HHS reflects on new look for its Web sites

HHS reflects on new look for its Web sites

IT team takes a community-planning approach to designing online portals for public visitors

BY SUSAN M. MENKE | GCN STAFF

The Health and Human Services Department is trying to reformat its Web sites as 'planned communities rather than urban sprawl,' said Brian Burns, the department's current deputy assistant secretary for information resources management.

Burns has worn a second hat as deputy chief information officer for the department's 13 organizations. HHS is 'just getting started' at enterprise infrastructure management, he said.

His boss, John Callahan, has worn even more hats: assistant secretary for management and budget, chief financial officer, chief information officer and security overseer. Callahan said government is 'only beginning to grapple with the demands for more information access and more interactive sites. There will have to be some serious discussions about resources.'

As the administration changes, they see HHS playing five roles in electronic government: storekeeper of health data, manufacturer and distributor of health grants and services, departmental infrastructure provider, and medical and pharmaceutical regulator.

To fund these roles, the department invested $2.79 billion in information technology in fiscal 1999 and will spend $3.16 billion in fiscal 2001.
'Use of IT as a critical business function is growing exponentially,' Burns said, because many workers are nearing retirement, and fewer new hires are around to absorb their knowledge.

A departmental Internet management committee is working on best practices and human factors design with the goal of shifting more of the workload to the department's 330 Web sites. HHS sites draw about 290,000 visitors per day.

Webmasters on the committee from each of the 13 operating divisions are trying to make their page layouts consistent, organize their data better, streamline searching and improve accessibility for the disabled.

In June, they released a new front end to the parent site, at www.hhs.gov. Instead of spotlighting the work of various bureaus, as many departmental home pages do, the designers built around headlines, hot topics and items of interest to citizens. They provided a text-only version and put the search function first.

'We designed with patterns to draw the eye and tried to make everything just one to three clicks away,' Burns said.

Other recently revamped HHS sites, www.healthfinder.gov, medlineplus.gov and www.nci.nih.gov, follow the same content and search hierarchy.

'They don't have fancy graphics but a clear, crisp categorization of information people want'types of cancer, treatments and so on,' Burns said.

The next stage of HHS' move into e-government is a usability office. 'We can tap into it for all the department's needs and pull our resources together,' he said.


HHS is just getting started at enterprise infrastructure management, Brian Burns says.
High on the usability agenda are privacy statements, separate kids' sections, content in multiple languages, text-only presentation choices and no use of frames.

'If it's not already there, we mandate that every site have text,' Burns said. He has recommended against use of frames and Adobe Portable Document Format because they make navigation difficult for visitors with visual disabilities.

Tool for compliance

Some of the department's 216 webmasters use the Bobby tool from the Center for Applied Special Technology of Peabody, Mass., [GCN, Sept. 4, Page 1, 2000] to check their sites' compliance with Section 508 requirements.

As for the enterprise infrastructure, Burns said, he sees the department serving as a conduit for information among HHS employees, state and local and tribal governments, physicians and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

'We can turn the IT infrastructure into a utility like lights and water,' he said. 'We should expect the same level of service from our PCs, with security assured.'

A matter of health

As an example of an information utility that HHS has pioneered, he cited the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The $9.3 million NEDSS development effort will integrate local, state and national disease tracking by public health agencies.

Burns said 12 factors are driving all federal Web sites to improve their privacy, confidentiality and security:

' Laws: Electronic Freedom of Information Act, Government Performance and Results Act, Government Paperwork Elimination Act, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, IT Management Reform Act and Paperwork Reduction Act

' Regulations: Office of Management and Budget Circular A-130, Presidential Decision Directive 63 and agencies' plans for continuity of operations

' Hot trends: Digital signatures, electronic-government initiatives and FirstGov.gov.

Callahan said security is already strong for the government's financial transactions, 'but as we move into different formats, we need more security whether it's a public-key infrastructure or other systems. We will have to increase resources.'

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