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Notes on the Reinvention of FCC.gov

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, September 8 2010

FCC.gov, as it exists today

Dan McSwain was an email writer for the Obama campaign, and he's now putting in time in remaking the website of the Federal Communications Committee, FCC.gov, a site that is now, by general consensus, almost remarkably bad, a site where "user-friendly" means press releases offered in two different awkward formats, PDF and Microsoft Word. Filings before the commission on their incredibly important work are extraordinary difficult to find. It is, frankly, ugly, looking more like a long-forgotten site map than the full-fledged website of a major government agency. FCC staffers like to joke that their site is cutting-edge, as long as you allow that the time period you're taking about is the year 2000.

McSwain and others inside the commission know that the site needs a great deal of TLC before its relaunch, planned to happen by the end of the year. Yesterday at the Gov 2.0 conference, FCC Managing Director Steven VanRoekel, who runs the commission on a day-to-day basis, jokingly demoed a new version of the site that was an exact replica of the current site, except that the logo was now an animated .gif. Hearts were heard breaking throughout the auditorium. Your faithful writer might have teared up, just a little bit.

McSwain, more seriously, walked me through some of the thinking and processes driving the redesign of the Federal Communications Commission's web presence. We talked yesterday about the new FCC.gov's seemingly intense focus on pushing out the piles and piles of communications data -- from licensing info to broadband rates and loads more -- resident inside the agency, and McSwain conceded that that is indeed will be a priority reflected in the new site at launch. Asked why, with the FCC as a regulatory agency, there wouldn't be more of a focus on increasing what people can find out about what the FCC is regulating day in and day out. McSwain said, "an equal part of it is making sure that the experience around filings and NPRMs (Notices of Proposed Rulemaking) is exceptional." McSwain said that they're also working on revamping the commission's electronic public commenting system.

But a challenge facing the FCC, said McSwain, is that their site is a behemoth, with some 1.2 million digital assets lurking on their servers, from HTML pages to PDF files to scripts and more. More than 1,8000 people work for the agency. Making sense of everything they've put up online over the years is a challenge. "I could spend five years doing it myself," said McSwain. Or, employees inside each siloed bureau and office could take responsibility to making sense of what they've done. And that's what they've done, empowering employees with an internal system for tagging pages, creating a prioritization list in the process which arms the new media forces inside the agency to figure out where to concentrate their energies.

Of course, the people who create web pages and web tools might not be infallible judges of their appeal, and so, after much struggle, says McSwain, the FCC implemented Google Analytics as a way of demonstrating, internally, which parts of their web presence is most interesting to the public. (One surprise: that an online latitude-longitude converter whipped up by an agency staffer was among the more popular destinations on FCC.gov.)

Though, there, one handicap is that using existing traffic to refocus a website might be short-sighted. "What we don't have yet," said McSwain, "is a keen sense of who our audience could be."

I press McSwain on the question of whether the new site will make it easier for people to find the building blocks of what the FCC does -- public filings like those submitted by companies during the recent net neutrality rulemaking process, press releases that hint at the competing schools of thought battling for dominance inside the agency.

"Browsability," he said, is a major focus of the new effort, and in its own way, it might expose a fuller, more accurate picture of what the FCC does, and how outside interests engage with that process. "More data is necessarily going to turn up information that leads to a better, more informed citizenry," said McSwain. Linked tags in the comments on media diversity submitted by Cable Company X, for example, might lead to data sets showing just how many broadcast licences that entity actually has in various communities across the country. The FCC's job, said McSwain, is to "ingest data in the right ways and expose data in the right ways," rather than to take a more activist posture that might make more explicit connections between what everyone in the media world is saying in Washington and what they're actually doing out there in the world.

It's an approach that echoes something that some Democratic new media staffers sometimes refer to as the "President Palin Test" -- in other words, hard-coding in systems for releasing more government information more broadly in ways that future office holders, whomever they might be, will find difficult to roll back.

But the big question: can we expect that press releases and public statements on the new FCC.gov will be freed from their PDF and Word prisons? Stay tuned.

The new FCC.gov is expected to launch by the end of 201o.