The White House kicked off their effort to reform Federal Government websites this week by releasing a much anticipated list of more than 1,700 top-level .gov domains and vowed to cut it down to something more reasonable and efficient for citizens. While this is a laudable “first step,” it also creates the false impression – especially to those who may not fully understand web structure or search engines - that reducing the number of .gov websites by some arbitrary percentage will somehow solve the problem of citizens getting the information and services they need.
This effort will fail if government focuses on simply killing the “MyProjectOneOff.gov” type sites and moving content to “MyAgency.gov/MyProjectOneOff”. This action doesn’t make information more accessible, it simply buries it differently.
Open Data proponents rightfully see this initiative as a much needed injection of energy around pushing more data out to developers (and in turn to citizens), through applications. And when coupled with the recently released customer service Executive Order, Federal CIOs are seeing an opportunity to fund improvements to e-service applications and CRM systems.
In all of the blog posts, tweets, and news items around this effort, however, there is little discussion about ensuring government websites have fresh and relevant content in plain language that people can relate to/understand. Nor is there any discussion about using real-time analytics to determine what content isn’t connecting with citizens, making revisions based on what people are looking for, and creating/expanding content based on demand.
There is very little discussion about ensuring basic search engine optimization tactics – metadata, friendly URLS, links, site maps, key words in headers, key words, tags – are being used so customers can find the information they want and need. Whether we have 2 or 2,000 or even 200,000 .gov domains, if the citizens can’t find our great stuff, we are wasting precious time and resources.
With Google, Bing, and other search engines crawling more than 130 million active domains worldwide, we need to be sure citizens can find what they need. It doesn't matter what we name the web site, how many apps we build, or how intuitive our e-service interface is… because no matter what, if people can't find it, they can't find it.
And while Macon Phillips (White House director of digital strategy), Vivek Kundra (the federal chief information officer), and Sheila Campbell (director of the GSA’s Center for Excellence in Digital Government), don’t believe reducing .gov domains is the only solution, the decision to focus on this initially overemphasizes this step in the overall process.
The government does collect a lot of data and aims to provide a huge amount of services. However, many federal initiatives encourage behavior change - seat belts awareness, smoking cessation, healthy eating (Lets Move, My Plate, etc.). Tasks are essential, yes, but information and engagement to drive behavior is too.
During the White House live chat announcing the initiative, I asked via Twitter where content creators fit in and here is what they said:
To be successful, CIOs and communicators – especially at the program level – need to work together from the very beginning. This partnership is even more essential as sites and apps are optimized for mobile.
Based on the tone and direction of the discussion around the first phase, I’m not sure communicators feel they’re invited.