Burns: The not so invisible hand

The role of federal Web site managers is complex. They are editors, citizen-service managers, project managers and contractor liaisons. It’s a tough job that attracts some of the most talented and multidisciplinary federal employees.

A recent paper from Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy titled “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” suggests a diminished role for government Web managers. The paper proposes that government can do a better job of making information more readily available to citizens with more focus on content structure rather than on Web site services. I disagree, but the paper is a good read.

The private sector has a role to play, but I don’t agree with any view that discounts the critical role of government Web managers. Furthermore, new technologies are making government Web management more effective than ever.

Government Web managers play critical roles in two areas:
1. They act as editors by raising awareness of the most valuable content.
2. They are increasingly acting as citizen-relationship managers by learning about citizen interests, delivering services and content, and creating ways of receiving updates from the government.

Amazon.com is an excellent example of the editing and service roles that a Web manager plays in the private sector. Using a customer’s history, Amazon features products likely to interest that customer and allows customers to see suggestions based on the purchases of other users with similar interests.
Many government Web sites now employ strategies to use the site as the hub of the citizen’s relationship with the agency. Agency Web sites can serve as launching points for direct connectivity to the agency through online services, e-mail updates, RSS feeds and blogs.

Federal agencies are finding that Web-hosted, software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions can meet mission requirements for many of these citizen services without the need for installed software or hardware. According to a white paper published by the Software and Information Industry Association, SaaS solutions are also less expensive, with a total cost of ownership 30 percent to 50 percent less than installed systems.

SaaS offers the additional benefit of enabling agencies to collaborate through the platform for certain functions. Visitors sign up for more information and have the elusive one-stop shopping experience that government has been aspiring to for years.

It’s a new world where government Web managers can take advantage of the best technologies available from industry with less risk and lower cost. Now is the time to give them more authority and encouragement, not limit a role that is starting to prove incredibly influential across government. The Princeton paper has some good ideas, but it’s off the mark.

Burns is chief executive officer and co-founder of GovDelivery, which provides e-mail and digital subscription services for the public sector.

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