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FCC New Media Star Is Driving Hard on New Web Site


Haley Van Dyck cheerfully describes her agency’s web site, FCC.gov, as one of the worst in government. She points out that the home page contains no less than 250 links, which within two clicks sends users to more than 40,000 links. In fact, the FCC site really is a confusing, visually dismal affair that makes information hard to find.

But not for long.

As the FCC’s Director of Citizen Engagement, Van Dyck has a lot of influence in a total overhaul of the web site to be unveiled on or around the 10th anniversary of FCC.gov, sometime in early 2011.

Van Dyck typifies a new breed of federal employee. Less than three years ago she was a campaign staff member in Chicago for Barack Obama. Less than two years ago she was a transition team member of the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform Policy Group. Appointed to the FCC, she has migrated from political to career employee. She is a frequent speaker about new media and citizen engagement. She speaks fast and has an astonishing command not only of the vocabulary of new media and citizen engagement, but also of the structure and mission of the FCC — an agency dating back to the advent of radio in the 1930s.

And she’s only 24.

Young, perhaps, but perceptive enough to realize that because her job reports to the agency managing director rather than, say, the CIO or the public affairs office, it gains strategic clout. It also helps that the managing director, Steve Van Roekel, is no technology slouch. He ran the Windows Server and Tools division at Microsoft, where he was also an assistant to Bill Gates.

It all means that the site redesign is more than simply applying the latest best web design techniques to an aging site. Although, Van Dyck points out, the site as it is currently constituted “gives us horrible analytics. The average time a user spends at FCC.gov is 10 seconds.”

More importantly, the new site will better serve both the FCC’s policy goals and the administration’s mandate for more transparency and citizen engagement.

“Our goal is to fundamentally change the way the FCC interacts with the public,” Van Dyck said.

Since the FCC is in part a rule-making agency, the new site will better accommodate comments from large numbers of people. One strategy for citizen engagement is to push the idea that the sometimes arcane matters the FCC deals with in fact have a large impact on individual citizens and businesses, and not just telecommunications carriers.

One question Van Dyck asks is, “How do you handle the scale of 45,000 comments? Before last year, it was all post cards or letters from interest groups like FreePress or MoveOn.” She said the answer is that digital commentary can make public pulse-taking much more efficient with tools that distill the sense of large numbers of responses.

Van Dyck said the new site will no longer be organized by the divisions and offices of FCC but rather by the important topics visitors are likely to be coming for. Last week a prototype wireframe design went up online for comment.

“The entire site will be consumer friendly,” Van Dyck said. It will feature items such as the National Broadband Plan and the debate over net neutrality. “The issues might be technical, but they are terribly relevant to citizens.” She said that when such topics were placed on other FCC platforms, such as openinternet.gov, engagement rose dramatically. Net neutrality proposals drew tens of thousands of comments.

Less visible, Van Dyck said, will be new policies for personal information and cookies that take both the site and the idea of citizen engagement to a new level. For this, she credited the FCC’s general counsel.

“Our general counsel sits at the table to help with answers to questions we’re asking. We were faced with outdated policies in government,” Van Dyck said. For example, “to comment online we required address, telephone number, name — ten fields in all.” This inhibited responses to rule proposals and blogs alike.

“Yet e-mail in today’s world is equivalent to a mail address in the analog world,” Van Dyck said . The general counsel helped craft a way to accept comments online without all of the 10 fields. At the moment, Van Dyck said, she is working with FCC lawyers to allow multimedia comments with photos or videos attached.

Similarly, by enabling cookies, federal web sites can use Java script, analytic tools and other basic technologies to have a higher level of interaction and tune sites for better user experiences. Van Dyck credited the Office of Management and Budget with opening up what had been in practice a ban on cookies by federal agencies.

At the back end, Van Dyck said, the new site has adopted the Drupal open source development platform for content management, and the entire site will be hosted by Terremark, a cloud services provider.

Van Dyck herself is part of a network of young, technically savvy open government and new media directors who, she said, “parachuted in” with the Obama administration. She said that papers on social media and citizen engagement she wrote as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin attracted the attention of the Obama people. Riding a bicycle to work every day also puts her in the vanguard of federal employees committed to going green.

And, Van Dyck said that once the new site is launched, she would like to stick around, at least for a while. “I would like to help institutionalize new media across government.”

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