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!


Peggy said...

An enlightening post, as always. I'd be interested to know what you think of this recent criticism at Sunlight Labs blog:
Sunlight Labs can be a great catalyst, but this particular post strikes me as needlessly critical on a few points.

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