Eliminating Websites, Consolidating Others = Better Customer Service!

Last week, the White House announced a new initiative to get a handle on the rampant proliferation of government websites. They put a 90-day freeze on granting any new top level domains (e.g., www.hud.gov), and they are requiring all agencies to review their websites and determine those that can be abolished, consolidated, and/or improved. Agencies have to post their plans on their open government pages within 120 days, so the public can see them. Macon Phillips, at the White House, wrote a terrific blog describing this initiative. Well worth a read.

If you know me or have been following this blog for long, you’ll know I’ve been jumping up and down, waving my arms, stomping my feet, and screaming for this kind of action for years. So hallelujah! It’s about time.

While there will be some cost savings from fewer websites (and this initiative is part of the President’s Campaign to Cut Waste), the more direct benefit to citizens is better customer service. Fewer, more concise government websites will make it easier for customers to find what they want.

For years now (well before I retired), we’ve been saying there are an estimated 24,000 U.S. government websites. The truth? We have no idea how many there are. In the years since we came up with that number, I’m absolutely certain more sites went up than came down. Every time an executive had a new initiative, we had to do a new website – they understandably didn’t want to fold those initiatives into our big, bloated main agency websites because they’d be lost – hmm.

There’s good stuff in those 24,000+ sites…but you have to sift through a whole lot of sand to find the nuggets. Don’t search engines help? Sure. Well, some…if you guess the right search terms and if the agency has done a good job using plain language and optimizing the website for search engines. But searches can’t tell you where to start and what to do next. They can’t synthesize pages and pages of redundant content.

Let me give you just one example of the problem. I want to buy my first home. I need to know how to do it, and I want to know if the federal government has programs to help me. I do a search on USA.gov on “buy a home.” I get 191 million results. Eek! OK – I use the advanced search to narrow my focus to “federally-focused” websites (federally-focused? What does that mean?). Wow! That brought it down to 22.7 million options. OK…I start through the list. I get through the 5th page of results and quit, even though I’m guessing I’ll miss something worthwhile buried farther down in that pile.

In those first 5 pages, I find (among many other options and in no particular order):

I’m busy. I don’t have time to read through all of these websites and figure out what it means. Help!

Research has shown the more choices we have, the harder it is for us to decide. So, often, we just don’t choose anything (read Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice). Too many, too much is just bad customer service.

I’ve read some blogs expressing concern that if the government does away with websites, customers will lose important information. I don’t think the President’s initiative is about taking away what customers need. It’s about serving it to them better so they can use it easier and faster.

This is a milestone in digital government. If agencies take this initiative seriously and if OMB and its partners take the bull by the horns, I think we’ll look back on this housecleaning as a turning point in improving customer service in the government.

Forgive me, but…yippee!

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Clearing the Clutter – A Success Story

Time for a Re-Think of USA.gov

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