Portal for the people

FirstGov represents the beginning of a new era in e-government.

This portal to government information has, respectfully, AOL-ized content. Regardless of users' knowledge of federal agencies and experience searching the Web, newcomers can obtain information from many Web sites with just one search. The kicker is that users can do so without having to stop and think about the structure of the different agencies and which bureaus may have the relevant forms and resources.

Simply put, FirstGov is easy to use, is in plain language and opens up the world of government information to new users.

It should be said that the federal government has done quite a job of creating Web site content. As a result, citizen access to information has been significantly enhanced. Experienced users who know their way around the federal agencies' sites can already locate esoteric research findings and the latest government reports.

To the general public, however, the monumental amount of information is daunting.

Prior to FirstGov, in order to know which site to even begin searching, users had to guess which department would have the information. Next, they had to either drill down by agency and bureau or hope for a sitewide search engine. Once reaching a likely bureau, users had to wade through mission statements, organization charts and policy statements to find the list of reports the bureau recently published.

And when this process brought no luck, it was time to backtrack and try another bureau. Another agency. Another department. Fortunately, many agency sites have gone beyond the "brochureware" and have posted real, useful content, frequently organized by major categories of user interest rather than by bureau ownership.

Experienced usability testers know that most users — experienced or not — will shortly turn to the search engine or dash off an e-mail to the Webmaster if the desired information is not readily found. Few users will spend time to explore a site, to read the frequently asked questions or to scan other potentially helpful information.

Sites that are still arranged by organizational chart headings rather than targeted to certain audiences reduce less-experienced users' likelihood of finding information. If sites are organized in such a way that aids navigation, improves accessibility and does not hinder usability, then word will spread. Word also will spread if the opposite is true.

The Internet may be stereotypically seen as an introvert's paradise, but there is a lot of information-sharing going on. Word spreads quickly on the Web. Chris Locke, in {http://www.cluetrain.com} "The Cluetrain Manifesto," writes about how the Web has changed how business is conducted. He explains that these markets of discourse engage in one-to-one relationships. The Internet encourages interactivity and it "invites participation."

While many federal Web sites do not conduct e-commerce per se, they do provide a sought-after product, namely information. Thus, the ideas of how business is conducted on the Web do have some merit.

Thesis No. 6 of the Cluetrain Manifesto sums it up nicely: "The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media."

The participatory nature of the Internet means that individuals can easily share their satisfaction (or lack of) with an experience; while one hopes for positive vibes, the social organization and bottom-up approach means that people will likely respond to and remember a peer's comment and form opinions based on that experience, even if it is second- or third-hand information.

As a result, it is important to actively address customer service. The new challenge will be less about Web site development and site promotion and more about customer service and information retrieval.

Customer service on the part of Webmasters, the perceived information gatekeepers, will be an important concern. Individuals appreciate (expect?) acknowledgment of their e-mail messages and reasonable resolution of their requests. But this puts the (part-time) Webmaster — whose main job responsibility is to ensure that content successfully appears on demand in the user's browser — at the hub of users' help requests.

To combat the influx of e-mail messages, some agencies are turning to sophisticated e-mail-handling programs. Smaller agencies may wish to make use of their e-mail software's mail filtering options.

Designers can help to head off potential e-mail problems by making sure that Web sites are appropriately targeted to the audience and that users can figure out where they can find information.

After using a search engine, users should be able to get to a report's abstract, to relevant subpages and to the home page rather quickly. They should know at a glance where they are in respect to the main site once they enter through a search engine link.

Also, clearly identify the appropriate people that users should contact with questions and provide information about contacting the agency through traditional means.

FirstGov represents the new era of communication with the general public. As such, it is important that participatory elements, such as e-mail generated from queries about Web site content and access problems, be accorded the same urgency as a phone call.

Individuals expect that phone calls be returned in a timely manner or forwarded to the appropriate person. Similarly, a well-handled e-mail interaction puts a "face" to an e-mail name. By representing the government in a customer-oriented manner, the general public will realize, just as Webmasters do, that there's a person on the other end. Word will spread.

This is the second in a loosely grouped series on communication. The first article was "Networking with newbies, experts and gurus" [FCW.com, Aug. 31, 2000]. The third article in the "series" will be about affinity groups.

Tang, a member of the federal Web Business Council, is a Web designer in the Information Technology Group of Caliber Associates http://www.calib.com/ Fairfax

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