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

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.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

My Web Design Pet Peeves

Normally, I try to make these blog posts pretty positive. But today - I’m grumpy. I just finished going through more than 50 government websites (at all levels of government), to prep for a couple of web management courses I’m teaching soon; and way too many of them have some really bad design habits that frustrate the heck out of me. So - in hope that some web manager will read this, recognize one of these offenses, and fix it - here they are, friends…my current top three web design pet peeves:
  1. Large photos or graphics billboards in the top left/middle of the home page that cycle through 3-5 different views. Why in the world has this trend caught on? Why in the world would web designers think that a web audience wants to sit there for 10, 15, 30 seconds or more, waiting for these things to cycle through? Honestly, I just want to scream when I see one of these images (and they seem to be all the rage these days).
    Have you ever actually talked to people who are trying to use your website to find out if we like this practice? Yes – a picture often can be worth a thousand words. But why do you waste important front page space – space that could be used to get me to what I really want – to show me pretty pictures or tell me cute little stories or show me what YOU think should be important to me? It makes me think you don’t know (or care about) what I want to do on your website. Enough. Use Amazon or Google or Craigslist as your model – be utilitarian. Pretty pictures do not make me like you better. Efficiency – helping me get to what I want – makes me like you better. (Oh - and PS...I made this same design mistake several years ago when I managed the HUD website. And I got the same feedback I'm giving you now).
  2. Photos of government agency officials. I thought we’d dealt with this problem long ago, but – no – they’re still all over the place. So here’s the thing, agency heads. You don’t own that agency. We - the people - own it. It isn’t your agency. It’s our agency. If we want to know who’s currently serving us as head of our agency, then we’ll go to the “about this agency” page. Please don’t use our websites for personal publicity. It’s incredibly annoying.
  3. Welcome messages. So passé. We don’t want or need to be “welcomed” to your website. Do you think your welcome will make us stay longer? No. All it does is waste space and give us more words to wade through, trying to find what we came for. Please – spare us.

I beg of you, government web managers (and/or those who tell government web managers what to do)…do some usability testing. I’m pretty sure you’ll find out that most of us don’t want this junk cluttering up our government websites. Fast, efficient, effective service – that’s what we want. Amen