Standards designed to help users find common info
A group has issued a draft of recommended standards for common information that should be on all agency Web sites with the goal of making federal sites more user-friendly.
Agency officials should include certain information on every federal Web site to ensure that users can find what they are looking for and know they are accessing a government site, according to recommendations released last week by the Interagency Committee on Government Information's Web Content Standards Working Group.
"It's not a common look and feel because we are not recommending a certain placement on the site, but it is common content so the public can find the things they are looking for on every government site," said Beverly Godwin, director of the FirstGov Web portal at the General Services Administration and executive sponsor for the working group.
The working group released draft Web site policies as required under the E-Government Act of 2002. The draft recommendations, which are open for comment until April 30, guide agencies to include common items, such as contact information and links to federal grants and regulations sites.
Furthermore, that information should be organized for citizens rather than organizations. Agencies should assess customers' needs and find the best way to present the content, such as by topic or geographic location, the draft recommendations state. This could mean a lot of work for agency officials, said Tony Byrne, founder of CMSWatch, an information service of content management consulting firm CMSWorks Inc.
"This will force content managers and leadership to redo the way they publish content," Byrne said. "This means agencies are going to have to look at their content and relabel it according to different criteria. That is going to be hard, but well worth the effort."
Another challenge for agency officials could be keeping information current, Byrne said. Pages should be time-stamped, which may be tough for large departments with millions of pages. Officials will need an inventory of their pages, and many agencies may resort to automated content management systems, he said.
For some agencies, the recommendations are in step with current practices, as with the Agriculture Department's sites, said Kim Taylor, director of Web services and distribution at the USDA and an adviser to the working group.
"At USDA, we just spent well over a year doing redesigns of Web sites and coming up with style guides, so some of what we recommend is right in line with what we've done and talked about for future releases," Taylor said. "This just reinforces across the federal government that sites are focused on the customer and not necessarily the government agency."
The recommendations also include a way to test if sites are indeed citizen-
focused. Agency officials are directed to use a single governmentwide tool to routinely evaluate usability and customer satisfaction of the site. The tool would compare sites across the government to provide a common benchmark.
"This is a new recommendation," Godwin said. "If you have a second-
level domain, that's valuable real estate and there are certain responsibilities that go with that, and you should make sure you have a site that is usable and valuable to the public."
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