6 must-have features for top-flight Web sites

Goals agencies should shoot for if they want to be among the best

Using the Web isn’t just one way for people to interact with government; it’s become the primary way for most people. They use the Web to file taxes, get benefit information, track government spending, research documents and even keep up with the latest developments in outer space. And these days, they even use raw government data to develop information and services on their own Web sites.

Many agency sites have done more than simply replace a visit to a queue-filled government office or a phone call to a beleaguered clerk who already has three other callers on hold. They have increased the speed and quality of services. And based on their experiences with the private sector, people have come to expect that level of service. But government agencies can do even more than commercial operations in terms of the information and services they provide in certain areas. And several already have.

Government Computer News, a sister publication of Federal Computer Week, recently highlighted 10 dot-gov Web sites that take online government to the next level. Based on that report, here are six goals that agency Web sites should shoot for if they want to be among the best.

1. Transparency

Making government data publicly available is a recurring theme for the Obama administration, which has directed agencies to share nonclassified data, report on how the government is spending tax dollars and even make raw government data available for reuse. Data.gov and USAspending.gov are prime examples that reflect a fundamental shift in how the government uses the Web.

Developed by the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration, Data.gov hosts more than 100,000 data feeds that include Environmental Protection Agency toxicology reports and breakdowns of Census Bureau population data. And people are already finding ways to reuse the data. One person took Federal Aviation Administration flight data and built a Web site that shows the on-time percentage of specific flight routes.

USAspending.gov gives visitors a look at how government agencies are spending their money. It includes the IT Dashboard, which displays the entire federal information technology portfolio and how each agency is spending its IT dollars.

To learn more:
Data.gov sets the tone for transparent government

2. Collaboration

Agencies are often looking for ways to help their employees work together securely from a variety of locations. In one example, the Defense Information Systems Agency has created an online software development office at Forge.mil.

The intranet site is accessible by Defense Department employees and supporting contractors. It gives military agencies a common space for software development, which can speed projects and reduce duplication of effort. The site hosts about four new development projects a week and at last count had about 100 under way. For classified projects, DISA recently set up a second version of Forge.mil on the Secret IP Router Network. 

To learn more:
Net-centric speed for software development

Another example is WebContent.gov, a product of the Federal Web Managers Council and GSA. It presents best practices for designing and implementing Web sites that comply with federal requirements. Users can find all the federal regulations that apply to Web sites in one place, share their experiences and learn from others. More than 1,500 federal, state and local Web managers contribute to the site.

To learn more:
The Web site on building better Web sites

3. Searchability

Everyday activities — such as traveling from one place to another or gathering information for an academic or professional project — rarely stay confined within jurisdictional boundaries. Should Web sites be any different?

Some government organizations have successfully built Web sites that concentrate on what people are looking for without being restricted by where the information resides.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the California Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Transit 511 taps into the schedules of dozens of subway, light-rail, trolley and bus systems to give users a complete look at how to get from any place in the Bay Area to another, and all within a uniform interface. The site’s developers use MDV trip-planning software, an Oracle database for the schedules, ESRI’s ArcGIS for maps, and JavaScript to combine public transit schedules and give users a real-time look at traffic in the area.

To learn more:
Transit 511 links Bay Area transportation

On another front, Science.gov, developed by the Energy Department’s Office of Science and Technical Information, takes a similar approach by offering a single source for searching U.S. scientific databases. OSTI is one of the first organizations to show how federated search can work. It uses software from Deep Web Technologies to catalog information from a variety of repositories. So, for example, someone researching land use doesn’t have to worry about whether the information resides with the Interior Department or the U.S. Geological Survey because Science.gov will search for applicable information in any available database.

To learn more:
Science.gov breaks down the stovepipes of research

4. Engagement

Want to engage constituents, U.S. citizens or anyone else in the world? Social-networking tools provide a fairly easy way to give users a familiar, interactive connection to an agency.

The State Department has actively used social media to support its message, making use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and Really Simple Syndication feeds. Along with supplying a variety of updates, news feeds, photos and videos, State has used the CO.NX Facebook page to chat with users around the world.

To learn more:
State puts social networking to diplomatic use

5. Archiving

Storing data is a fact of life for all agencies, but the real trick is making it searchable now and accessible to future generations.

The Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System, which went live this year, hosts all the documents agencies and Congress send GPO for printing, including congressional bills, hearing transcripts, Federal Register documents and enacted laws. FDsys will also archive noteworthy documents that agencies post on their Web sites and important historical documents.

In addition to making the documents easy to find, GPO is taking pains to address long-term archiving by using the International Organization for Standardization’s Reference Model for an Open Archival Information System, which establishes a procedure for moving documents to next-generation formats.

To learn more:
FDsys stays current, aims for permanent

6. Better services

Although nearly every government agency provides some kind of services online, what distinguishes the best sites from the merely adequate are the level of service, the ease of use for visitors and how well developers anticipate user needs. Three sites that have taken services to the next level are those of the U.S. Postal Service, the Health and Human Services Department, and Utah.

USPS’ site presents visitors with a virtual post office, where they can conduct about 80 percent of the business that could be accomplished by a trip to a neighborhood post office. The site accommodates about 1.2 million customers a day. USPS also offers a Priority Mail site, which features a Virtual Box Simulator. Users can hold an item up to their webcams, and the simulator will tell them what size box they’ll need to mail it in.

To learn more:
USPS creates a virtual post office online

HHS delivers health advice with the seal of government approval on two sites, Women’s Health and Girl’s Health. Women’s Health addresses more than 800 topics, from fitness and nutrition to reproductive health, in plain language on a visually engaging site. Girl’s Health does the same thing for girls, addressing physical health and other issues, such as dealing with bullies.

To learn more:
HHS delivers health info users can trust

And Utah’s site combines aesthetically pleasing graphics, interactive features and easy access to more than 850 services to create a fun, functional state Web site that doesn’t look or feel like a state Web site.

To learn more:
Utah takes its site to higher ground

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