Sunday, May 31, 2009

Government Of, By, and FOR the People

I just read a little article quoting Congressman Mike Honda saying, "...Congress must take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies to transform the relationship between citizens and government. Instead of viewing the public as a customer for services, I believe that we should empower citizens to become our partners in shaping the future of our nation." I realize he was talking about Congress – not necessarily the Executive Branch. But my feeling is the same - this doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, folks. It should be both. It must be both!

Be clear. I’m all for citizen engagement. I’ve been advocating using the internet to involve citizens in their government longer than some of the current prominent advocates (see HUD’s State of the Web report that I wrote back in 2001). But Lincoln got it right, in my book. Government should be of, by, and FOR the people. So in our quest to start the “of” (transparency – because we own it) and “by” (engagement – because we should be part of it), let’s not forget the “for” (the services that government provides for its citizens, paid for by their taxes).

Believe it or not, some folks really don’t want to engage in their government. I’ve been surprised when I’ve talked to folks who have no interest. But they still want – and depend on – government services. Whether or not they become your partners, they always will be your customers.

So why did this article get my dander up? Because, Web Managers, I worry that – in your excitement to work on the “of” and “by” stuff right now – you might be neglecting the extensive work that still needs to be done on the “for.” I know that many of you have been chomping at the bit to move out on transparency and engagement for years. I know that there’s a lot of pressure/support both inside and outside government for you to move out on this. And, heck, it’s fun! But you’ve still got that elephant in the room – those way-too-many, morbidly obese, poorly written, poorly organized websites that citizens do (and often must) use to get government services.

When I look at some of the major government websites, I still see press releases and agency news where top services (tasks) should be featured, so the public can find them. When I look at some of those services, I still find convoluted organization that makes no sense to me and, more commonly, explanations and instructions (writing) that are – well – just plain bad. I haven’t come across one single government website recently that doesn’t need pruning and cleanup and improvements to make those services easier to find, more useful, and more usable.

I know fixing that “for” stuff isn’t glamorous. I know it can be slow-moving, thankless drudgery. I know you sometimes have trouble getting support for making the changes that turn worthless web junk into real online service. But I believe it’s the most important thing you do. If not you – then who?

So yes, absolutely facilitate engagement and transparency. Proselytize. Encourage policy makers to use the web to interact (both ways) with citizens. Design your website so that opportunities for engagement are obvious and usable. Encourage program managers to get their data out there and make government more transparent. Take advantage of the backing you have now to make government “of” and “by” the people. But don’t lose site of your obligation to finish (if that's possible) what you started – to improve the way government provides services FOR its citizens.

Government should be “of,” “by,” and “for” the people. We can – and should - have all three.

Related post:

To Everything There Is A Season

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Super-sites: Let's Not Forget the Basics

Like many Americans who are interested in government transparency, I looked forward to seeing, one of the new "super-sites" being developed to carry out and monitor the President's initiatives. Not much there, for now; but I know they have big plans. Kudos on that!

But wait a minute. As I looked closer, I noticed that some things were missing. For starters...who owns this site? It should be obvious, if not by branding on the page or a statement at the bottom of the page that tells you clearly that this site is an official site of the U.S. Government, at least by the information on the "about" page or the "contact" page. Not there. I finally, clicked on the FAQ link, and...skim, skim, skim...there it is! FAQ 6 tells me that GSA is managing the site on behalf of the federal CIO Council.

Intrigued, I wondered if other web content requirements and best practices were missing from So I pulled one of the convenient checklists that the Federal Web Managers Council has published on and did a spot check.

Well, I don't see a linking policy. Maybe they aren't using any links yet. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Oh...but there's no "search" tool for the site. Yes, you can search the databases. But you also should be able to search the site. Or at least there should be a sitemap. And plain language. Hmm...not so sure about that.

OK - enough on What about some of the other new government super-sites that have debuted recently? Are they following the content requirements and best practices? I took a look at Better - but not perfect. Similar problems on the branding. I was able to learn that the site is owned by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, under both the "about" and "content" tabs. But then I read the FAQs and learned that the Board isn't functioning yet and that an interim cross-agency council is doing the reporting. Wish I could have found that information in the "about" or "contact" sections. And I'm betting that someone (Treasury? GSA?) is actually managing the site on behalf of the council. But no mention of that. Also, no linking policy that I could find. Might be other issues - I stopped there.

Look folks. This isn't about nit-picking. This is about making every single federal government website - including super-sites - as useful, usable, and visitor-friendly as possible. The content requirements and best practices for government websites are readily available on I can tell you - because I was part of the group that put them together - that those requirements and best practices aren't just some arbitrary bureaucratic nonsense. They come from laws, regulations, OMB policies, and other official documents aimed at aiding and protecting the public. They come from thorough research; extensive discussion and vetting among many, many government and non-government web content professionals; and current usability research. The purpose was - and is- to "make U.S. government websites the most citizen-focused and visitor-friendly in the world."

As my sainted grandmother told me repeatedly, "a job worth doing is worth doing right." I know there's great pressure to get these super-sites up quickly. But it just doesn't take that much extra time to get it right. the owners of these super-sites (both those that are out there now and those that are being developed): please, consult with the Federal Web Managers Council and use to make sure the content of your sites is as useful and uasble as it can be and that it complies with all the same requirements that agency websites must meet. In your sincere desire to move ahead, please don't forget the basics that make U.S. government websites the most citizen-focused and visitor-friendly in the world.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Three Pieces Make A Whole Better Online Government

Last week’s Government Web Manager Conference was historic in many ways. But one of the most significant outcomes is that Macon Phillips (the government’s New Media lead) and Vivek Kundra (the government’s head CIO) acknowledged the third distinct group of players at the table: Web Managers. Neither of them was there to assert authority over Web Managers or suggest that Web Managers should be subject to their oversight. They simply encouraged them to step up and do what Web Managers do best: deliver government online services to citizens so they are useful, usable, and effective. There are three distinct pieces to this puzzle of online government, and we citizens need all three to fit together seamlessly if we are to be served well.

So why is this significant? Well, let’s clear the air. It's no secret there have been some rubs between Web Managers and CIOs and Public Affairs Offices (where New Media Directors are emerging) over the years. If we can put those on the table, learn from them, and move on, citizens will be much better served.

Web Managers and Public Affairs Offices have grappled over “mission” versus “message” from the beginning. Web Managers are most interested in featuring top tasks – those government services that citizens want most. Public Affairs Offices are charged with promoting the agency’s and administration’s message. Where’s the rub? Sometimes there are issues over top billing, and sometimes that line between “mission” and “message” can be pretty thin.

I think the rub between Web Managers and CIOs goes back to the “E-Government” program. Congress, the President, and OMB gave the lead (and the money) for the E-Gov program to the CIOs and pretty much ignored Web Managers. In fact, you need both strong technology and strong audience knowledge and communication skills to serve the public online. So it was destined to be a problem from the get-go.

But all of that is history. The good thing about history is that you can learn from it and not make the same mistakes. Which brings me back to last week’s Web Manager Conference. Our current leaders put all of that behind us and said, basically, “we recognize that there are three pieces in this puzzle and we need all three if we’re going to create the best possible government.” Bravo! Onward and upward.

So what, specifically, should we look to each group to do?

New Media

Macon laid out three objectives for his team:

  • Support the President's message,
  • Use technology to introduce a new level of transparency, and
  • Public participation: trying to understand how people can have an impact on their government, and how to better structure those things.


Vivek has identified 5 major goals

  • Open and transparent government
  • Lowering the cost of government. Doing a better job defining requirements and making better choices about technology investments.
  • Cyber-security.
  • Participatory democracy. Creating meaningful ways for citizens to engage in government decision-making.
  • Innovation. Finding new and less-costly ways to use technology for the benefit of all.

Web Managers

The Federal Web Managers Council – and the broader Government Web Manager Forum – has laid out this strategic plan:

“We believe the public should be able to:

  • Accomplish their most top government tasks online quickly and easily
  • Access government content online whenever and however they need it
  • Have direct online interactions with their government
  • Trust government web content to be accurate, timely, easy to understand, and coordinated across agencies

To achieve this vision, we’ve chosen one primary goal on which our community will focus: Improve how the public accomplishes their most top government tasks online.”

These are all great goals, and many of these goals are pretty distinct. But yes – there are a few areas of overlap…transparency and citizen engagement are the most obvious. Those overlaps will have to be discussed, and the groups will have to collaborate. Sure, there will still be rubs. But you know what? That’s healthy tension. Where they don’t have complete agreement (or autonomy), they’ll have to be innovative in finding ways to satisfy them all. And healthy tension normally produces the best possible results for citizens, in the end. I read a great quote recently: “Without resistance, we cannot fly!” Indeed.

So now what? Well, a good place to start would be for the leaders of those three puzzle parts to get together to agree on: what each will do, where they will coordinate, and how they will communicate regularly, so they can address any issues before they become debilitating.

What's past is past, and the future looks incredibly bright! These are the right three pieces, and – together – they can make a whole better government for you and me.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Courage, Web Managers!

Web management is not for the faint of heart – at least not in the government. You must have the courage of your convictions. You must show your passion to serve through your willingness to try – and fail. You have to bang your head against the wall over and over until you break through. You have to speak up until you are heard. No, you won’t always succeed. But you must never stop trying to do the right thing to serve the American people, including venturing into brand new territory. That takes courage.

Web management in the government has been a grassroots effort from the beginning. That mantra, “proceed until apprehended,” came legitimately. We were doing things our bosses had no knowledge of. We stepped up and took our chances, doing our best to make right guesses so no one would stop us. At first, our bosses left us alone because they really didn’t know how many people were out there seeing our websites. Eventually – and I believe this is true today – they had to rely on us because we knew more about web management than they did. You know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. But it is such a foreign concept in government where control is the culture. And not every boss is comfortable with the risks involved.

I’ve been reading the notes from the recent Government Web Managers Conference – oh, I am so happy for and proud of my former colleagues! – and two things jumped out at me.

  • Though some web managers are still stymied by their bosses – and wish there would be top level endorsement/push, telling their bosses to listen to them and/or get onboard – most understand they have to take the lead and are willing to try, risk, proselytize, be fearless, and act on their passion to serve.
  • Top experts, both within and outside of government, were consistent in their advice: try it; risk failure; do the right thing to serve the public. Don’t wait to be told what to do – just do it. Figure it out. Make it happen. Oh, I do so love this way of thinking! But it takes enormous courage for a government employee to act on this advice. This is NOT the way government works, normally.

One colleague recently told me that, indeed, he did proceed…but he was apprehended. That does happen, and I am not diminishing the impact of those roadblocks nor the honest fear they generate. Government lawyers can be formidable. But they also can be reasonable. Government bosses can make bad decisions – but they also can change their minds if they are convinced that it’s the right thing. Sometimes you have to table an idea and wait for more favorable conditions to try it again. Sometimes you have to wait out a boss or some other obstacle. But don’t give up. Look for the opportunities. Muster your courage. And squeak! You might be surprised who will show up with that can of oil.

Government web managers, as a whole, have enjoyed way more success than they have suffered setbacks, in large part due to their courage. That the Federal Web Managers Council published two White Papers and got those in the hands of the new administration is testimony to their courage. That this Government Web Managers Conference took place, with high level administration officials from the White House, OMB, and GSA wanting to be there, urging web managers to be innovative, respecting your enthusiasm and ideas, and applauding your moxie…oh my gosh…that’s a huge tribute to your courage.

So my message is this: if there ever was a time in government web management to step it up, it’s now. You have more high level support than you’ve ever had. If you hit that wall, start looking for the way around it. If you are certain that something is the right thing to do, find a way to do it. If you get scared or beat down or over-ruled, “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” Use the web manager community to help you. Don’t let fear and isolation paralyze you and prevent you from moving forward. Your colleagues are a huge resource. Collaborate. Partner. Work together.

If you take risks to do the right thing, others will, too. So be brave. Show your courage. We citizens are counting on you to stand up for what’s right for us.

“A great leader's courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position” - John Maxwell

“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do” - John Wooden