News Flash: Government Websites Are Not Newspapers!

Last week, I was talking to a friend who is a private sector usability specialist. I asked her if, like me, she is noticing that some agency websites seem to be slipping backwards, featuring agency news rather than top citizen tasks on their home pages. She said that, indeed, she and her colleagues are observing the same thing. It appears that agency public affairs staffs are really getting into websites (and web management) – which is a good thing – but they haven’t yet learned this truth: the public comes to government websites to do things – perform tasks – not read the news. They go to newspaper sites for that.

I can appreciate the learning curve. I also can appreciate that Public Affairs folks have a different mandate than agency Web Managers. Public Affairs is responsible for marketing. Their clients are the agency chiefs. Web Managers are responsible for making sure websites serve the public. Their clients are the audiences. So the disconnect is understandable.

But here’s the thing: turning government agency websites into newspapers is not what the public wants or expects. As important, it is the antithesis of what President Obama has urged of all government: participation, collaboration, responsiveness to/trust in the citizens who ARE the owners of government.

Putting news and press releases as the featured items at the top of government websites shouts, “me, me, me” – not “you, you, you.” It is not furthering transparency – it’s obscuring service and engagement. In several cases, I’ve seen agency news (including photos of agency officials) crowding out and pushing down links to what the public really wants – top tasks..those services that they pay taxes for. This is a step backward.

There’s no blame game here. People are just trying to do their jobs with all the tools available. The point is that you need to recognize the trend (because we who are looking at you certainly see it) and stop it in its tracks before it gets worse. Maybe you Web Managers invite Public Affairs Officers to some briefings on the facts that you have…the data and evidence (site traffic statistics, usability data, customer satisfaction data, performance measures, emails from the public) that shows conclusively what the public wants from their government websites. If you are a Public Affairs officer, maybe you ask for such a briefing. Maybe you bring in some noted authorities on the subject of government websites and usability research and let them present their findings to the Public Affairs Officers and agency chiefs and Web Managers, together, so there can be a good discussion about how government websites should be used to serve and engage the public and achieve the President’s goals.

Successful websites are audience-centered. That’s not an opinion – that’s a fact. So please…let’s get our government websites back on track. Let’s use them for service and engagement and collaboration – not as surrogate newspapers. Let’s make them shout “you, you, you.” It’s the right thing for the President’s objectives. It’s the right thing for the American public.

Related Links: see GerryMcGovern.com – New Thinking

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Adriel Hampton

Very good subject. And with the myriad of third-party sharing sites for agency news, the public-facing main site certainly should have a services focus.

Sam Allgood

We have had to deal with similar issues on our city’s website … doing battle with departments to get across to them that citizens don’t come to their site to read their mission statement or their director’s bio.

Joe Flood

Absolutely – government web sites should be user-oriented. They should help citizens with the their key tasks. Nobody goes to a government web site to read the biography of the Assistant Director of XYZ Agency. Rather than calling them user-oriented, maybe we should call them citizen-oriented, to stress the fact that government sites are to help taxpayers, not administrators.

But this devotion to web sites as agency newspapers lives on. For example, one job I applied for as a government web manager had the curious requirement that the person hired have experience in writing for a daily newspaper. This is because they wanted their agency’s home page to be like the front page of a paper, with news about the agency, rather than what the public was looking for. Their home page is used for “So and So Cuts Ribbon” and other stories produced solely by the PA department.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Candi – good post. One point though should be clarified – everybody at the agency (including Public Affairs and Web Managers) BOTH serves the public AND answer to agency chiefs. However they tend to operate in two different silos, Public Affairs or Communications and Information Technology. I can see the argument for creating a synthesized function, perhaps called Communications Technology, staffed by people who are experts both in the technical side and the communications side to deliver optimized websites that both meet the public’s needs and are good by agency leadership’s standards. What do you think?

Candi Harrison

Dannielle – your thinking mirrors Paul Boag’s article in Smashing Magazine, “10 Harsh Truths About Corporate Websites” He says you need a separate web division. I agree. Interestingly, I was a government web manager for 10 years and never worked in IT or in Public Affairs. We were assigned to a silo-neutral staff to the Deputy Secretary. It worked pretty well. Managing government websites does take a skill set that doesn’t fit neatly into traditional job classifications or org structures, and that’s been one of the struggles. But I digress…the point of this post is that everyone (no matter where they are in the org) has to get onboard the concept that government websites should be audience-centered, designed based on best usability practices and testing. We had made pretty good progress in that direction, and – hopefully – this is just a temporary detour.

Tim Constantine

Thanks Candi. Good points about the need for a web-site to be customer focused. I think it’s also refreshing that in all of the web 2.0 clamber to hear a perspective about getting web 1.0 right!

Your focus on agency news being all about “me” and not about “you” I think is, in many cases, an oversimplification of the truth. Many of our news items are about “me” providing a new or improved service for “you”. If you’ve read about it in the newspapers or seen our billboard, then it’s appropriate for you to come to our site and not have to navigate 2 or 3 layers deep in our hierarchy of services to find what you’re looking for. It’s also important to both of us for “me” to promote this new service to “you” (even though you may have come to our site for another purpose, because, well, maybe you didn’t see that newspaper article or billboard).

The call for a separate web division is, I think, misdirected. We don’t need a third division that’s some sort of hybrid mix of IT and Public Affairs, we need recognize that both IT and Public Affairs are there to provide supportive services to the people that provide services directly to clients (let’s call them “Program People”). And it’s up to IT and Public Affairs to educate Program People about what’s possible, and up to Program People to take advantage of both IT and Public Affairs to promote services to clients.