Prep the new boss for Web site evolution

The entry of the new administration marks the first time a major influx of new political appointees will oversee federal government Web sites.

The World Wide Web as we know it developed under the Clinton administration — many department and agency pages were created under the guidance of individuals who are no longer in office.

Also, the transition will mark the first time that individuals assuming federal leadership positions may have experience in Web site development. Leaders with such knowledge could prove to be helpful to Webmasters.

The incoming appointees will have opportunities to influence a major communications tool that were not available to previous administrations. However, there is no protocol or prior experience to help Web personnel and appointees conduct a transition.

Federal staff members can take some steps to help inform their new bosses about an agency's Web site and establish a base for operations.

As soon as political appointees or new leaders are in office, Webmasters should ask for a one-on-one meeting. Prepare for the meeting by gathering Web site documents, including:

Mission, vision or purpose statements. Departmental and/or agency Web site policy. Security and privacy policies. Posting authorization. Home page guidance and a printout of the home page. An updated budget that also outlines training and software needs. Any other documents that will help inform the individual about the Web site and its operation. Make it easy for the manager to locate any documents you present by placing them in a folder or booklet with tabs indicating the various topics.

Prepare to answer questions. These might include: How long has the current home page been online? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Web site? For what audience(s) has the site been designed? Is this focus still valid? What improvements should be made to the site and to policy binding the site?

Prepare to ask questions relating to the background of the appointee. For instance: What function do you see the Web site performing? Are there features you'd like to see added to the site? Do you see the need for a major change of the site's focus? What presentation segments should be altered to shift the site's emphasis?

Such questions can begin to generate an understanding of what to expect from the new boss and have an impact on the site's budget.

New political appointees likely will want a different presentation. A warning: I've found that a completely new Web site — one I term a revolutionized presentation — frustrates users.

With a completely redesigned Web site, users are deprived of a familiar system. It forces them to read content and scan links for the material they need. As frustration builds, e-mail to the contact person for the site usually increases substantially — and often has a negative tone.

Save the user, yourself and your agency the results of confusion. Evolve your Web site, don't revolutionize it. Change the site over time, allow users to become familiar with a new feature or presentation. Don't change more than one quarter of the home page before the next change is introduced, perhaps two weeks later.

Evolutionary change provides time for users to become familiar with the page, and it gives Webmasters the chance to consider the best presentation. Users will appreciate the friendly links on the page and welcome new items. They are less likely to feel lost.

One more caution: Most government Web sites are in the business of providing information to the public. Unless bells and whistles help users quickly access the information they need, fancy features may well be more of a statement by the programmer rather than a service of the organization.

Help the user. The Web is full of places to be entertained, but has few locations that contain accurate, reliable information that can be quickly located. Know your audience, and keep the user in mind when building a new site.

Powell is the Agriculture Department's Internet and intranet Webmaster.

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