Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Lesson from Katrina - It Takes a Leap of Faith

Five years ago, we all sat horrified watching the ravages of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast. Seeing so many, many fellow citizens losing everything and facing enormous challenges to get their lives back was powerful motivation to act. And the government web manager community did just that – we came together to help. I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating…and looking at what happened afterward.

The day after Katrina hit, Bev Godwin (then Director of and Gwynne Kostin (then Web Manager at Homeland Security) got on the phone with their web manager colleagues across government and got us organized to deliver consolidated, coordinated information on our government websites. No one asked them to do this. They didn’t go to their bosses and get permission. None of us did. We instinctively knew if we acted together as a community, doing the right thing, we could succeed. We took a leap of faith.

This post-Katrina effort was a real milestone in government web management – and a model for future strategies – for 3 reasons:
  1. Leaders led. They saw a problem, and they jumped to action. They didn’t worry about possible recriminations from bosses. They showed the moxy that all successful leaders must have. They knew the right thing to do, and they did it.
  2. The community came together and acted as one. We trusted one another because we knew one another. We had a governance structure – the newly-formed Federal Web Managers Council – in place and ready to operate. And we had the government Web Managers Forum, an extended group of web managers across government and across the nation who had been comparing best practices and sharing problem-solving for 5 years. We had the infrastructure, and it worked.
  3. Most important, we looked at our customers as a whole. We, as a cross-government group, talked about the spectrum of needs of the people affected by Katrina: need to find their loved ones…need for housing…need for food and clean water…need for medical assistance…need to volunteer to help. We didn’t need a contractor to do an analysis. We didn’t spend months making sure we covered every esoteric want. We used our common sense and kept to the basics. Then we asked every agency what they could bring to the table in those categories; we chose the best, most useful of those options (we didn’t throw in everything but the kitchen sink); and we formed “lanes” around customer needs, with lane leaders to keep us organized and make sure we didn’t stumble over one another. We listened to our customers – every day - through email, through phone calls, and through government workers on site; and we added to and adapted our content accordingly.
Within hours, all government websites referred Katrina victims and others to information from across government, organized from the customers’ point of view – not by agency. It wasn’t perfect – but it was far better than anything we’d done before.

The Katrina crisis brought out the best in us – we believed in our community. We took risks to do the right thing. A group of government employees bound by common goals - not organizational lines - came together, developed a plan, organized our content around our audiences’ needs, and made incremental improvements based on customer input. A real Gov 2.0 victory.

And then what? Well, we drifted back to our organization-centric ways. Not entirely, to be sure. The Federal Web Managers Council and the team continue to urge agencies to work together to organize and consolidate content around customer needs. But without the mandate of a crisis, we faltered. We lost our faith in the power of the community.

Look…I know the federal bureaucracy (heck – government bureaucracy at every level) is an overwhelming force for chunking web content by agency. There is no motivation or reward for agency leaders to sacrifice personal or organization credit for the good of our customers. In fact, the reward system – better jobs, better pay – favors competition, not cooperation. Agency web managers face daunting challenges operating in the culture of organization-centric government, as they try to establish customer-centric service delivery.

But it is not hopeless. We know what to do, and we know how to do it. We proved it in our response to Katrina. When we trust the power of our community – our critical mass - and take risks to do right things to provide the best possible customer service, we can succeed. We don’t need a crisis. We need to take that leap of faith.

Related Posts
Evolving from Managing Websites to Managing Customer Service
Want to Be a Web Superstar?
Courage, Web Managers!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Clearing the Clutter - a Success Story

For years, many of us have worried there is too much content on government websites…that we’ve let the clutter overwhelm the content that our customers really want and use. Well, let me tell you what Sam Gallagher, my friend and former colleague at HUD, has accomplished because this is an honest-to-goodness hoorah success story in “clearing the clutter.”

HUD – mostly Sam – has come up with a terrific strategy for archiving obsolete - but important - web content so that customers (particularly researchers) can still refer to it, but it doesn’t obscure the current stuff.

Several years ago (before I left HUD), Sam proposed setting up a separate website called “” The idea stemmed from concern among top executives that obsolete documents, news releases, reports, and such from prior administrations could be misconstrued as current. It’s a legitimate concern, and Sam’s idea was a great way to deal with it. It took awhile to get off the ground, partly because he needed to work through federal records issues; but Sam now has some great results to report.

In one year, HUD has reduced the number of files on the active site by a whopping 47%! They’ve gone from almost 400,000 files (of all types) to about 210,000. While many of the files removed were graphics files, they’ve reduced the “content” files – HTML, spreadsheets, PDFs, text files, etc. – by 22%. In one year. That’s a huge start on clearing the clutter!

Sam’s strategy is straightforward. A year ago, he established these rules for archiving:
  • Move content from previous administrations and their initiatives at the end of their tenure.
  • Move dated cyclical material (e.g., funding announcements, grant applications, etc.) at the beginning of the next cycle.
  • Move press releases, statistical reports, and other serialized content after one year.
  • When a program becomes obsolete, move basic program content. 
  • If a page on HUD’s public websites is being deleted, review it to see if it should be archived.
When content is moved to archives, it’s no longer reviewed or updated. The content carries the “” masthead; and at the bottom of each document, it says “content archived (and the date).” The archives home page explains that the content is no longer current and that you can review it either through categories (like “funding announcements” or “initiatives”) or by using the archives “search.” Customers can get to the archives from HUD’s home page, under “resources.”

Is there more to do? Sure. Sam estimates that, of those 210,000 files remaining, only about 60,000 (29%) are being used regularly. And, of course, more content gets posted every day.

But gosh, you have to applaud an agency that is addressing the governmentwide content tsunami head on. HUD is making real progress clearing the clutter…and making it easier for customers to find what they want. Well done, HUD. Well done, Sam.