Web content: Get organized

Organizing Web content to better serve citizens may be an arduous task for some agency officials as they tackle content organization and management responsibilities, but it's something they must do, experts say.

Recent draft recommendations for Web content policies outline exactly what information officials should include on agency Web sites and the best way to make it usable. The recommendations may require officials to change their approach to what they present online by defining responsibilities within the organization and adopting new tools to assist them, experts said.

"The recommendations imply the need to manage in fairly sophisticated ways," said Lisa Welchman, founder of Welchman Consulting LLC, noting that a new administrative layer within the agency may be required. "I think it's right, but it's ambitious. Most agencies don't have strong Web content governance."

The recommendations, released this month by the Interagency Committee on Government Information's Web Content Standards Working Group, are a first pass at defining common information included on government sites to ensure that they meet users' needs.

In setting expectations for Web sites, there is also a need for cross-agency responsibility for defining citizens' uses and needs. This is one of a few gaps in the draft document, said Mark Forman, former administrator for e-government and information technology at the Office of Management and Budget.

"I just don't think you can have every agency with its own view of the citizen," Forman said. "Somebody has to take the role of the cross-agency use. You have to have a sort of taxonomy for what the citizen is looking for. It's clear here there is a debate about that, and the agencies won out. And that's not citizen-centered."

The draft leaves a few other questions surrounding the development of a strategy to ensure consistency and quality of service unanswered, Forman said. The recommendations need to address how content will be managed, particularly that which is entered by citizens, is dynamic and is potentially redundant.

"It would be good if they laid out the roles and responsibilities for that," Forman said.

The working group suggested that OMB officials establish a Federal Web Content Advisory Council to provide guidance on the policies and act as a forum for examining addition policies.

The recommendations are just the first step opening the floodgates for surrounding issues, Welchman said. Once standards are set, there must be an enforcement mechanism, and changes require increased funding, she said. Many agencies may need supporting software, such as a content management system, which can create an audit trail to ensure agency officials are making the right moves.

"They need to care about it," Welchman said. "Nothing they are saying is unreasonable."

The changes shouldn't be too tough for agencies that underwent recent Web site redesigns or have sophisticated organizational structures, such as the Department of Health and Human Services' site.

Agency officials may need to make more changes based on the standards, but HHS' Web content manager Bill Hall said it wouldn't be a major challenge. Most agency sites have the recommended information, and changes likely won't be a huge amount of work for most officials, he said.

"I don't think the standards are overbearing," Hall said. "For the most part, I think they are a good step forward. These are basic things we all need to do."

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