GSA's Dana Hallman says 80 percent of funding for a FirstGov content management app went to developing a process to handle documents.
J. Adam Fenster
'If you are trying to implement a common look and feel, a Web content management solution will really help.'
'Gina Pearson, USDA
To get most from Web sites, feds turn to content management apps
GSA considered cost last because 'we didn't want the cost of the product to influence the technical scores.'
'Dana Hallman, GSA
What's the advantage of having a content management system for online information?
Ask the IRS. Its Web content management system has brought kudos, not complaints, from the General Accounting Office.
'GAO does an audit every year of the IRS filing season, and part of that is looking at what is on the Web site,' said George Coffin, chief of the tax agency's public portal. 'For several years, GAO found outdated content.'
Or ask the General Services Administration. Ease of use for the Web team in managing content would be near the top of the list, said Dana Hallman, project leader for Web content management for GSA's FirstGov portal
Before her agency awarded a contract, it let the team try out vendors' proposed products. 'It was very telling how the products actually worked,' Hallman said. 'Some folks were able to do things very quickly, while others were struggling after 20 minutes.'
Ease of use goes hand in glove with keeping data current. The IRS has more than 39,000 online files, many of them time sensitive. It's a taxing job to keep everything up to date, Coffin said. A search engine such as Google can almost always dig out a forgotten public folder or an expired form somewhere.
'You don't want to be giving folks last year's tax rules,' said Coffin, who spoke at a recent conference on Web content management software sponsored by the Digital Government Institute of Washington.
For each of the last two years, the IRS site has earned a clean bill of health and GAO no longer comments on out-of-date content. Coffin pointed to the agency's use of the Vignette Content Suite from Vignette Corp. of Austin, Texas.
As webmasters struggle with quality control on increasingly large sites, other agencies across the government'including the Agriculture Department, Bureau of Labor Statistics and Transportation Security Administration'are setting up their own content management systems.Complex issues
But much more than software selection and installation is involved. The installers soon find themselves grappling with complex issues such as role responsibilities and data architecture.
GSA's Hallman estimated that only 20 percent of the implementation costs for the agency's content management system went to software, while 80 percent went to developing processes for document handling.
'As you prepare to purchase your content management system, take into consideration not only your own organization's goals but also how they fit into the larger online picture of your department or agency,' Hallman said.
Once a Web site starts to grow more complex than a single team can manage, it needs software to store pages, route them for editing and approval, format them in consistent style and track pages for automatic removal.
This automation primarily comes through well-designed templates, said Gina Pearson, Web manager for the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service. Templates impose consistency across all the pages on a site.
'If you are trying to implement a common look and feel, a Web content management solution will really help,' Pearson said.
Agency personnel can go back to focusing on creating content and not worry about whether the pages are formatted correctly. They don't even need to know HTML because most content management systems have what-you-see-is-what-you-get interfaces.
The IRS site is one of the most carefully formatted in government, with the agency logo at the top of each page and the same directory running down the left side. That uniformity is no small achievement'more than 120 people scattered around the agency contribute to the content, Coffin said.
Content management software also can keep track of the subject matter experts or officials who are supposed to update the pages.
'It can establish an audit trail,' Pearson said. 'You know how many pages are being updated, how often and by whom. So you know who is not updating their pages and whom to send a reminder. That is a very hard thing to do manually.'
A good Web content management system can be distributed so users across an agency can submit materials from their own desks, without constant meetings and oversight.
This feature, however, tends to raise questions in an agency setting.
It's a common topic for the Web Content Managers Forum, at www.hud.gov/contentmanagers
, an informal network of about 170 federal content managers who hash things out in person or by e-mail.
Pearson, one of the mail list organizers, said she has seen many discussions about changes brought by decentralized content management, such as:
- Who owns the content?
- What role does a content manager play?
- Should an editor in chief look over the content, no matter where it was generated?
- How do you give subject matter experts a Web perspective so their material isn't too legal or technical?
Choosing the right content management system can be a long, drawn-out task because the Web team will have to use the software daily and should like working with it.
When GSA set out to choose a product, it used a multiphase evaluation. 'We limited the review to qualified candidates only,' Hallman said. 'It saved time for the evaluation board. It saved time for the vendors.'The buy
GSA issued a request for proposals for a FirstGov content management system in the fall of 2001, budgeting around $1 million for software and implementation.
The FirstGov site has about 9,000 links pointing to 3,500 destinations. It is overseen by GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications, whose mandate is to aid e-government initiatives.
Before putting out the RFP, the FirstGov team met with interested vendors, 'letting them come in the door and show off their products,' Hallman said. 'They could advertise their strengths before they saw the RFP.'
The demonstrations gave the team an idea of the state of the technology. Once the RFP was issued, however, informal communications with vendors ceased.
The team developed a weighting method to score relevant factors. Developing the scoring scheme first was a critical step, Hallman said, because it helped the evaluation team 'measure their key system requirements against functionality offered by the various systems.'
The next step was prequalification. Each company's product had to meet a list of specific requirements, such as being based on Java2 Enterprise Edition to ensure interoperability with the rest of the FirstGov software.
The vendors had to have built a system of scope and size similar to FirstGov for another government agency or be in the process of building one. They also had to have implementations with as many as 500 named users, as well as a number of references.
'We called each of the references,' Hallman said. After evaluating each company's response to the prequalification criteria and the reference checks, the team notified each company whether it had qualified.
Reviewing the technical proposals showed whose software would fit the bill. Companies that scored well on the technical review were invited to another demonstration. Each was given a scripted exercise to set up some basic portal function within an hour and a half.
Cost entered in only at the final phase because the team wanted to separate technical considerations from the pricing.
'We didn't want the cost of the product to influence the technical scores,' Hallman said. 'That way we could determine what the best value was for the government.'
Each company's financial viability was considered, too.
'In the content management arena, a company [might be] here one day and gone the next,' she said. 'It was very important for us to determine as well as we could the company's corporate status.'
The FirstGov team is now implementing the Vignette app and will launch it in July.