Clearing out the cobwebs

It's a classic chicken-and-egg scenario: Are some government Web sites so

bad because few people ever look at them, or do few people look at them

because they are so bad?

Take government home pages that still highlight information on Year

2000 computer issues, for example. Or sites that have not posted news releases

since early 2000 or even 1999, or where a 6-month-old item heads the "What's

New" page. Or pages that feature only boilerplate information and show no

sign of being updated.

Of course, I assume few people look at the musty Web sites I come across,

and I think it's a pretty safe bet. People surfing the Internet have short

attention spans, so Web sites with static — or worse, outdated — information

tend to drop off the radar pretty quickly. If the sites were drawing a lot

of traffic, you would think enough people would complain for the offending

agencies to fix the pages.

It's easy to criticize these Web laggards for giving e-government a

bad name. But such criticism is based on another assumption: that anyone

really cares. Clearly, some states or cities have decided that people do

not care, at least not enough to justify updating their sites or adding

new features to entice people to visit.

I suspect that some agencies have decided not to invest in the Web because

they do not have a clear sense of who their audience is or what information

visitors want. Aye, there's the rub. If government agencies do not get a

peg on their audience, they will lose it in pretty short order.

That's why Web portals, the topic of this month's cover story, are so

important.

A good Web site, like a good story or painting, always has a particular

perspective that focuses the content. Someone sitting down to write a novel

about World War II, for example, would be hopelessly overwhelmed with his

material until he decides who's telling the story and to whom. Likewise,

state governments, which generate hundreds upon hundreds of Web pages, must

decide how to structure their sites so that the intended readers can find

the information they want.

Check out the latest iteration of California's Web site (www.state.ca.us).

Front and center you'll find a link to current road conditions and other

services or information resources likely to be of interest to state residents.

North Carolina (www.state.nc.us), meanwhile, offers multiple choices: On

the home page, Web visitors are asked to identify themselves as either citizens,

businesses or state employees; they are then directed to a page with relevant

information and links.

There's no guarantee that those portals will attract a flock of new

visitors, but I think it's safe to assume that governments that do not make

similar efforts will find themselves bereft of an audience. In this sense,

anyway, the chicken-and-egg puzzle is a no-brainer.

John Stein Monroe

Editor

civic.com

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