Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Governance Blues? Build the Blocks

Government websites have been prevalent since 1995. Fifteen years. Yet agencies still have internal struggles over who should “own” the website and web team; and there is no commonly-accepted model for a web governance structure across government. Even agencies with seemingly strong “web governance” have seen it all fall apart when administrations changed. Governance seems to be a common frustration among web managers. I hear it all the time.

Well, you can sit around and wring your hands, feeling powerless and frustrated. Or you can step up, assess the situation, and start putting the blocks in place.

A few years ago, I taught my first course on web governance. I centered it around 5 building blocks that form the foundation of web governance. Since then, I’ve done more thinking and observing and talking to government web managers; and now, I see 7 building blocks – 7 “R’s” - of web governance:

1. Reason: What is the purpose of your website(s)? I left this important “R” out of my first try, and I’ve come to realize this has to start the whole thing. You (and that means the whole agency) have to know why you have a website. Who are your customers? What are you trying to accomplish? And here’s a biggie – what are your overarching priorities, in order? Is it to deliver services? Is it to distribute message (news)? Which comes first? You need that statement of purpose – that “reason” – to guide your decisions and operations. And it needs to be in writing.

2. Roles: Who needs to be in your governance structure? I suggest:
  • An agency executive – someone who can “trump” all others;
  • Program heads – those responsible for the content;
  • The Public Affairs or Communications Director – the person responsible for representing the agency with the public;
  • The CIO – the person in charge of technology;
  • The Director of Contracting/Procurement – the person who makes sure that contractors who provide web content or technology support abide by all federal laws and requirements and agency web policies;
  • The Director of Field Operations – the person who ensures that agency field offices support web operations;
  • Web Managers – both at the agency level and the sub-agency level;
  • New Media Directors – people who are promoting the website(s) and creating other channels for service delivery;
  • Web coordinators or reporters – the staff people who create/manage web content within their branches or offices;
  • GTRs (Government Technical Representatives) – those who are responsible for managing technical support contracts for the website(s)
You may wonder…do web coordinators and GTRs really have any part in decision-making? Well, yes – I think they do. I think it’s far better to have an inclusive governance structure that encourages people at all levels to offer ideas, raise issues, and solve problems together, than to make it a top-down operation. After all, even in government, websites grew through a bottoms-up grassroots movement. So yes – I think all these people should be at the table.

3. Responsibilities: What does each person in the governance structure do?

4. Relationships: How and when should each person in the governance structure interact?

5. Rules: Policies and procedures (both publication procedures and operating procedures)

6.  Road Map: A strategy, a plan. This is another one of my late “adds.” But the truth is that – like the “Reason” – a governance team absolutely has to start at the same point and go in the same direction. Otherwise, it falls apart. And we’ve seen many examples of that.

7. Review: Evaluation mechanisms. Ways to hold people accountable for following the rules. Ways to measure the performance of the website and make improvements. Management controls to protect the agency (and the public) from fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.

All of this needs to be in writing.  Governance building blocks aren't real until everyone can see them.

What should these blocks look like? How should you put them together? There are many models. Shape each one to the needs of your agency. Realize that those needs may change over time, and you’ll have to rebuild. Just make sure you have 7 blocks. 

OK – you’re looking at this list and you’re thinking, “Gee, we’re missing some of these blocks.” Well, you probably do have most of them. They may not be pretty, but it’s a place to start.

Document what you have now. You do have some rules, even if they’re just in your head – write them down and publish them. You’re already functioning somehow – write down your current “roles,” “responsibilities,” and “relationships.” Don’t worry that it’s not perfect – just recognize what you have. And tell everyone in your agency. It may flush out disagreements – but that’s good. Then you can solve the problems and move forward.

Next, compare what you have to what you should have. I created a little governance self-assessment that I use in my courses (it’s posted on Pinpoint what you’re missing and what needs to be improved. Set priorities. If you can make the fix yourself, do it. If you can’t, raise it to the person who can fix it. And don’t just say to your boss, “hey – we need the contracting officer in our governance structure.” Brief him/her on why that’s important. Then produce the memo for your boss to sign or take to his/her boss. Make it easy to make the fix.

You will run into obstacles. You will see blocks start to crumble. Don’t panic! Rebuild your blocks. Find new ways to make your points. Find new allies to help you spotlight the issues. Find new solutions. Use the web manager community for ideas and support. Critical mass can be convincing.

Here’s the thing. Government web governance is more art than science. Government web managers operate in a political and Political environment; and “the web” – by nature – is constantly evolving and morphing. People change, priorities change, public expectations change, technologies change, and – boom! – what you thought was a perfect governance structure starts to tilt. Don’t let that throw you. Take a look at your blocks. Start rebuilding.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Customers Know Best - It’s Their Results That Count

Have you discovered Anne Holland’s wonderful website, “Which Test Won?” I discovered it through a recent Gerry McGovern article, “It’s Not What People Say – It’s What They Do;” and – of course – I had to play. Each week, Anne posts two side-by-side test sites. She tells you what specific element or words were being tested (which is important because, most times, it’s hard to see what’s different). Then, you get to pick which one you think tested better.

Now, I am a seasoned web manager. I am off the chart in “intuition” on the Myers-Briggs tests. I had a minor in psychology in college and took counseling courses in grad school. I’ve been known to be pretty cocky about my ability to figure out what my customers want on the web. But you know what? I have picked wrong more often than I’ve picked the winner, on these side-by-side tests. The moral of the story? Customers know best. And it’s their results that count.

This week’s test on Anne’s site is especially intriguing to me. This example came from Sony, and it has an interesting twist. They were testing an email promo with a link to a specific page. In one version, the email says, “Save 25% on the Vegas Pro Production Assistant.” It leads to a page with a banner that says, “Never start Vegas Pro with an empty project again!” The other version switched those two. The email said, “Never start Vegas Pro with an empty project again!” It led to a page with the header, “Save 25% on the Vegas Pro Production Assistant.”

I won’t tell you which version won – go make your own guess and see. But I will tell you that this test puts a new spin on “winning.” Because though one version got more opens and clicks, the other version actually generated more sales. Web designers probably were thrilled with that first version. But I guarantee you that Sony is much more interested in that second version. And, as the evidence showed, so were the customers. It’s not enough to drive the traffic to the web page (though that’s certainly important). It’s whether the customer completes the task that matters.

So, what does this mean for government web managers? Very simple. Learn from your customers. Focus on their results. Find out if they can complete the task. It’s not enough to count hits or clicks or page views and think your customers are successful in using your site. It’s not enough to ask their opinions about the site (because – like in house-hunting – what customers say and what they actually do often are not the same). And it sure as heck isn’t enough for you to sit in your office and think you can guess how your customers will behave. What matters is this: what did your customers actually accomplish?  Were your customers successful in completing the task?

I’m not saying this is easy – especially in government. If you’ve got a service like selling stamps or applying for passports or paying taxes – services that start and end online – then you have no excuse. You should be honing in on those start and completion stats, perfecting the wording and steps through usability testing, and interviewing your customers about the experience, routinely. You should know with relative certainty how successful your customers are in completing the task and shoot to improve that percentage.

When your service is offering information or the beginning of a process that has to be completed elsewhere, it’s much more difficult to measure results. But it’s not impossible. Several years ago, HUD had a successful web-based kiosk program that provided information about homebuying, low-rent housing, and services for the homeless. How do I know it was successful? Because we hired a researcher (and honestly, it didn’t cost that much) to watch and interview and follow-up with kiosk users all over the country. We looked at their results. And we found that 74% of the 1,500 kiosk users observed (a statistically significant percentage) actually did something with the information they found. We learned which parts of the kiosk content produced the most/best results – and which didn’t. That was really helpful. That enabled us to make our services better, more focused…and drop those that weren’t being used and were only muddying the waters.

Do you have to go hire a contractor to measure your website results? Of course not, though that certainly is one option. There are many ways to observe your customers and measure their results. The point is: do it.

I love Anne Holland’s “Which Test Won?” website. It’s humbling. Every week, it reminds me that it’s the customers – not me - who know best. And it’s their results that count!

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