Government Web sites must focus more on the user

Government Web sites must focus more on the user

Agencies need a site that will answer questions and adapt to e-business, a Michigan CIO says

By Dan Lohrmann

Special to GCN

When assessing real estate, experts say the three things that matter most are location, location and location. In information technology support, most federal technicians would say what matters is the user.

Michigan's IT Services Division tries to personalize its Web sites to emphasize visitors' own interests. It is developing a portal for online access to many state services.

But how user-focused are government Web sites? Do their managers concentrate too much on the future e-everything instead of looking after current needs?

Take a 15-minute cybertour of federal and state governments' IT support Web sites, or even their non-IT sites, including some agency front pages. Start with your own IT division's Web site or the portal for the site that supports your agency's information systems.

Look for the main message of all these pages. Put yourself in a user's shoes and ask, 'Do I care about any of this?'

Some of the pages you'll see are user-focused, but many are not and for those the message needs to change.

Not your mission

The theme of most government first- or second-generation Web sites is an agency's mission and what it has accomplished, for example, readying its legacy systems for year 2000 compliance. Lists of frequently asked questions that are helpful to users are often buried deep within the site and difficult to find.

Likewise, government Web sites are good at calling attention to new reports, legislation, standards and so on. But is that what users with IT problems really want to know about?

Do you wonder why visitors don't return to your agency's site after a few times? How many of them are dying to read about your plans for asynchronous transfer mode or Gigabit Ethernet?

You may think that management already knows about these thematic deficiencies but that it will take several years to replace current computer systems or Web-enable your legacy applications and databases. You may have seen presentations about the evolution of Web sites toward optimized navigation, more personalization and a one-to-one business experience with full back-office database integration.

Government webmasters face a myriad of problems that seem to have higher priority than changing the focus of a Web site.

For one thing, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendment of 1998 requires federal sites to be accessible to those with disabilities by Aug. 7. If that isn't enough to keep webmasters busy, most of them also are scrambling to make their information accessible to handheld computers and cellular phones.

To top that off, chief information officers are devising strategies for a new generation of sites to Web-enable their core missions over the next several years. Plans for installing new customer relationship management software and mainframe-to-Web middleware dominate government IT planning meetings across America.

The line goes something like this: 'Just wait for the big enchilada. In X number of years, we'll be able to do everything our users want us to without human intervention, straight from the portal. Just wait until we've finished our business process re-engineering efforts.'

But who's keeping the users happy today? In a government world that's now moving at Internet speeds, a growing number of IT options are available to your users'such as outsourcing your mission to contractors or other government organizations.

You may not have years to implement the big enchilada. You need IT plans that will answer users' technical questions and adapt to electronic business. Don't ignore users' feedback about your Web site and the services it offers.

Most government IT professionals are proud of their work, and their Web sites serve as a kind of newsletter that shows off the great jobs they've done.

There's nothing wrong with an Internet or intranet site that builds employee morale, but is it detracting from users' problems? Is your portal the only page that focuses on users? Are there interim steps you can take now, or should you revamp your IT content around your users' needs?

The Michigan Department of Management and Budget (DMB), where I work as chief information officer, is redesigning its Web site without full integration on the back end'yet. As in many other government organizations, the initial IT-support Web site evolved from a brown-bag effort over several years. A set of experts in the Web development team is dedicated to keeping all sites up to date as well as building mission-specific sites.

Most of the DMB Web sites are starting their second or third generations. The process followed over the past three years has made the department focus more on users.

Several years ago, some of the government business partners resisted the idea of establishing a Web site. Now almost all Web managers demonstrate ownership of their sites as they increase the number of contacts they make through them. Within IT support, the third-generation site, at, is built totally around the users' needs. They have identified the themes via focus groups and constructive criticism.

The site overhaul focuses on six things:

''A cleaner, uncluttered initial appearance with a simple message

''A user perspective on services, using phrases such as 'my PC' and 'my consultant'

''Initiatives or events that users are interested in, such as a training calendar

''Plain English instead of technical language, to make it easier to understand concepts and instructions. The previous site was full of acronyms and terminology that required a computer degree to decipher.

''A walkthrough for difficult processes, especially if they are not yet automated. The tech staff's inclination is to wait for the killer app to be installed before explaining things, but the users need answers about current nonkiller processes.

''Whom and where to call to get answers to questions that aren't covered.

The department also has a series of statewide initiatives under the control of a new E-Michigan agency, which will lead toward a Michigan state portal with many online services. There are also many business process re-engineering efforts under way, and there is major work ahead in Web-enabling legacy applications and replacing old systems. But these initiatives don't put off the need to be more user-focused now.

I urge you not to delay improving your agency's Web site.

Dan Lohrmann is chief information officer and director of the Information Technology Services Division in Michigan's Department of Management and Budget.

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