Finetuning needed

Federal CIO Web pages reflect diverse ideas about the Web as a communications platform

Office of Personnel Management's XML and RSS services site

Chief information officers may set the standards that govern agency employees' use of the Web to provide information and services, but they are not necessarily the standard-bearers for their own offices' Web pages. As in many agencies, CIOs have different ideas about whom their Web pages should serve and the information they should provide.

The natural assumption is that CIOs would make good use of

the Web to share information with staff, vendors and other stakeholders. But the sophistication of those

Web sites varies dramatically: Some detail project plans online while others have only static information pages, experts said.

That should not be the case, they said. As managers of information technology, CIOs should use their Web pages to showcase the role of technology, creating a model for other government sites.

"The whole push is to integrate technology into how it's empowering performance improvement in government," said Dave McClure, vice president for e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government. "Maybe a good question is shouldn't technology or a technology Web site be presenting that front and center, not just the

static information of what [they are] doing in compliance with government mandates or the budget."

Darrell West, professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, said sites will likely become more dynamic as e-government continues to evolve. Users' expectations are rising partially because of advanced private-sector sites, he said, and the public should expect the same from the government's technology leaders.

"We should expect a high standard from CIOs' sites because their job is technology," West said. "They should be innovators. They should be working to show the way for all the other sites."

Much of the Web pages' sophistication and content depends on the audience, McClure said, a factor widely inconsistent among many CIO offices.

"It's not always clear who the target is for the CIO page," he said. "I'm kind of struck by the wide variation in terms of what is being put up and how it's being put up."

McClure said some CIO pages are simply static presentations of what the CIO's office does, while others are more integrated into the agency's overall mission. Further, the CIO sites differ in accessibility. Although some agency sites' home pages offer direct links to the CIO office's pages, others make the information harder to find, he said.

Pick your target

Some of the differences reflect the pages' audience and purpose.

Officials at some agencies, such as the Transportation Department, use the CIO pages to relay project information primarily to vendors. The pages present comprehensive policy information on IT security, e-government projects, enterprise architecture and strategic planning.

"It is helpful when vendors understand the environment at the Department of Transportation as well as the overarching policy," said Daniel Matthews, DOT's CIO. "They may be interested in bidding a job at DOT, and that information may be helpful to them."

Federal Aviation Administration officials also had vendors in mind when they built their CIO pages, said Daniel Mehan, the FAA's assistant administrator for information services and CIO. The site states the agency's main IT policies, strategies and programs to give vendors an idea of how the agency uses IT, he said.

"The intent is to share with the vendor community, the public community, an overview of what we are doing, so that may help [them] decide whether there is business to conduct," Mehan said. "We want to make effective use of their time, and frankly, we don't want to waste ours either. It's a win-win for both of us if they can come in knowing the basics."

Like the FAA, many other agencies use Web pages to supplement an exclusive employee intranet. Air Force officials, however, are bridging that gap between the external and internal sites, said Col. Michael Crane, director of resources and operations for the Air Force CIO.

Officials are determining what content from the intranet might be of interest to and appropriate for the public. Eventually, the intranet will be replaced by the public site.

At the Education Department, vendors — or any other technology audience — were not the focus for the CIO page. It fits into the department's site, which officials redesigned a year ago to target four specific groups: students, parents, teachers and school administrators. The CIO's page presents an overview of the office, delegation of authority and contacts.

"It's all meant to be very direct, very informative and allow people to get general information, but the whole Web site is focused outwardly to customers, principally the four groups," said William Leidinger, the department's CIO and assistant secretary for management.

"Vendors know how to get to the CIO of the organization," he added. "It's not always through the Web site. Our purpose is to reach out to those people whom we serve and provide them with the information they need. This is not a place where we list all of our equipment purchases."

Keep it lively

Most officials agree that a Web site is one of many ways to communicate with vendors and the public, and they agree that keeping the site dynamic is crucial. For officials at the Agriculture Department, their Web site serves as an essential communication tool because it fills in for the department's staff during tight budgets.

"We aren't growing staff, so the ability to personally comment on every item is harder," said USDA CIO Scott Charbo. "It becomes a more important vehicle to disseminate information and act as that other employee to deliver information someone needs when we don't have a live body. Years ago, there was somebody on the phone when people were calling" for information about e-government plans, directives and job openings, for example.

Budget constraints also impede many agency officials from constantly updating their Web site. DOT officials strive to update their site about once a month, but they have not been able to meet that goal this year, Matthews said.

USDA officials have embarked on an overhaul effort to make the site, including the CIO office's page, more interactive and dynamic. Although the information is complete on the site, the presentation leaves much to be desired, Charbo said.

"All the things are currently there," he said. "I just don't think the look and feel [are] all that great. There's a lot of activity and content behind that, and we need to do a better job communicating that."

CIO Council officials are redesigning the council's Web site. It provides a forum for communication and collaboration among CIOs through an intranet in addition to the public site. Although members meet frequently, the site plays an important role in keeping managers connected, said Dave Wennergren, Navy CIO and co-chairman of the council's Best Practices Committee.

"CIOs are busy folks, so we wanted

to have the one-stop shopping place so CIOs could have the information they need," he said. "I think it's an important communication tool for council members."

Wennergren also noted the importance of his office's site within the Navy, adding that users in the IT community look to the CIO's office, often through the Web site, for guidance.

"Being a CIO is all about leading change, and change management doesn't come easy for folks," he said. "The [information] you can give people and knowledge to embrace the change [are] extremely helpful. The Web site is a vehicle people can have to find the information they need to get their work done."

Keeping the CIO office's pages dynamic is not easy, Mehan said, and officials should first determine the pages' goal and audience.

"They have to have clarity around that," he said, "because the second piece of advice is: Don't bring it up if you aren't prepared to support it. Don't set it up and not change it, update it and refresh it, because that doesn't accomplish anything for anybody."

Michael is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

OPM offers feeds

The Office of Personnel Management is charged with communicating not only within the organization and with the public but also with employees at other federal agencies.

OPM officials determine the government's operating status in cases of bad weather or emergencies, for example, and develop governmentwide personnel policies. The OPM Web site is an efficient tool to relay that information, and officials want to take it a step further.

"We frequently get calls from other agencies wanting to know how they can bring our information inside their infrastructure," said Vivian Mackey, OPM's agencywide Web site manager.

To meet this need, OPM officials came up with a way for other agency leaders to incorporate news from the OPM site directly into their sites: Really Simple Syndication (RSS), a format for distributing information based on Extensible Markup Language. By downloading XML content, Webmasters can stream OPM news at other agencies.

"You can basically put it up as a news feed," Mackey said. "They can take the XML code and put it into their infrastructure. It hits our site and finds the latest update of information."

This has been useful for employees who may have Internet restrictions, because it makes the information available on their agencies' home pages, Mackey said. OPM's disclaimer relieves the agency of providing technical support and gives Webmasters more leeway with how they set up the feeds, she said.

The service was launched about a month ago to provide news releases and information about the government's operating status. OPM officials plan to add capabilities for streaming content to targeted audiences.

For example, many chief human capital officers receive memos from the OPM director, and RSS feeds would make that information more readily accessible, Mackey said.

— Sara Michael

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