Government websites must specialize and deliver better services to specific audiences, not try to be everything to everybody.A number of years ago, I did some work with a department of education. It was reviewing its web strategy and had come to a decision. In its new version, it would not have content for students. The reason was simple. Students had not been visiting the previous content it had published. Why? Because it wasn't cool.
This department had decided to focus its resources on delivering better services to teachers and parents. You could say that its web strategy was growing up. It was facing the realities of what it could and couldn't achieve on the Web, who it could and couldn't reach effectively.
Government web managers have a difficult job. In many countries, they are required by law to provide significant quantities of information under various 'freedom of information' acts. This is a grey area that needs a lot more exploration in relation to what exactly the demands are.
Government web managers must not fall into the trap of publishing content simply to meet legal requirements. A piece of advice here: Never accept what lawyers initially tell you. Lawyers are an extremely conservative lot, and their first advice is generally cautious in the extreme.
A legalistic view of your website will not serve the best interests of your customers. I have seen websites pile up with next-to-useless content, simply because of a culture putting it up on the Web to 'make sure we're legally covered'.
Hernando De Soto's excellent book The Mystery of Capital, has an interesting quote about the economic impact lawyers have on a country:
"Using economic data from fifty-two countries from 1960 to 1980, Samar K. Datta and Jeffrey B. Nugent have shown that for every percentage point increase in the number of lawyers in the labour force (from, say, 0.5 to 1.5 percent), economic growth is reduced by 4.76 to 3.68 percent-thus showing that economic growth is inversely related to the prudence of lawyers."
As we entered this new millennium, the UK government had a web strategy called something like, "Everything online by 2005." Now it has a strategy called "Everything offline by 2009". It is radically overhauling its websites, eliminating huge quantities of them. It is focusing on a quality, not quantity approach.
Time and time again, I come across government websites that on the surface give the impression that they are for the ordinary citizen. However, once you go down a couple of levels, the language becomes specialist. It is clear that it was written for experts and subject matter professionals.
These government websites-and there are a great many of them-only pretend to be for a wider audience. In reality, what they have is only really of interest to a very small group of people. However, they make half-attempts to reach a much larger group. In doing so, they fail to serve the audiences they need to serve, and they fail to serve the wider audiences they claim to serve.
The Web is not some nirvana where with limited resources you can reach every audience. A 'freedom of information' culture has often led to massive, mismanaged websites. Perhaps we also need a Freedom From Information Act.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.