Web sites play updating game

The federal government's World Wide Web sites are a work in progress — redesign work on many of them begins as soon as they are loaded onto the Internet. Federal agencies are discovering that the technology they relied on to create their Web sites has been advancing faster than the time it takes to create a better site. And consequently, they are finding it tough to keep sites current and attractive for the public.

"We redesign our site about once every year," said Mark Rodekohr, who is in charge of information products and services at the Energy Information Administration, which is redesigning its site (www.eia.doe.gov).

Like most government sites, the EIA page, which tracks oil, gas and other energy prices for the public, started out focusing on disseminating general information. The new site is intended to provide more information related to a broad range of topics within the EIA's domain.

Most government agencies have a Web site, and some are so popular that they get millions of hits a month. Among those are the NASA and the Centers for Disease Control Web sites. But there are also problem sites that need to be upgraded and retooled to make them faster, more useful and easier to use.

"We participate in a major redesign every six to nine months," said Rachel Taylor, computer specialist at FedStats, a federal portal that makes it easier for visitors to find statistics without knowing what government agency produces them.

For some government Web sites, new technologies can provide much-needed flash. The Navy, for example, recently spiffed up its recruiting site to include multimedia features such as downloadable videos and digital images.

"One of our primary objectives is to have a more prominent Web presence," said Rear Adm. Barbara McGann, commander of the Navy Recruiting Command.

For other government sites, the emphasis is on useability. NASA is in the middle of a redesign to make data more accessible from the home page, using drop-down menus and rollover buttons.

"The point of the redesign is to make it easier for people to find information quickly. We don't want people to go through five or six clicks," said Elvia Thompson, spokeswoman for NASA's Web site.

John Weiner, of the Energy Department's National Energy Information Center, said most government sites are now redesigned in house by their own Webmasters. Although there is no specific job category for "Webmaster" in the federal government, the Office of Personnel Management is currently drawing up criteria for the job.

"I don't think any site is resting on its laurels. Most site managers understand that they probably need to make some improvement," Weiner said.

Many agencies are now seeking feedback from focus groups before posting their Web sites. "We sit a customer in front of a screen and ask, "How would you find this? Where would you go?' and we carefully record how well the user does, even the user's facial expressions," Weiner said.

While most people agree that change is necessary, the cost is growing because citizens are now demanding the same features that are available on private sites — interactive components, visually pleasing graphics and easy navigation.

Many agencies redesign Web sites in house to minimize costs. Bringing in designers can run from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a snazzy new look or even to millions of dollars to create another Amazon.com.

"Very few federal Web sites are interactive, but when you go out on the Web, the public is going to expect these features," said Rich Kellett, co-chairman of the Federal Webmaster Forum and division director for the Emerging IT Policies Division at the General Services Administration.

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