HUD site changes for users

HUD's Richard R. Burk seeks public comments through online forums.

Henrik G. DeGyor

Government for the people is exactly how the Housing and Urban Development Department views its Web presence, which began with the launch of www.hud.gov in March 1995.

In the past seven years, HUD has updated its site nine times and continues to add online services, said Richard R. Burk, chief architect in HUD's CIO Office.

The department's site is 'not just an attempt to make people understand what HUD is all about but is designed according to the users' needs,' Burk said.

This led to a lot of early tweaking, he said. Within a year of the site's launch, HUD organized the information in categories such as cities, communities, neighborhoods and places to live.

'Just orienting the site toward finding a home for a buyer was important for us as compared to just putting information out there,' Burk said.

Daniel J. Greenwood, director of the E-Commerce Architecture Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Architecture and Planning, said HUD has kept the site fresh and updated it regularly. But he added that agencies must be alert to whether their online efforts are helpful.

'The question is: What's the benchmark that these are working, and how do you measure that this really helps?' Greenwood said.

'When we get a good idea, we incorporate it as quickly as possible,' HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said. 'We listen very closely to those who provide us input on our Web site.'

The department's Web management team receives about 9,000 e-mail messages a month about its site. It uses them to provide a basis for changes, Sullivan said. The department also conducts focus groups to determine what's working and what needs modification, he said.

Redesign test run

For a redesign in January 2001, HUD tested the site with about 300 business partners such as lenders, brokers and local governments.

Greenwood said agencies should use customer satisfaction as the guiding principle in deciding what changes to make.

'The private sector lives and dies by customer satisfaction,' he said. 'So the key is to put more customer satisfaction into the Web site.'

Burk said HUD has three principles to keep its Web work in perspective:
  • Put all information on the Web

  • Offer services that help consumers conduct business online

  • Involve people in governance.

Next on the HUD Web agenda, Burk said, is fully interactive online forums to seek public comments. The department has not yet decided on the technology to host the forums.

HUD already hosts some online forums for appraisers, lenders and others to discuss housing topics. Greenwood said the forums, at www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/hsgforum.cfm, are 'a very innovative form of interaction.'

Though the HUD site does not exist to provide citizens with a means to talk directly to government, it happens anyhow, which is unusual in the federal government, Greenwood said.

Burk said HUD wants to use its Web services to supply seamless transactions to citizens. He pointed to the E-Grants project, one of the 24 initiatives under the Office of Management and Budget's e-government umbrella. HUD is working with the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, and Health and Human Services departments to create a one-stop site for identifying grant opportunities and applying for funds online.

Burk said the department also is considering working with state and local governments to provide citizens with information about regional housing services.

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