Don't just build Web sites, analyze how they're used
One of my favorite unanswered questions is: What is the ratio of federal
information technology funds spent on the Internet to what is spent on agency intranets?
Or in military terms: Is the governments tooth-to-tail expenditure of resources in
line with its mission?
My guess is that there are 10 times more dollars spent on moving packets inside federal
firewalls than on sending data to the outside world. The actual figure may be far higher.
Either way, hard numbers are elusive.
Its fairly easy to track what Web sites employees visit or who visits federal Web
sites. More difficult to discern is whether the money the government spends on various
sites is spent effectively.
Yet if $10 spent on agency intranets could be shown to improve the effectiveness of $1
spent on efforts visible to the public, then a customer service argument can be made for
Fortunately for the taxpayer, federal intranets are intended for internal effectiveness
and efficiency, not on how they ultimately enable the agency to deliver on its mission.
Unfortunately, much of the intranet expenditures result in self-congratulatory fluff
that few inside the agency firewall need or even want to see. If they were to be exposed,
self-serving advertisements would be severely criticized.
Still, among IT sins, pointless Web pages are innocuous compared to the hours vaporized
by playing computer games.
At least the skills learned to create a useless Web site can be transferred to more
productive endeavors. Such sites are like practice exercises in Accounting 101. Building
them makes an excellent, low-risk training ground for webmasters.
But I dont know of any federal jobs that require skills gained by playing
Solitaire or Tetris.
Intranets can also be good for promoting intra-organizational understanding. Many
federal employees are only dimly aware of the scope of their own agencies. Intranets can
make the entire agency accessible to every employee.
Intranets are also nice for organizations interested in Web technology but have too
little information of interest to the public.
Internet sites are onstage 24 hours a day, seven days a week before the entire world.
Some visitors, aware that their tax dollars paid for the sites, are eager to express their
opinions on the utility and usability of the pages they see.
In the worst case, it may be only the managers who commissioned them. Typically, agency
intranets generate little or no feedback, especially from fellow employees who visit the
To generate feedback, agency webmasters should conduct peer reviews.
From time to time, a brave soul will invite other webmasters to look at the site he or
she has created.
The resulting discussions can be thought-provoking and valuable, once everyone has
successfully ducked the flying chairs.
I admire the courage of people willing to risk criticism to better serve their
The peer review process promotes organizational values and satisfies agency
Agencies should invite visitors and nontechnical colleagues to evaluate their pages,
both Internet and intranet, and to hold them accountable for the time and the tax dollars
spent on these sites.
Some evaluation criteria could be:
Each agency, even each site, should have its own evaluation criteria. But the
government risks wasting a lot of time and effort unless it turns a friendly but
analytical eye on its intranet and Internet sites.
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.