Why Gov 2.0 means the U.S. Government must centralize its Web operations

In an earlier post, I offered recommendations on centralizing U.S. Government Web operations, which seemed naive or misinformed to some.

Here’s what I recommended:

  • Centralize all government Web operations under one agency
  • Hire a Chief User Experience Officer
  • Unify look/feel of all government/military Web sites
  • Hire talented writers and editors to produce quality content

As I’ve added new GovFresh feeds for various departments, agencies, military branches, and more, I’ve visited many of the government-operated sites over the past month.

Here’s what I’ve found:

  • Lack of unified design
  • Disjointed use of Web platforms
  • Inconsistent editorial and content
  • Outdated Web design practices
  • Development redundancy

While all of the above don’t hold true for every site (there are several fantastic government sites), at least one of the above does.

Here’s why the U.S. Government must centralize its Web operations:

Development

One open-source platform would allow for a more agile development process and more scalable, cross-site features to be built quickly. Code could be re-purposed, rather than re-created. Eventually, interactivity, preferences and personalized updates could easily be built, which would allow citizens to actively engage in the political process or manage their government services, 21st century style.

Usability

Centralized usability tests and site metrics reviews across a more unified design would allow managers to re-vamp the UI/UX accordingly. Best practices could be realized and executed immediately across all sites. This includes design and editorial. Actively soliciting user feedback and executing cross-sites would be invaluable to the user experience as a whole.

Brand/design unity

In the corporate sense, “U.S. Government” is a brand. When a user arrives on an official U.S. Government Web site, it should be apparent. The brand and aesthetic should convey “this is an official U.S. Government Web site.” Fonts, colors, consistent top-level navigation or a uniform toolbar could achieve this. You can still retain micro-brands within the major. Agencies wouldn’t dilute their individual branding. They would just be more aligned with the U.S. Government style guide.

Content

A content management strategy, standardized writing style guide, solid editorial staffing and content managers that liaison with respective agencies would go a long way in presenting content in a more clear, concise, accessible format.

Financial

An open-source platform would allow for cheaper development costs. Not having to wait for budget allocation or go through the government contract proposal process for an entire Web project means more agencies will get a stronger Web presence. You could better staff and meet demands, especially with a strategy.

Strategic

A strategic management team would see the entire U.S. Government Web operations from a high-level perspective and direct the user experience accordingly, free from silo operations. It would work with key contacts within various agencies to assess objective, mission and help focus and execute the appropriate Web strategy. This includes social media activity.

Transparency

The more user-friendly the Web site, the easier it is to understand what’s happening throughout the public system. Agencies can receive feedback and interact with their core constituencies to know what services should be offered, and what shouldn’t. The side affect of a unified Web platform breeds transparency that allows us to hold the government accountable and more actively participate in the democratic process.

While I understand each agency may have a need for different tools or design, non-standard needs can be addressed and properly integrated. It doesn’t have to be cookie-cutter, just more unified, efficient and strategic. Actively collaborating with internal agency contacts allows them to focus on what they do best and leverage the expertise of a solid Web operations team.

America has the best and brightest Web minds in the world. There’s no reason why we can’t build a flexible but “united” U.S. Government Web platform that gives citizens a better customer experience than the 1.0 version we’re getting today.

Thoughts or solutions from others?

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and a strategy consultant for CivicActions and NuCivic. More about him here. He can be reached at luke@govfresh.com.

  • http://www.businessmanagementabcs.com Sue Massey

    Nice writing style. I look forward to reading more in the future.

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  • http://levyj413.wordpress.com Jeffrey Levy

    Very interesting, thought-provoking idea.

    What I’d love to see is centralized procurement/legal clearance to use these tools, but continued decentralized content management, to a degree.

    The biggest problem is when people manage web sites as 5% of their jobs. It’s impossible for them to keep up with the latest thinking/tools/best practices, and unfair to expect them to.

    So I’d support continued decentralized content creation/interaction management as long as the people doing it are doing it full time and are committed to regular continuing education.

  • http://mixtmediastrategies.com mixtmedia

    I was recently actually thinking the opposite. The web is moving from a destination model to a distributed model. Rather than centralize operations, I’d advocate for further DEcentralization of web ops. We need to empower program managers to represent their programs across the web.
    I also believe that Community Relations functions should be horizontal rather than vertical w/in an agency. Empower and provide tools to MORE people, not fewer.

  • http://www.shepherdspi.com lewis shepherd

    I could not disagree more. IT services & infrastructure – sure, centralize those. Web design and user experience? Decentralize! Move closer to the citizens that any particular govt group is serving! I like the emerging tenet of “government-as-platform” regarding Web 2.0: rely less on Web “sites” (as appropriate) and focus more on making the data consumable & available, as feeds to be read, tracked, measured, vizualized, etc., in any number of third-party tools. Government will never be enough of an innovator – and certainly history teaches us that “centralized” (=bureaucratized) government will never be innovative, so it’s a forlorn hope that much will come of UX efforts in a centralized bureaucratic IT shop.

    If you’d like a dramatic example of what happens, inevitably, when you overly centralize government services, see this Wash Post article on the troubles in the US Forest Service (http://tr.im/oeuq) – the centralization there is HR policies & systems, but the dynamic would follow the same path with Web 2.0 approaches, I fear.

    With all that said, Luke, I applaud your enthusiasm for improved Gov 2.0 results.

  • http://twitter.com/cbdawson Cian Dawson

    You had me right up until “Hire talented writers and editors to produce quality content.” I agree with many of your critiques of fed gov websites. But as someone in the trenches, I also see the benefit of keeping the content development close to the subject matter experts, many of whom are also skilled writers.

    I’d like to see better centralization and consistency of the tools and basic infrastructure (CMS?) in order to allow the appropriate agency subject matter experts to focus on the content. I echo, based on first-hand experience, Jeffrey Levy’s excellent 5% comments.

    I can also see the benefit of more inter-agency content development to avoid redundancy and make it easier for users to find information without having to know which agency does what. I think the current major portals (science.gov, etc.) have not succeeded in this challenging task.

    The importance of agency-specific branding shouldn’t be underestimated, though. When policy makers and citizens don’t know that an agency provides fundamental data and info that is relied upon daily all across the country, those agencies have a harder time getting funding to continue providing those data in the future.

  • http://www.aheadofideas.com Dan Bevarly

    Good topic for further discussion. I hesitate at the thought of comparisons of government to corporate branding. Government should be thought of as an institution, first –will result in different strategy.

    Anyway, I like the idea of a consistent, open-source platform. It makes sense for government. I like decentralizing because that is the nature of the collaborative technology solutions. I am not in favor to offer the public any govt employee who authors a report or document as a spokesperson for that content especially if it relates to policy.

    Online communication: Internally: yes, less silos, easier ways to share information, more dialog. Externally, we need –as I’ve said before– to address the distinction between informal (G-C/C-G) communication around projects, programs, events, rules, legislation etc. and formal public comment on the same, especially as it relates to policy making.

    Most govt agencies have no strategy or solution here or even appear to have policies that distinguish between the two. In other cases, attribution required of citizens speaking in conventional public hearings is ignored when that dialog is electronic, or online. Lacks structure and uniformity.

    So while unified designs, web platforms, editorial content, and updated design practices are have merit in this discussion, also keep in mind the need to build collaboration models that incorporate structure and standards from 230+ years of democratic processes between and among government and citizens. Thanks for allowing me to comment.

  • http://www.ondotgov.com Gwynne Kostin

    Luke, thanks for your thoughts on this, and the good discussion that is developing. The pendulum is always swinging–sometimes toward decentralization and sometimes toward centralization.

    I agree with most of what you say, but I think you have the unit wrong. It’s not the website, but the information/data. Free the information from the presentation layer–fonts, colors and UX–and you can mix it wherever the end user is.

    Think about how you use the web. How many sites you return to? I bet you usually use a search engine, links from a friend, links in another site, wikipedia, to get to what you want. And what you want it to accomplish a task.

    I am with Lewis (and Tim O’Rielly) on the idea of government as a platform. Authentication of data/information is important, and requires gov-wide standards. And I am all about making the language government uses more friendly to citizens, but one big CMS is a big mix of apples and oranges, of flu prevention and SEC filings.

    Let’s free the data and info and have government join the conversation.

    Thanks for your “making me think” post.

  • http://www.600days.com Brett Husbands

    Your points are all valid, and outweighed simply by the power of the market.

    The organization costs, building costs, and sacrificing some degree of local control outweigh the advantages. What happens instead is that the market system creates a collection of innovators competing to be a dominant force in the 20,000+ websites at no cost to the government (beyond normal profit that is probably less than indirect employee overhead). This competition produces no upfront costs, leads to solutions at least as good as would be created under a centralized control system, and does it faster than any committee could decide which technology stack was correct (several religious wars here – OS/variant of Linux?, language?, db platform?) – when what matters is decent architecture and interoperability standards (messaging, microformats, data standards). The reason that some sites are outdated is because others pushed the envelope whilst others used the prevailing quality – which would probably equate to the standard in a non-competitive setting.

    Anybody who has seen what happened in Eastern Europe during centralized control very quickly builds an appreciation for market forces. Centralization is hard and ultimately produces incorrect quantities of what is needed, late, with higher coordination cost.

    The wastefulness of the redundancy is a good thing for both pricing mechanisms and innovation. Competition brings down the price and determines winning technologies – I don’t mean to imply the correct ones always win, just that the market can generally decide better than a committee. . So although it is done many times the cost of each occurrence is probably less than it would be otherwise, and the natural selection makes for a better outcome. Even in standards the market system decides what makes sense – standards live or fail based on adoption.

    At the simplest level, the innovation and creative destruction are what the American economy is based on. So what if my agency website is based on old technology and looks pants. That was local work done by local people with local tax dollars – at least they didn’t give the money to one of the vast mega-corporations from the beltway – who would most likely be needed for the scale of coordination needed, and wait for the committee to decide what I wanted from my agency.

    (I published this on GovLoop as well where I originally saw your post)

  • http://ctovision.com Bob Gourley

    What a great post and a very thought provoking series of suggestions and comments. So thanks Luke for this.

    My view is that if we keep doing things the same old way we are going to keep getting the same incremental improvements and will only be able to expect progress at the current rates– which is not fast enough for many of us.

    Maxine and Lewis make great points about content, but I think I would like to see more centralized guidance on interface standards and even technology choices to enforce findability of info and the many goals you state in your post like being “more unified, efficient and strategic.”

    I also think Gwynne used exactly the right metaphor in saying “The pendulum is always swinging” because it is. And as for me, I would like for it to swing to more centralized for at least a while so we can optimize a few things. Then let it swing back to decentralized more later. Gwynne is also right, of course, about the focus being on freeing the data.

    So thanks all for the great thread.

  • http://generationshift.blogspot.com Andrew Krzmarzick

    I’d advocate for a model in which the official government website it the hub, with spokes that reach out to places across the Web where people interact with one another. I call this a “comprehensive web presence” – probably akin to the government as platform idea mentioned above. The question then becomes, “What information at the hub needs to be re-purposed and shared at these outposts across the Web?” Of course, the agency doesn’t make this decision alone. Rather, they empower the crowd to take that content and place it where they know their neighbors will find it more readily. All information must be readily available for shaping and sharing.

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  • http://www.architxt.net Lawrence

    I agree 100% with Luke’s ideas but find some of the counter arguments just as interesting. In particular,
    Brett Husbands’s take on it.

    However, I don’t see ‘centralization’ the same way Brett fears it (ie. pre fall of the wall Eastern European model). I think it’s a question of building a platform so that Government is less in the way and citizen’s become empowered with tools to participate, to a certain degree, in the governing process.

    I’ve just blogged about it arguing that a good model for such platform is Facebook with its consistent interface, perfected usability and the opportunities offered to developers to host their own applications:

    http://www.architxt.net/blog/new-media/government-websites-like-facebook/

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