THE VIEW FROM INSIDE: Walter R. Houser

Web resists cookie-cutter management approach

Walter R. Houser

Accounting for job vacancies created by retirements, attrition and new positions, the Office of Personnel Management expects that by 2006 the government will need to fill nearly 37,000 information technology jobs.

To help departments identify job opportunities and improve recruitment, OPM is revamping its GS-334 job classification. It wants to break the tried-and-true computer specialist job designation into subclassifications.

Human resources managers and others use the OPM classifications to identify open jobs and their grade levels. I participated in a focus group made up of federal webmasters who discussed a proposed Web developer subclass. I was amazed by the variety in our backgrounds and affiliations. Our discussions made clear that these differences had profound implications on the implementation and management of our agencies' Web sites.

I had assumed that my background was typical. I am an information technologist working under'far under'my agency's chief information officer. When I first heard of the Web, I was working on IT policy and standards and thought, 'How cool.' My boss and I immediately saw that the Web would be a cheap and easy alternative to issuing policy manuals on CD-ROM.

Through my participation in the focus group, I found that webmasters vary in their background and access to senior officials.

At the Housing and Urban Development Department, for instance, webmasters are called Web managers and work in the Office of the Secretary. By calling them Web managers, HHS takes the view that these workers direct and organize the content, applications, and look and feel of a site. Software, servers, telecommunications and other technology components are the purview of the department's IT folks. HUD also classifies its Web managers as GS-301 general managers, not GS-334 computer specialists.

Calls for team effort

At the State and Agriculture departments, the public affairs offices (OPAs) manage Web services'content and design are not considered IT. An informal USDA motto is, 'If you can see it, it belongs to OPA; otherwise it's IT.'

The motto is cute, but it overlooks the fact that workers in back-office technology and in front-office design and content have to work together or else they might end up frustrating one another's efforts.

One of my headaches is getting approval on content in a reasonable time. Hours are reasonable in Web time but days are more likely in a government bureaucracy.

Some offices have a strong commitment to their online content and work hard to keep it current. Others put up a site to focus on a particular topic or management initiative but for various reasons let it get out of date.

At my agency, we have both types of sites and they include my e-mail address, so I get customer feedback about problems. I envy my colleagues at HUD who have the ear of the secretary and can invoke his name to push results. If I push too hard, the answer is either, 'Mind your own business,' or 'Take down the pages.'

My inclination is to leave old pages on the site because I believe that old information is better than no information. I figure the Web can be a repository of past as well as present knowledge.

My perspective was formed in part by my work with records managers, a group lacking consensus on how to dispose of dated Web pages. I am loath to delete them. A moment's contemplation of the missing e-mail at the White House fuels my compulsion to save everything.

My friends in public affairs disagree. They say old information might be mistaken for fresh news. They want to avoid spending time explaining away outdated information.

My agency's search engine has a particular knack for dredging up dated material.

It conjures up Web pages with embarrassingly obsolete data. Senior managers put their own names into the search engine and are often dismayed to find listings of old job titles and responsibilities.

Some of the documents would be nearly impossible to stumble across merely by navigating Web page links. But the search engine locates them in seconds.

What should users do with the results of a search? How will they know what is current and what is obsolete? Without an author or point of contact and a date of creation for the page, users easily become frustrated.

There is no single solution for staffing and managing a Web site. Different organizations and professions have unique requirements. The point is that each perspective has validity, and no single viewpoint should dominate in how agencies manage their Web sites.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His personal Web home page is at www.cpcug.org/user/houser.

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