All About Kids

All About Kids

Alice Bettencourt (left) and Roberta Katson say that ACF's Web site redesign will put family users first.

HHS, other agencies go 'citizen-centric' with their new Web sites

The dwindling federal IT work force has a hard time coping with citizens' telephone and e-mail queries, said webmasters at FedWeb 2001, an annual conference held last month at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

'The workload is so extreme, one of the things that gets abandoned is the time for communications,' said Margareta Silverstone, an Internet systems analyst at the Health and Human Services Department's Administration for Children and Families.

ACF last year began receiving a flood of calls from citizens about everything from deadbeat parents to child abuse. And Silverstone experienced an epiphany.

'We had gone under the impression that the people seeing the information [on ACF's Web site] were other government agencies and nonprofits,' she said.

This month ACF will unveil an interactive, citizen-centric site arranged by subject instead of by agency offices.

'Our current site is fragmented, and each office is responsible for its information,' said Alice Bettencourt, acting team leader for strategic planning and policy. The new site will list programs under topics on a navigation banner atop each page. Users trying to find out about programs or benefits do not have to know what office administers them.

Although Bettencourt said it made sense to list ACF's 60 programs, such as Head Start or temporary assistance for needy families, under one of the 12 offices, the difficulty of searching brought numerous inquiries. 'Now they'll be able to come in and look for just, say, early childhood,' Bettencourt said.

Roberta Katson, director of IRM and training at ACF, said, 'The better we get at providing information, the fewer the e-mails.'

After analyzing user feedback from a site survey, ACF will consider both basic and complex features such as portals, Silverstone said. A user survey was posted about 18 months ago to examine types of users and their inquiries as the first step in redesign.

'Most of the users were parents looking for assistance,' Bettencourt said.

ACF redesigned using RightNow Web from RightNow Technologies Inc. of Bozeman, Mont., a knowledge base for creating lists of frequently asked questions.

'One of the pieces of our navigation bar lets users search for the answers to their questions in a user-friendly format,' Bettencourt said. The site will also route e-mail inquiries more efficiently using workflow rules.

'In our pilot test, it reduced the time to answer an e-mail question by 90 percent,' she said.

Queries can be routed to more than one person to even out the workload. If someone goes on vacation, that person's share can be rerouted, and there are prepackaged reports, Bettencourt said.

'When an e-mail went directly to an office, we had no way of knowing if it had been answered or not,' Katson said. The new site will have one point of contact to route inquiries. Eventually, the feedback from the most frequent queries will improve the site further, Bettencourt said.

Like many other agencies, ACF used to post agency policy and official notes on its site.

'There's a lot of 'I love me' home pages,' one webmaster said.

'The wheels turn slow, but they are turning' for citizen-centric government, said Basil White, assistant webmaster in the Office of Information Resource Management at the Veterans Affairs Department.

White said the editorial burden on webmasters has grown along with the popularity of federal sites. He said his solution is to improve the way users get information online.

He promoted HyperFAQ, a navigation system that guides users to what they're looking for by asking yes/no questions.

'I learned in any interactive system, there's no simpler cognitive burden you can place on a user than a yes/no question,' White said.

He started building HyperFAQ for the VA site in January. Since then the e-mail has dipped, he said. The agency received 8,469 inquiries in February, 8,443 in March and 8,277 in April.

White acknowledged that he couldn't prove HyperFAQ was the cause, but to him it seemed more than coincidental. And, he said, 'It helps us route, respond and track how well we're doing with inquiries.'

Vic Powell, a webmaster at the Agriculture Department, said he has turned over several hundred of his most visited pages to White to be categorized by HyperFAQ.

'If people can answer the simple yes/no questions, it's much easier than sitting down and typing a paragraph or two explaining what they're looking for,' Powell said.

Although USDA wasn't inundated with inquiries, visitors didn't seem to use the engine. 'The impression I get is they regard the search engine as a complicated process,' Powell said.

HyperFAQ is in what White called 'vanilla' HTML with a one-cell frame and two form buttons, and built with a freeware ASCII text editor. 'It doesn't require any special server software or contractor support,' he said.

The VA site opens with a field that asks users whether they're looking for information about a benefit. The user clicks yes or no. The next page opens up with another question based on the first answer. After two or three questions, the user arrives at a page most likely to yield the answer.

White said agencies can save time and money by redesigning with ordinary citizens in mind. 'It's a very small investment,' he said.

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