Web government is about helping citizens and businesses make easier, faster, better-informed decisions. More and more government websites are unmanageable. The sheer size and number of websites are vastly greater than the human resources available to manage them. Recently, I spoke to a government agency that has a total of 600 employees. It has 100 websites; 1 for every 6 staff members.
"In 2002, our predecessors concluded that there had been a lack of progress in implementing the recommendations from an earlier report," a report by the UK House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts stated in March 2008. "Five years on, a quarter of government organisations still cannot provide data on the cost of their websites. And, where data were provided, over 40% of organisations provided only estimates.
"Further, 16% of government organisations do not have a good knowledge about the users of their websites. Even where user data are being collected, they are not always being used to inform and improve websites."
While the report does state that, "Generally, the public consider government websites to be satisfactory," it goes on to state that, "Overall, however, the quality of government websites has improved only slightly since 2002, and a third of sites do not meet the Cabinet Office's own user accessibility standards."
The UK government is seeking to do something about the problem. It plans to shut almost 1,000 websites, and move most government services to just two.
There are many governments, with websites just as messy as the UK's, who have no strategy to bring them back under control. In fact, many governments never had control of their websites to begin with. There was some vague strategy about getting everything online. The letter 'e' got abused a lot and a few people talked excitedly about portals.
At a senior level, many governments don't understand what the Web is about. Politicians think it's a place to put their pictures. Senior bureaucrats think its about technology, and therefore not something they need to be concerned about, because that's something the IT department does.
Some believe that the government should remove itself entirely from the website management process, and instead provide structured data to private businesses who would then create easy-to-use websites.
"If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens," states "Government Data and the Invisible Hand", a study published by Yale University in May 2008.
"Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens."
It's a great idea to supply well-structured data to private enterprises so that they can develop simple, fast web services. However, the government still has a vital role on the Web. Not everything can be privatized.
For the government to truly serve its customers on the Web it needs to address the following issues:
# Get away from a technology obsession
# Manage customer top tasks, not government websites
# Get politicians off government websites
# Stop government vanity publishing
# Develop a government archive [Editor’s Note: Read part two of this series here.]
About the Author
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.