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Bureaucrats for Change: Why Obama's Inherited Web Team Gets It

BY Editors | Thursday, December 18 2008

Reading Putting Citizens First: Transforming Online Government, the brief transition white paper posted by the Web Content Managers Forum, the network of Federal online managers, one challenge jumped out clearly from the page: is the easy part.

The new Administration should "need to build on the groundswell of citizen participation in the presidential campaign and make people’s everyday interactions with their government easier and more transparent," says the paper. But then comes the massive challenge:

It won’t be an easy task. There are approximately 24,000 U.S. Government websites now online (but no one knows the exact number). Many websites tout organizational achievements instead of effectively delivering basic information and services. Many web managers don’t have access to social media tools because of legal, security, privacy, and internal policy concerns. Many agencies focus more on technology and website infrastructure than improving content and service delivery. Technology should not drive our business decisions, but rather help us serve the needs of the American people.

Understanding this challenge is crucial to adjusting expectations around digital change in the short-run in the Obama Administration. As I noted in a previous post, the much-ballyhooed post of national chief technology officer under Obama is more symbolic than anything else; getting the more than 100 executive ranch agencies and their 24,000 websites to a level of transparency, consistency and service is the massive challenge - something on the order of running IT for Microsoft or Google, in my view...if not larger.

Running this gargantuan online network means empowering a vast cadre of managers to do their work - it means giving them the power to make decisions about email and social media, for example. In theory, the Obama apparatus should be great at this. After all, the President-Elect's operation maintained a keen top-down message throughout the campaign, even while allowing volunteer coordinators to do their thing without running every dash and and RSS feed past the campaign minders.

But Federal employees in the vast spiderworks of the nation's largest job pool are not the same as campaign volunteers, no matter how committed. So I really liked this suggestion from the white paper:

Agencies should be required to appoint an editor-in-chief for every website they maintain, as do the top commercial websites. This person should be given appropriate funding and authority to develop and enforce web policies and publishing standards, including ensuring that prime real estate on government websites is dedicated to helping people find the information they need.

Clearly, this group gets it - whether they're Bush appointees or Clinton hold-overs or they date from the Truman years. The understand that online, the Federal government is one of the nation's largest publishers! They also know that in most cases, citizens are looking for information when they drop in from a Google search:

President-elect Obama will inherit thousands of U.S. government websites. We have too much content to categorize, search, and manage effectively, and there is no comprehensive system for removing or archiving old or underused content. Some agencies have posted competing websites on similar topics, creating duplication of effort and causing confusion for the public. Much government web content is written in “governmentese” instead of plain language.

Here's one piece of free advice for the President-Elect: keep this group together. It's a rare government resource, a gem in the vast bureaucracy - a bunch of Federal employees who clearly believed in change before change was cool.