Feds as publishers

The E-Government Act of 2002, which President Bush is expected to sign into law this month, is a valiant effort to make the federal government more accessible, understandable and more useful for the public.

One of the bill's thrusts — to better organize the government's seemingly bottomless databases by focusing on how the public will access the information — is a noble one. But if Congress, the White House and agencies want the transformation to work, they need to provide training in publishing and make that a priority from top agency leaders.

With an estimated 24,000 federal Web sites, it's no surprise that some are more useful, better organized and easier to navigate than others. In hopes of lifting all sites to a minimal level of usefulness, the e-gov bill requires agencies to follow standards in organizing information so that the information is easily searchable; to provide basic information on agency missions, structure and strategic plans; and to develop a portal that organizes government information by type, not by the agency that provides it.

That sounds like communication, which means, simply put, the bill is trying to make publishers out of agencies. That's a good thing. But agency Web masters and their staffs need the proper training. The success of the e-gov act will depend on how well agencies execute the requirements.

Not only is accurate and pertinent information a must, but how that information is packaged, organized and displayed is crucial to good communication.

Agencies should not overlook this. The e-gov bill takes a good first step by requiring agencies to consult, among others, agency librarians when developing a directory of federal Web sites. But how effective the Web sites are will depend on the more important editing and design elements, which shape what citizens see and how they interact with the information. Training, attention to the end product and leaders' understanding that e-government is about publishing — not the technology — must be part of the process and will increase the chances that the public will find government Web sites more useful.

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