Clearing out the cobwebs
- By John Monroe
- Apr 02, 2001
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attention spans, so Web sites with static — or worse, outdated — information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
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