Caught in the Web

Government Webmasters, many with backgrounds far from City Hall, are beingthrust into the center of an increasingly complex, public and critical partof the civic world.

And like true pioneers, they are there without rule books or even formaltraining.

Often these Webmasters started out as volunteers with a knack for technology,with that casual affiliation leading to full-time responsibilities. Now,as governments strive to push their World Wide Web sites into the forefront,neophyte Webmasters need help.

"Our emphasis over the last couple of years was to encourage peopleto start using the Web," said Jerry Johnson, senior policy analyst for theTexas Department of Information Resources. "Now, all of a sudden everyonerealizes it's a major communications tool for governments to conduct business."

Sometimes Webmasters — despite working for organizations rife withclassifications and corresponding pay grades — do not even have job descriptions.In Texas, Webmasters are trying to work with the 20 agencies it takes tosupport a new position description in hopes of creating a job called "Webarchitect."

"The term "Webmaster' is so overused and abused," Johnson said. "Thenew term is Web architect. It's not only managing the technology but thenworking with the end user."

Digital Government Hurdles

A snapshot into the inner workings of several local government Web sitescan provide insight into the mounting challenges Webmasters face. They'restraddling roles and struggling to show a return on the investment for theirwork.

Clayton Closson, Detroit's Webmaster ( www.ci.detroit.mi.us ), spends75 percent of his time on Webmaster duties. The rest he devotes to beingthe city's backup publicist and editing city council resolutions. Whiletwo staff members handle server management and technical issues, all designand content work — including bringing in new technologies and ideas — fallsto Closson.

"Each city department is supposed to assign a person to work with meto update information," Closson said. "Very few have complied. This is notnearly adequate to have a well-designed site with the proper services thatshould be offered."

Closson said his biggest problem is getting people involved and dedicatedto building a quality site, a problem that could get worse when Detroitdecides to provide more services online.

"I have had difficulty getting people to even send me the simple informationfor the site, let alone dedicate the staff and resources necessary to builde-commerce and other advanced technologies into the site," Closson said.

Bruce Murrell, Webmaster of Springfield, Mo.'s site ( springfield.missouri.org/gov ), also struggles with inadequate resources.

"Making a site interactive requires a lot of prep time spent developingsearchable databases, creating forms with legal disclaimers, developinginformation that both old and new technologies [and] browsers can accessand utilize," Murrell said. "Allocating resources to expand our presenceis the tougher sell at the moment."

Murrell has two degrees in art and previously worked in the print productsdivision of a major bank designing credit cards and solicitations. He taughthimself systems administration and Webmastering. Besides Murrell, the cityhas two part-time employees dedicated to Web site management.

Murrell's job encompasses all aspects of maintaining the city's 2,000-pageWeb presence, including developing e-commerce applications, updating thesite daily, designing templates for new department sites, scanning photosand developing and reviewing content. In addition, he sets up sound equipmentfor special events, designs signs for the public works department and developsgraphic presentations for the city council.

"Departments are okay with me designing the look of their site as longas they can provide input, photo, text, etc.," he said. "The problem is,there are 18 departments and one of me, so I am perceived as the bottleneck."

For 19 years Greg Binder, project manager for Phoenix ( www.ci. phoenix.az.us/index.html ),has worked on various information technology assignments, including PC trainingand researching new technologies.

After overseeing the city's Web site since its birth four years ago,Binder is charged with supervising the growth of the site and developmentof internal and external applications to access data.

"So, the definition of Web management, which was never normal, has changedto that of Web application development supervision," he said.Binder and his nine-person Web team are working on the logistics of carryingout a recently created city policy that says that any service provided acrossa counter or via phone should be provided via the Web as well.

"We have to continually encourage all areas of the enterprise to seethe benefits of providing services electronically, and we're making headway,"he said.

Training the Masters

Although Webmasters like Springfield's Murrell have taught themselvesto operate a government Web site, as the job becomes more complex, governmentsare finding that Webmaster training needs to be addressed formally.

Theresa Pare, supervisor of electronic and government information at theNew Hampshire State Library, said the state does not have a training program.Instead, she said, each state agency individually addresses training.

"Training levels are not adequate," Pare said. "The training is notcoordinated. It's somewhat akin to trying to hit a moving target becausethe technology is constantly changing and people's skills seem to be justbelow where they need to be. For a lot of [Webmasters], they are in a largepart on their own for how they learn."

The training question may become even more challenging as local governmentsbegin moving toward decentralized Web activities, charging each departmentwith maintaining its own Web page or providing Web-ready information forposting, said Dale Bowen, director of online services at Public TechnologyInc. (PTI), a nonprofit technology organization serving cities and counties.

"How is training provided to those staff?" Bowen said. "And is it justtechnical? There are a number of policy and management issues and questions.I guess it's a concerted effort — training for city/ county managers andelected efforts on the role of the Web manager and how the Web is an importantpart of their service delivery to citizens."

Pesky Policy Questions

While Web policy used to be uncharted territory, state and local governmentsare beginning to firm up the rules. Still, these rules often are not strictlyenforced, and few governments address Web management.

New Hampshire has fairly loose Web management guidelines, Pare said.For example, while the state gives Webmasters a model process for gettingmaterial approved for Web postings, each agency is allowed to steer itsown course on content approval.

"In some cases there's a tight approval process," Pare said. "In othercases the Webmaster himself is the clearinghouse. There is not a heavy-handedapproach. [The guidelines] do not get very deep into what people shoulddo, what things should look like."

In contrast, in Dade County, Fla., the county's 50 agencies suggestchanges to their Web sites, which are reviewed by a public information officerbefore being posted, said Judy Zito, division director of customer servicesin Dade County's IT department.

"What a technical person might publish on the Web isn't necessarilywhat a marketing or public information person would want," Zito said.

And the Nitty Gritty

While some state and local governments wrestle with content guidelines,others are trying to create policies to deal with more complicated areassuch as privacy, security and accessibility.

"At one time, a Webmaster was seen as a technical person," said KaraLaPierre, director of operations for the National Electronic Commerce CoordinatingCouncil. "It certainly has evolved rapidly as someone who is critical tothe security and privacy and infrastructure issues."

Texas officials are addressing those issues for the state's more than200 agencies. First, agencies are required to establish a Web presence that'sgenerally accessible to the disabled, Johnson said. To help with this, thestate is devising a format for agencies to follow.

"It's almost akin to meeting [disability] accessibility requirementsfor a building," Johnson said. "If you design it in in the beginning, it'snot that expensive. If you have to back in, it can be very expensive."

New Mexico also is taking policy steps. In October, a state technologycommission released draft guidelines for managing the state's Web sites.These guidelines would allow individual agencies to be responsible for thecontent and format of their Internet sites. However, they would requirethe state to deal with security, privacy, e-commerce, information accessand quality control.

The requirements also call for the development of Web service coordinatorsfor certain segments of the state. Vicki Gottlieb, senior staff member inthe state's office of the chief information officer, said the state's movetoward e-commerce and other Internet applications increased the need forofficial Web management policy.

"We recognized we had no standards and no policy," Gottlieb said. "It wasthe recognition that we had horses galloping in many directions, and wehad to move quickly before the Web applications were too far down the road."

PTI's Bowen said some of the policy issues plaguing Web managers arenot Web-specific issues but government issues. For example, Webmastersare struggling with electronic records management, which is getting moreattention as elected officials turn to e-mail to communicate.

"I think what you're seeing is normal. In the push to create a Web site,many policy questions aren't thought of until after the fact, until somethinghappens that raises the issue," Bowen said. "Part of it is a learning curve— figuring out what works and what doesn't, and then being flexible enoughto implement or change policies."

— Heather Harreld is a free-lance writer based in Cary, N.C.

Training Dollars "First Thing To Be Cut'

Mike McCathern was a farmer for 32 years and then a graphic artist beforehe became Webmaster and manager of the graphic arts department for the TexasWater Development Board ( www.twdb.state.tx.us ).

His work in publishing prepared him well for his role as Webmaster,he said.

"After all, the Web is just another media for publishing," he said."I feel that it is the ultimate media for information exchange; a mediathat will eventually allow a free exchange between government and the people."

McCathern leads the agency's 17-member Web team and grapples with snaringtraining opportunities and convincing management of the Web's potential.All of the team members are self-taught and none are full-time Web people,McCathern said.

"Some come from IT backgrounds, others like myself from a graphics background,"he said. "With state government there is never enough training. It is thefirst thing to be cut from our budgets."

Because it is difficult to find and retain good employees, when thebudget choice comes down to training or raises, training loses, he said.

While state leaders are realizing the potential for the Web to deliverservices, McCathern said his site unfortunately is — and will remain forthe foreseeable future — a "brochureware" site.

"The Web is and will become even more so a strategic tool in servingthe public," McCathern said. "But it can never fully meet this potentialuntil government devises a way to compete in hiring and retaining employeeswho will take us into the new millennium."

— Heather Harreld

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