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Defense Department Voting Assistance Program Draws Congressional Fire

BY Michael Turk | Monday, December 1 2008

A DoD program meant to assist military personnel in registering and voting is drawing Congressional fire over the hiring of a new overseer. A bipartisan group of Congressmen is irked that the Federal Voting Assistance Program has failed to meet the goal of making it easier for those in uniform to participate in the democracy they protect.

While not specifically an Internet issue, the Government Computer News (Yes, I read it. I'm that geeky) article had two passages that caught my eye.

Few military personnel appeared to be aware of the program in the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, and fewer received Federal Post Card Applications for absentee ballots by a DOD deadline in 2006.

Under normal circumstances, that would tell me there is a marketing problem. Developing a site or an initiative is really the easiest part of the battle in my opinion - it's driving eyeballs that's difficult. There's much you can do in the development process - from strategic decisions to user testing - to help move units. However, it often has more to do with the way you put it in front of your audience.

But I think the problems may extend past marketing because of the second passage.

But in October, Maloney criticized the system as unstable, error-prone and difficult to use. She said the site was inferior to an independent site developed by the Overseas Voting Foundation, which provides a more automated process.

“The current military voting system, as implemented by FVAP and its current leadership, is too cumbersome and convoluted to effectively serve those who serve in the cause of freedom,” the letter stated.

Now my libertarian streak immediately shouted, "What? A government program that's cumbersome, convoluted, and difficult to navigate? A government effort that's inferior to a private initiative? Get out of here!". But I'll refrain from sticking my finger in the government's eye. I still owe the IRS too much to kick that sleeping bear.

I will say that this is the trouble with a lot of government IT initiatives. They fall short on either the development side (inadequate user testing) or on the marketing side (once the site is up, they just expect people to find it. Both seem to be the case here.

Now, I didn't take a look at www.marines.mil before election day, but I suspect it looked a lot like it does now. Down in the very bottom is a link to vote. If you go through the process to create an exception for a page with a bad security certificate, you can eventually get to the FVAP page.

From there, the process gets awful. It's no wonder people don't use it.

For the incoming FVAP director, let me make a suggestion. Develop your process as a widget that allows you to begin the process wherever you find it? That way the marines.mil site wouldn't force you to go through a series of clicks and steps to get you to where you're going.

That may not get you around government website restrictions which I suspect prohibit embedding a widget housed on another domain (even one owned by another branch of government). You may need to go through your counsel's office to get some sort of approval to do that, but it would be better than what you're doing.