Ocean.gov – A Modest Proposal

Have you ever wondered why there’s no ocean.gov? This is a valuable and easy to remember URL that the government doesn’t currently use. And it should, for we all depend on the ocean for the very air we breathe.

When I was at NOAA, it was explained to me that there’s no web site at ocean.gov because no one agency or part of government “owns” the ocean. Lots of federal and state agencies have jurisdiction and interest in what goes on in the watery realm. Doing something with ocean.gov would require cooperation and agreement among the numerous governmental entities which all have a stake in the ocean. Creating ocean.gov would require a web manager with the patience of Job and the diplomatic skills of, well, I don’t know, to get all the various ocean-related partners on the same page. Which is why it’s never been done.

Creating a web site at ocean.gov is not inconceivable, however. It’s been done on a much smaller scale with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, developed by my old friends at NOAA. The web site is a remarkable example of cooperation among state, federal and regional organizations in furtherance of a shared goal. Containing reports, publications, contact information, background materials and much more, the site demonstrates that it is possible to bring diverse partners together to build a web site around a common goal.

My modest proposal is to create a blog, in the style of EPA’s Greenversations, at ocean.gov

The ocean.gov blog would be like a daily email from a friend, letting them know what their government is doing to protect our ocean. And, like an email exchange with a friend, the public can interact with the blog by leaving comments and asking questions.

The objectives of the blog would be:

1. To communicate the importance of a safe, healthy and productive ocean.
2. To highlight interesting and relevant ways all levels of government are helping to protect the ocean.
3. To build conversational relationships with key influencers and the general public.
4. To test ocean-related messaging to discover what works.

Every day, across hundreds of governmental web sites, a wealth of information about the ocean is published online. This includes:

1. Press releases
2. Reports
3. Published data
4. Conference presentations
5. Articles
6. Photos
7. Video news releases
8. Statements
9. Email updates
10. Media stories

However, there is no one place to easily find this information – you would need to be an expert in government organization to even know all this information existed. What’s needed is a daily guide to the relevant information published by government every day, written by expert communicators who know the subject matter. Like with Greenversations, a variety of communicators could be asked to contribute, drawn from a wide range of federal, state and regional government.

A blog is a perfect solution to this problem. Blogs are easy ways to publish information online, without much technical knowledge. Custom editorial workflows and permissions are flexible and can easily be adapted to requirements. An editorial board could oversee the blog and develop editorial guidelines.

Ocean.gov would serve as a spot for the general public to find out what the government is doing to protect oceans and coasts. The main job of the ocean.gov bloggers would be to link to relevant and timely information and provide context for that information. For example, during hurricane season ocean.gov bloggers could link to reports on increased coastal populations and why more people than ever need to be hurricane aware. Or, if a state published a report on a particular stretch of coast, the blog could link to the report, provide an overview and supplement the report by linking to news coverage and including comments from readers.

Call me crazy, but if we can have a weather.gov, why not an ocean.gov?

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Andrea Baker

Where did you work when you were at NOAA? I worked at NOAA Fisheries in the office of the CIO as one of their webmasters. I think you would want to coordinate with the Fisheries people as well as contributors.

Jeffrey Levy

Speaking as the creator of earthday.gov, I can attest to the difficulties. When agencies don’t own it, they don’t want to put much effort into it. That’s sensible, if not exactly innovative; they have their own projects to do.

And there is definitely the issue of people expecting something like this to be absolutely comprehensive, including 100% of everything relevant.

Your concept strikes me as “some is better than none,” which might work well for the public. At least they’d have a source for getting some info. You’d just need to be clear up front this isn’t the “find literally everything the gov’t knows about oceans” site.

And you’d need to get at least several relevant agencies to commit to writing blog posts on occasion.

Joe Flood

Andrea – I was in the National Ocean Service Special Projects group from Sept 2005 – Oct 2008. I was the web site manager for NOAA Ocean Explorer (http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov) as a contractor.

Jeff – you’re absolutely right. The ownership issue would be the one most difficult to finesse. Some sort of buy-in would be needed from the various agencies. How do you handle it on Greenversations? Why do the various parts of EPA contribute to something they don’t own?

Denise Hill

Would Ocean.Gov require the same amount of coordination across agencies as (humm…) Grants.gov? Nice thought and you are definitely passionate about it. This too may happen.

Greg Licamele

Joe: good thoughts. Yes, if an agency doesn’t own the content, then why would it bother?

But that’s an old way of thinking of things in bureaucratic stovepipes.

I’ve always thought we need to break down the stovepipes in government (pipe dream, I know, no pun intended!). Why can’t health.gov exist for all health related info? Environment.gov that cross cuts all agencies? Our customers don’t necessarily know what department does what, nor should they. There are efforts to try and make this idea a reality such as grants.gov, business.gov and others, but we need to think of our public, too. Sure, who gets the funding for these cross-level domains poses practical and parochial issues. But do we always have to do things the same way?

Andrea Baker

I would think you could I guess create a steering group and have at least one lead agency volunteer to be the host of the servers. From that, the platform used to develop the site could be content managed and contributed from whomever. As long as everyone get a chance at equal time.

Pam Broviak

This might sound crazy since I have no background in working within the Federal govt and am looking at this from the viewpoint of an average citizen. But what I am thinking is your approach has the potential to allow for input from all the stakeholders and agencies or countries across the world. So how come something like this could not be launched under the umbrella or lead of the U.N.? Can’t they create a committee with representatives from agencies like NOAA and the coast guard and some from other countries to oversee and maintain the site?

It could end up being the model for uniting many other efforts that effect global assets.

Joe Flood

Thanks for all the feedback. Greg, I think you’re right, too often we think in terms of stovepipes rather than taking a user-oriented approach. It’s easier to put up sites for agencies than research what the public really needs. Business.gov is actually a really good example of what the government should be doing – check it out.

Stacy Ryan

What a fun project Oceans.gov would be! I definitely agree with the user-focused approach using input from all stakeholders and agencies. Having also worked on NOAA web and outreach projects, I definitely see NOAA as a lead agency. Maybe start with a few relevant issues focusing on government communications and public outreach. I wonder if participating agencies would be willing to contribute their own web and media research to assist in creating something like Ocean.gov.

Joe Flood

When I was at NOAA my plan was to start small and develop the site over time, rather than aiming for a big site right away. I figured I’d do it in WordPress and recruit interested writers in NOAA, before reaching out to other government agencies (the international angle Pam mentioned is interesting). To start, I figured I just needed five bloggers – one for each day of the week – plus an editorial style guide, a blog operating plan and a site manager/editor (me). The site could then grow over time, expanding to include additional agencies, topics and authors, in response to what the public was interested in.

Even though I don’t work at NOAA anymore (I’m looking for a job), I still think this is a good idea and one that the public would get a lot out of. I’m throwing this idea out there in the hopes that someone with some clout will say “do this” and then hire me to run it 😉

Bernadette Kucharczuk

I hope your vision becomes a reality! From a non-fed perspective, this is the kind of thinking that makes sense and could be a shining example to many others.

Valerie McKay

The wonderful thing about ocean.gov is that the domain name is USER focused, not AGENCY focused. The hard part is getting a real collaboration going that could make this reality. What a great idea!