagement/collaboration

Measure 2: Percent of ideas considered and adopted.

Citizen engagement isn't just asking for input. It's doing something with it. Does it matter if a million people contributed ideas, if you don’t accept any of them? Does that make citizens feel part of their government? Does that increase public trust? On the other hand, if only 10 people contributed ideas, but you adopted 6 of them, isn’t that what collaboration is all about? Isn’t it about working together to make government better?

I know. Sometimes we get ideas from the public that just seem silly or are obviously (to us) unworkable. I wonder - is that their fault or is it partly our fault for not really collaborating…for not giving them enough background and guidance so that they can submit ideas that are possible and useful…for not giving them enough opportunities to discuss ideas – go back and forth – so the outcome can be a legitimate option?

It seems to me that the goal of engagement and collaboration is to come up with – together – positive outcomes. So I’d measure success by the percent of ideas accepted. And I’d make it my goal to improve the collaborative process so that percentage of positive outcomes increases over time.

Objective: Transparency

Measure 3: Percentage of data systems available to the public.

Yes, I know that transparency isn’t only about data. It’s about decisions and ideas under discussion, too. But I don’t know how to measure those. I do know that every agency is supposed to have (and publish) an inventory of all its data systems. So what percent of those systems (or the data from those systems) is available to the public?

And A Fourth Measure

My friend, Jeffrey Levy, at EPA ran an interesting little contest a couple of weeks ago. He asked us to guess what percentage of the EPA website is viewed at least 100 times a month. The answer? 3%. Does that number seem stunning to you? Probably not, if you’re a government web manager who routinely reviews his/her stats.

And there’s the flipside…what percentage of the website isn’t viewed EVEN ONCE during a month? I’ll bet it’s higher than you think.

Maybe one of our goals should be to improve that ratio. Increase the percentage of the website that is used often, and decrease the percentage that isn't used at all. Focus our resources on making the most-used content truly great. And stop wasting resources maintaining content that is never used. Make that content available upon request. I think citizens would view that as a good value and responsible government. So…

Measure 4: Percent of the website used by at least 100 people every month compared with percent of the website not used at all.

Why do we care about numbers? For bragging rights? To compare ourselves to others? Or to help us make our websites better? I’m going with that last one. Gwynne is right. Numbers can be deceiving. Let’s use numbers that really measure our success in doing the things that matter.