High prices slow content management

Federal agencies large and small are considering buying content management systems for their Web sites, and vendors of those systems have undertaken aggressive marketing campaigns aimed at government agencies.

Although there is considerable interest among agencies, budget legislation delays and buyer wariness have combined to keep many agencies looking, rather than actually buying, observers say.

"There is a tremendous need and demand for content management in the federal government," said Tony Byrne, founder of CMSWatch, a Web site and consulting service devoted to content management.

The reasons to buy content management systems are numerous. Despite the high price of many of the products, they have the potential to cut labor costs. Without the automated tools content management systems provide, posting Web pages and keeping them current can be labor-intensive.

Many agencies are using information technology support contractors to maintain their Web sites and would like to keep contract costs low. For those sites where agency IT employees do the posting, more automation would allow agencies to use those scarce personnel resources for other technical tasks. Often organizations deploy content management systems so that the site can be maintained by content specialists or public affairs personnel with little technical expertise, rather than by IT employees with limited understanding of the site's program and policy objectives.

As IT workers retire or leave government for private-sector jobs, a content management system can take on some of the workload. "At one agency, they had three workers around the world" posting content on the Web site, "of which two were getting ready to retire," said Debra Kennedy, a senior technology specialist for Microsoft Corp.'s federal unit, which markets Microsoft Content Management Server to federal agencies.

The push for e-government is another reason to consider content management. Many government officials are interested in upgrading agencies' online presences and expanding the scope of Web sites. The average site's content is growing 60 percent each year, Byrne said.

Federal agencies are revamping their Web sites to make them more citizen- centric, he noted. For example, they are presenting visitors with agency functions, rather than organizational units. A content management system can support an orderly reorganization of a site's pages.

Content management systems generally include templates that establish a consistent look and style for pages and workflow tools to ensure each page is reviewed and approved before it is posted. The software helps keep links up-to-date and can automatically post and remove pages on a schedule. For example, a news release can be pre-programmed to move from the "news" page to the "news archives" page after a certain length of time.

Obtaining those benefits comes at a cost, however. Candis Harrison, a Web content manager for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said HUD officials hope to acquire a content management system in the next year, but "it's enormously expensive." The departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs are also among those considering such acquisitions.

Although some software products are available for less than $100,000, the high-end products that would support a large agency's Web site usually cost substantially more. Some consulting services are often needed for the implementation. With or without consultants, the agency must devote staff time to plan for the implementation and develop agency Web standards, policies and processes.

Byrne said that as a rule of thumb, agencies should plan on spending twice as much on deployment as they spend to acquire the software. Organizations that acquire content management systems usually underestimate the up-front work required, he added. What's more, transferring existing Web pages to the new system can cost 20 cents to $2 per page, Byrne said.

Many federal agencies have 20,000 or more pages on their Web sites. Microsoft's Kennedy said she talked with one agency that had 8 million pages on its site, with no records of when or for whom most were posted.

Those kinds of situation are prompting agencies to bite the bullet when it comes to content management, and the evident need is prompting more vendors to focus on the federal market.

One such vendor is PaperThin Inc., a small Quincy, Mass., company whose CommonSpot Content Server is used by the Office of the Architect of the Capitol and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, among other agencies. PaperThin chief executive officer Todd Peters said his company's product can be used without heavy customization and can be implemented "in a matter of weeks, not months or years."

CommonSpot pricing begins around $20,000, although most federal agencies would opt for an enterprise license for $85,000 to $120,000, Peters said. The product comes with template, security, workflow and versioning capabilities. For those who want the product tailored to their Web environment, customization can be accomplished readily with Macromedia Inc.'s ColdFusion, he said.

Among products aimed at large and complex sites, Microsoft is "getting a tremendous amount of interest" in its Content Management Server (CMS), Kennedy said. "Content owners are the ones who really should be managing" agency Web sites, rather than having to pass the content along to the IT staff, she said, and Microsoft CMS gives content owners that ability.

CMS, which Microsoft acquired from another company and enhanced, is integrated with Web services and supports sophisticated functions such as content syndication, said David McDonald, a principal consultant for Microsoft Consulting.

Besides PaperThin and Microsoft, at least 40 other companies already have sold content management software to federal agencies, Byrne said.

Ferris is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. She can be reached at ferrisn@att.net.

***

Eye on content management

There are numerous content management products on the market. Here are two popular products:

* PaperThin Inc.'s CommonSpot is a comprehensive software suite with tools for creating, publishing and managing Web content in a distributed and collaborative Web development environment. The product consists of templates, security, workflow and versioning capabilities.

* Microsoft Corp.'s Content Management Server 2002 lets companies build, deploy and maintain content-rich Web sites. The software is integrated with Microsoft .NET Web services technology. It lets developers create page templates and publishing processes to ensure consistency across a site.

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