Too many federal agencies use their Web sites as glossy brochures that serve up little
more than public relations fluff. They forget that citizens visit government sites to find
specific information: breaking news, agency decisions and contacts on problems.
Agency webmasters and content managers who post a color portrait of the boss on the
home page need to ask themselves if theyre really meeting the publics needs.
Webmasters of the top sites have learned how to channel the most popular information
right to the top level, updating their front pages each day with the right balance of news
and navigation aids.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency site at http://www.fema.gov is an outstanding
example. Online since 1994, the FEMA site underwent a major overhaul in January.
When we started, we had a pretty traditional look, said Marc Wolfson, a
public affairs specialist and content manager for the site. There were several icons
that led to what we thought were the main subject areas.
In the redesign, FEMA officials took a lesson from CNN and USA Today, which run the
Webs most heavily trafficked news sites.
One thing we liked about those sites was that when you went to the home page, you
didnt get a bunch of icons, Wolfson said. You got information right
Placing breaking news up front gives visitors the impression that a site is
meticulously maintained. And it quickly shows the public the essence of what the
FEMA decided the site was a source of public information, Wolfson said, and
decided to put a public affairs specialist in charge.
In other agencies you see the information technology people in charge of the Web
site, he said. Theyre good at the technical side, but putting out
information for the public to consume is not their strong point.
Bell Atlantic Corp. maintains the server and applications. Artist subcontractors
created the graphics and page templates.
Wolfson gathers news from several sources each day. Official news includes notices from
local FEMA offices about events such as the president declaring an area eligible for
disaster aid or federal funds being dedicated to a specific project.
Next comes breaking news from field offices at disaster sites and then internal data
collected from within FEMA: daily reports designed for project directors and senior
managers, site maps from the geographic information systems staff, and weather maps from
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Sometimes I feel like a city news editor, Wolfson said.
The agencys intranet makes his job easier. He can quickly choose which internal
files he wants, then move them to the public server.
Although news is first, other items arent relegated to the back seat. The front
page is still the starting point for visitors, and navigating has to be easy. The trick is
to choose the right combination of pointers and news, and FEMA has succeeded.
Page 1 has three columns. The right two contain news abstracts, each with a paragraph
on disaster relief awards or locations where disaster is looming.
The entries jump off to pages with more details and pointers. Its a nice approach
because theres just enough information to decide whether to follow a pointer. Other
sections, such as those devoted to the storm watch and the Fire Administration, carry
their own news pointers on the jump pages.
At the left side of the screen, the navigation bar presents choices that are slightly
different in each section. The bars have simple, intuitive text pointersno frivolous
graphics. In fact, theres little animation on the site.
It would be nice to see search and help buttons added to the button bars in every
section because theyre difficult to find now. It also would be nice to jump quickly
from the front page to the extensive library and archive section.
The page looks slick without high-end graphics or frames. Its designed for easy
access by citizens who connect from home via 28.8-Kbps or slower modems. Most users come
through America Online, Wolfson said.
But some pages, such as the preparedness section, frames would enhance navigation. You
cant quickly jump out of some pages. These days, most browsers can handle frames,
and federal sites no longer need to shy away from them.
FEMA also uses its front page to highlight important initiatives such as Project
Impact, which helps communities rebuild after natural disasters. The mix works well.
Federal Web sites must serve three audiences: visitors who come for news, those who
seek information and contacts, and users within the agency and at other government sites.
The front page of the FEMA site pretty well succeeds at serving all these audiences,
although visitors from other agencies might not quickly find the statistics theyre
To get staff names, be prepared to drill down about four levels, which is a bit too
One trick to maintaining a site is to let other employees manage subsections. FEMA has
a Web site management server on its LAN where employees can easily make new pages and post
links on pages they maintain.
Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
Cahners Business Information Inc.