Current information a must

Even if you bring users to your portal a first time, you'll have trouble getting them to return if the information on the site is out-of-date.

Many agencies used to paper publishing find themselves ill equipped for the fast-paced world of Web publishing. Accordingly, Kevin Conboy, director of public sector projects at Roundarch, a consulting company, believes that content management is essential to every portal project.

"If the distribution of information is electronic, but the process of getting the information approved and posted is basically manual, you have a mismatch which can affect how current the information is," Conboy said.

He said that on Sept. 11, government offices he worked with who had good content management systems were able to post relevant material by noon that day. In contrast, it took organizations without content management systems days before material related to Sept. 11 was developed, approved and posted.

Greg Carson, director of Internet services at the Internal Revenue Service, said his organization assigns a "content steward" to each page of its public portal, IRS.gov. That person, often the author of the document, ensures that the posted material is the most recent version and that the information is current.

In the future, Carson plans to automate the version control function. Content stewards will still have to post new documents, but the system will always automatically display the most recent one. "Our portal is useless to people unless they can trust that the information is up-to-date," Carson said. The IRS now has about 135 content stewards.

Creating a well-used, current and full-featured portal is not difficult, but neither is it a no-brainer. As long as you can commit the time for detailed planning, testing and promoting, chances of success are high.

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.

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