A tangled web we weaved

Who rules the site? Public affairs, the CIO ' or both?

Overload: Candi Harrison says the government's 400 million Web pages are too many. 'People make better decisions if they have fewer options.'

Jacob Chinn

When Candi Harrison became Web manager for the Housing and Urban Development Department 12 years ago, the Web was an electronic wilderness.

Excited about the new medium, people flocked to the Internet as a place where creativity and cunning mattered more than standards or a uniform look and feel.

The 'grassroots legacy of letting a thousand flowers bloom was great in the beginning of the Web,' Harrison said, now happily retired and living in Arizona after 10 years as HUD's Web manager. 'But we're smarter now.'

Like many agencies, HUD found itself in a struggle over who controlled the agency's use of the Web. The Web runs on computers, so would the CIO's office have dominion over it? But then again, the Web is also about communicating with the public, so wouldn't the public affairs office run it?

'Every single time there was a change in authority, there was a battle between public affairs and the CIO,' Harrison said. Twelve years later, agencies are still fighting the same battle.

Whose Web is it anyway?

According to two researchers at George Mason University, two models of Web governance are emerging. Julianne Mahler and Priscilla Regan, professors at GMU's Department of Public and International Affairs, say federal Web sites are veering toward one of two approaches:

A strategic view, which involves keeping tight control over a Web site and designating one office, usually public affairs, to formulate and evaluate materials submitted by other agency program offices.

A looser, self-organizing approach, which is decentralized, team-based and self-directed. Under this model, Web governance shifts away from a hierarchical, rule-governed bureaucratic approach to something that 'looks more like a network'self-organized, self-governed,' Mahler said.

Mahler said that the lack of strategic control of the Web during the past 12 years has been, by and large, a good thing; she asserts that 'much of the energy and utility of Web sites has been due to benign neglect.'

Others say federal Web governance will need to move toward a more strategic model, with one governing body overseeing content, formats and infrastructure.
Lisa Welchman, founder and principal consultant of Welchman Consulting in Baltimore, agrees with this view.

'For things like look and feel, editorial tone, taxonomy'those kinds of things'you can't let a thousand flowers bloom or you'll just have a mess,' she said.

But other parts, such as input from subject matter experts, are going to have to be decentralized, Welchman said.

'The nature of people is that they're going to do their own thing,' she said. 'But that can't happen if a user is going to have an experience that makes any kind of sense.'

The federal government is overflowing with program structures built around paper-based development, Welchman said.

'They're just now beginning to say, 'We've got an 8,000-page Web site, but no program structure for it.' Five years down the road, I think we'll find formalized program structures built around the management of information, whether print, Web, brochures, handhelds or wireless. Someone at the top has to say, 'The Web is a product and needs to have certain controls, the same as if you were printing a book.' '

But some agencies, such as the General Services Administration, seem to have adopted a third model, a sort of representative, bicameral governance approach. In this model, one group oversees the Web's technical issues, such as infrastructure and security, while another group, usually on the communications side, oversees content.

'The communications side of the house brings content, design of the site, business needs of the site and the functions we want to make available,' said Vicky Moss, manager of enterprise Web management in GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications, which also houses the agency's public affairs division.

GSA also has an infrastructure applications team, which is responsible for the technology side and includes such things as search engines and hosting environments.

The two sides meet regularly, perhaps four or five times a week, Moss said. Representatives from the CIO's office attend some of the meetings to discuss topics such as Web metrics.

Ghost Web

One of the big problems all federal agencies grapple with is legacy Web data and how to track the thousands of pages languishing on the site.

GSA has a collaborative system in place that uses expiration dates to cull through Web data to keep it fresh, the Internet version of fishing through the back of the fridge and checking the dates on the tubs of cottage cheese every so often.

'We have every page reviewed every six months,' Moss said. GSA's Office of the CIO sends out e-mail messages to the office responsible for the page's content at 30-, 14- and five-day intervals before the expiration date. 'We give them a warning so they can review the page,' said Susie Kampans, team leader of GSA's infrastructure applications team. If they don't, the content will go offline and won't be available to the public.

During the early days of GSA.gov, 'people wanted to be creative,' Kampans said. GSA researched usability studies and made changes in fonts and formats to give the site a uniform look and feel. 'Now people can still be creative,' Kampans said, but visitors to the sites won't be 'jumping all over the place.'

The commitment to a more user-friendly gsa.gov has paid off. The Web site's American Customer Satisfaction Index score, a metric developed by the University of Michigan, jumped from 55 (out of 100) in 2004 to 71 in 2006.

The Environmental Protection Agency has adopted a similar sort of representative, bicameral model of Web governance. Jonda Byrd, chief of the policy and program management branch at EPA, described the evolution of Web governance at the agency during the Gilbane conference on content technologies for government last year in Washington.

From about 1995'the year most people refer to as the dawn of federal Web sites'to 2001, EPA's CIO's office managed the Web. EPA webmasters throughout the country participated in a volunteer Web workgroup''but, basically, the CIO's office managed it, created policies, maintained the infrastructure and performed audits,' Byrd said.

In 2001, however, EPA's public affairs office started taking a serious interest in the Web site. By then it was pretty obvious that the Web was no longer an avenue reserved for the geek elite but had become an essential entry point for information for just about everybody.

'Up until that point, we had been trying to get [public affairs] interested,' Byrd said. ' 'C'mon, help us, we need content. We want you all to provide some input into this.' '

Byrd and her colleagues at EPA realized 'there was maybe a little bit of tension about who does what and how we're going to manage the Web site.' They decided to establish a Web governance task force, which established a set of principles about administration, content, infrastructure and customer service.

'It basically created a constitution for us' for Web governance, Byrd said. Out of this constitution came the Web Council, a 46-member team with representatives from each program office and each of the 10 regions.

Hybrid models

Rick Martin, national Web infrastructure manager for EPA, is a co-leader of the council and senior manager in the CIO's office and responsible for the agency's infrastructure portfolio. On the content side, the council is co-led by Serenety Hanley, a senior manager in the public affairs office.

Martin calls the EPA governance system a 'hybrid of strategic and self-organizing models of governance. There's content review by the public affairs office, but it's not tight control.'

EPA has been trying to move away from 'stovepiped information channels,' Martin said. The agency has been identifying cross-agency topics, like mercury, that involve many offices and regions. But there will always be a need for subject matter experts to provide content, such as 'water issues that would only be managed by the water office,' Martin said.

"Now we have 400 million government web Pages. We can't keep that current or manage that. 'Candi Harrison, Former HUD Web Manager

The Health and Human Services Department, likewise, is adopting a representative governance structure. HHS is setting up an enterprisewide Web council that will be charged with crafting standards, and coordinating and reorganizing content.
Developing a representative governing body ensures 'that everyone has a sense of ownership,' said Richard Stapleton, senior policy adviser and national Web content manager at HHS.

HHS' Web governance model actually came about through 'prodding' from secretary Mike Leavitt, Stapleton said. By the time the department got around to setting up a governance model, 'there was almost a hunger for it,' he said.

'You can have the best infrastructure in the world, but if you don't have great content, you don't have a Web site,' Stapleton said. The enterprisewide Web council 'pulls together the expertise of the two worlds.'

At HUD, government executives 'made some very good guesses' in the early days of the Web, Harrison said.

HUD's first Web site was put up by the director of IT. 'It took him about two weeks to realize, 'Hey, my folks run computers. We don't have anyone who knows about words,' ' Harrison said. 'That's why they transferred it to the secretary's office.'

HUD always had one centralized Web site. At first, the department let people design their own Web pages, but several years into it, HUD decided on a standard template, Harrison said. Now HUD's standard template is designed by the secretary's office Web team, which works closely with the CIO's office and the public affairs office.

Wild west no longer

The world of federal Web sites is no longer an every-agency-for-itself wilderness. In 2004, the Office of Management and Budget issued Web governance guidelines that are available at www.webcontent.gov. The 10 policies cover areas such as 'use approved domains''.gov, .mil or .fed.us'and establish and enforce agencywide linking policies.

The site also offers best-practices guidelines, such as creating a 'contact us' page and an 'about us' page.

One of the purposes of the OMB policy is to provide the unifying policies and standards that many federal agencies lack.

'Research shows that most people are very skeptical about what they see on the Web,' said Sheila Campbell, senior content manger for Firstgov.gov, the federal government's official Web portal. 'There's a lot of junk out there, we all know. So people are looking to that .gov as a way to assure that the Web sites are legitimate.'

Harrison said she believes strongly in the need for a move toward centralized governance of federal Web sites. 'But I think it's going to take an act of Congress.'

Harrison estimates the number of federal Web sites at more than 24,000, 'which is ridiculous. And let's just say that unnamed sources at Commerce don't know how many Web sites they have.'

Federal Web sites are funded by taxpayers, and that's who they need to serve, Harrison said. 'Some heads of agencies use the Web site as their own personal page, with a big photo of the secretary,' she said.

'Now we have 400 million government Web pages,' Harrison said. 'We can't keep that current or manage that. It's all sitting out there unattended.'

The overwhelming amount of data on federal Web sites doesn't even help most people. 'The public can't use all this content,' she said. 'People make better decisions if they have fewer options.'


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