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Having Sat Out the Aughts, Steps into the Modern Age

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, April 5 2011

The new


Staffers at the Federal Communications Commission joke that after winning an award for having a terrific government website in the late '90s, the agency figured, if it ain't broke, why fix it? That attitude seemed to prevail in southwest Washington for about a decade. But was broken. The site made it an endurance test to find even the most basic information. Given that the FCC sits at center of so many of the critical debates and issues in American communications -- from who gets high-speed Internet to who owns which media outlets to who's upset about which fleeting expletive -- some commentators have even talked about the site as a case of "political exclusion through bad UI," or user interfaces. Okay, that was us, back in the summer of 2009, but the point was a fair one: by having a terrible website the Federal Communications Commission only compounded the marginalization of the citizen and consumer in the U.S. telecommunications landscape.

Meet It's a very much a work in progress. But it's also a (belated) admission that what had been happening wasn't working.

The old Don't look at it any longer than you must.

"What we had was a website built around an org chart," explains Steve Van Roekel about what he thinks went wrong with the old site. He's the FCC's Managing Director, a Microsoft veteran brought to the agency after President Barack Obama appointed Julius Genachowski chair shortly after taking office. The FCC's federation of seven bureaus, ten offices, and five commissioners got reflected online as a federation of sites under a single domain, a system that only made sense to FCC employees, and not even all of them. The new site is a bid by the commission to speak with a single voice. Van Roekel says they took six months, processed more than 10,000 comments, studied their Google Analytics, and came up with the idea of focusing the site on four actions -- making a complaint, formally lodging a public comment, chatting with the commission and others about a topic, and getting help from the FCC on something -- and six issue areas: Consumers, Public Safety, Broadband, Spectrum, Connecting America, and Media & Marketplace.

(Again, we're in beta territory here: distinctions like those between 'Broadband' and 'Connecting America' might need some spit and polish.)

For end users, whether that's professional advocates or those folks riled up because someone swore at the Oscars, getting the agency to focus on ideas rather than institutional structures means, ideally, that navigating the agency is far more manageable, in part because more of what the FCC does becomes discoverable. "Everything we do is related to everything else we do," says Van Roekel. Search for "high-speed Internet," for example, and you get presented with an array of information bits, from materials on the future of VOIP to documents on what the agency has done on net neutrality, which itself leads up to updates on the National Broadband Plan. The site also ports over advancements already made on the old site under the Genachowski era, notably its data resources and other ways for developers to engage. Taken together, it's still rather confusing, but at least users are given a fighting chance at making sense of it all.

Getting to this point on behalf of the public, says Van Roekel, involved a great deal of heavy lifting within the nearly 2,000-employee agency. "The biggest challenge-slash-opportunity," he says, "was really changing the culture inside the building." Developing a content management system that knits together information from a variety of sources inside the FCC requires that staffers get on board with both creating materials useful to the public and tagging them in ways that help slot them into the broader FCC universe. An intranet under the banner of "Reboot," he says, was set up to give them a safe space in which to get their feet wet, and the Plain Writing Act that was signed by Obama in October provided some inspiration and guidance. More than 140 staffers were trained, says Van Roekel, in how to upload content to the new site via its Drupal backend. That Van Roekel manages the agency day-to-day was helpful. "I didn't go as far as holding budget back if they didn't blog," he says with a laugh, "but I thought about it."

(Some bonus geek bits, via Van Roekel: The new FCC site is built on Drupal, search is handled by the Solr search platform built on Apache, and hosting is cloud-based and provided by the Virginia company Terremark. Akamai is handling distributed video and content delivery. The domain is optionally accessible through HTTPS. As for the cost of the new site, Van Roekel puts it at $1.35 million. As if, perhaps, in a word of warning about getting too excited about heralded federal websites, search on the IT Spending Dashboard is down at the moment, making it difficult to check that figure through that much-mentioned newish site.)

Poke around the beta new, and it will quickly confirm to you the notion that the site is still in the early going. The layout can be confounding, there are broken links, and you can quickly find yourself ending up on the old blue-and-gold Van Roekel says that it will be a week to a month before things get flipped and what's now becomes just, with the old site still hanging around online as a backup. The FCC is taking comments on the new site here. "Phase two," says Van Roekel, "is going to be all about transactional systems," including making it easier for people to figure out how to file public comments on official FCC proceedings.

One final note: if you've followed our fairly long-standing love/hate relationship with (one admittedly light on the love aspect), then you'll know that there's one particular aspect to the site that has driven, me, personally, into what's probably fair to characterize as uncharacteristic fits of rage. So, is America's primary governmental communications agency persisting in serving up official statements and press releases in only -- deep breath -- Microsoft Word and PDF formats?

Nope. Those public communications are now simple text by default. Hallelujah.