Cultural and code change needed to revamp website, VanRoekel says

Former FCC managing director Steven VanRoekel describes two-year website redo

When Steven VanRoekel became managing director of the Federal Communications Commission in 2009, with the goal of revamping its website, he said a principle of physics seemed to apply: “I found that a website at rest tends to stay at rest.”

The website had won awards for excellence in the 1990s and had not been substantially updated since then, VanRoekel told federal new media employees and application developers at the OpenGovDC open source IT for government conference in Washington June 14.

The former website was sprawling, with 40,000 Web links accessible within two clicks of the mouse, but was criticized as confusing and lacking in organization for the average visitor. What was worse, the “404 message” Web page that comes up when there's a bad link was among the’s top five most visited pages, said VanRoekel, who had been a Microsoft executive for 15 years.

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After such a long time without major change, the greatest problem was overcoming cultural inertia and listening to customers, especially the million unique visitors to the website each month, including about 150,000 industry members and 850,000 consumers, he said.

One of the first assignments for his website revamping team was to visit with the FCC’s call center in Gettysburg, Pa., for a day to learn what types of information people calling the agency were seeking. From there, the team put together profiles of site users, applied crowdsourcing tools, performed a user survey and used internal blogs and other social media to engage FCC employees in the process of change.

VanRoekel said the commission spent $1.35 million on the revamp, including migrating the website to the cloud, restructuring it to reflect customer needs and greater usefulness, applying open source technology solutions that included Drupal content management to allow for a great expansion of its capabilities, and improving the FCC’s “brand” to make customers more aware of what the website offers and to make its offerings more consistent. The new site went live in May.

A suite of new FCC mobile applications and the ability for users to create customized dashboards of FCC data are coming soon, he added. What has helped make those new capabilities possible is applying Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) as broadly as possible, he said.

“Every piece of data should use XML,” he said. “Every access should be an API.”

Along the way, the FCC’s legal team was “our secret weapon” as they facilitated many policy choices with their depth of expertise and advice, VanRoekel said. Also, the decision to choose open source solutions was facilitated by the maturity of the available solutions and the ease of finding developers able to apply the technology, he added.

The money spent on the revamped is likely to be recouped in nine months through savings achieved by reassignments of nearly 40 staff members whose jobs involved managing and rewriting the former website, he added.

VanRoekel's last day at the FCC was June 9, and he has accepted a position as executive director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, where he will lead a citizen engagement and participation project.

Following 20 years in the private sector, VanRoekel said he appreciated the “collaborative nature of government” and the “spirit of sharing” he experienced when joining the FCC in 2009. His aim now is to combine the best of both worlds, which he termed “.cov,” the merger of .com and .gov domains, VanRoekel said.

Both industry developers and government technology managers can learn from each other to expand their communications, unleash their data and increase audience participation, he said.

From the commercial side, developers should try to understand the specific challenges of government agencies and to help foster cultural change, he said.

A specific example of how to do that is for vendors and developers to ensure they are coordinating with an agency’s CIO and with its new media team, which often is separate, typically in the public communications unit, he said.

“You would do a great service if you bring in XML and APIs and you need the CIO to do that,” VanRoekel said.

From the government managers side, the work of advancing technology in a federal agency involves mostly cultural change, leadership and legal expertise, he said.

Managers should work on enabling adoption of XML data schemes whenever possible, and in some cases may need legislative changes in the way they are collect data from industry or the public, he said.

He also urged federal IT managers to spend for APIs, and to be aware of brand and customer needs.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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