Website reformers find more is not better

Improving the findability of information is a key motivator for the Obama administration's effort to reduce the number of government websites.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order in April calling on agencies to improve customer service, particularly through online channels. The findability of information on government websites plays a prominent part in that effort.

The Office of Management and Budget followed up on the president’s order with guidance that, among other things, aims to reduce the proliferation of government websites, a trend blamed for hampering users’ ability to find the information they need.

The OMB memo cites the following statistics.

  • More than half of Americans accessed a federal website in 2010, which demonstrates a significant use of online government services.
  • There are nearly 2,000 top-level federal .gov domains, such as WhiteHouse.gov, USDA.gov and USAspending.gov.
  • Many of those domains have smaller subsites and microsites, resulting in an estimated 24,000 federal websites.

"We're negatively impacting how people can find information via search,” said Sheila Campbell, director of the General Services Administration’s Center for Excellence in Digital Government, during a July 12 videoconference about the effort to reform the .gov domain. “With all the URLs, we're competing against each other...for good search results.”

OMB’s plans address the customer service problem on three fronts:

  • Executive branch agencies will not be issued any new .gov domains through Dec. 31.
  • Agencies must reduce — or redirect to existing domains — 50 percent of .gov sites by July 12, 2012.
  • Each agency had to develop a comprehensive Web Improvement Plan by Oct. 11 to help it streamline Web operations and improve customer service.

A review of the plans posted on USA.gov shows that many agencies do not have agencywide Web strategies. Some said the approach was difficult because of the diverse and independent nature of their subagencies and divisions. Overall, website and content management remain decentralized activities at most departments. In addition, several agencies mentioned a need for stronger information architecture.

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