The Second Revolution: Why the UK Government Beats the US Government on the Web

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Web4Dev conference at the United Nations (UN). I was speaking on Web Governance best practices with a great panel of folks. Just 5 years ago, trying to get anyone to consider establishing formal Web Governance was quite a challenge. So, the entire morning was very satisfying for me. You can check it out on UN TV. The session was moderated by Julius Gwyer who is the Web Governance Officer for The World Bank. There were a lot of great speakers and case studies presented but by far the most compelling talk for me was the keynote given by Dr. David Pullinger who is Head of Digital Policy for the UK government.

Having worked on Web management and Web Governance issues for US government Web sites for many, many years, I was eager to hear the talk from Dr. Pullinger regarding the UK government's Web site consolidation. I remember in early 2007 hearing how the UK government had decided to close the majority of its Web sites and funnel traffic and content to a set of core Web sites focused on the needs of citizens and businesses. Subsequently, I've heard some anecdotes about the implementation of the plan but not a formal report. Dr. Pullinger's report last week addressed both the genesis of the strategy and the status of the implementation. 

The guiding principle behind the UK efforts is that citizens and businesses should not have to understand the bureaucratic organizational structure of the national government in order to find information or otherwise have their needs met online. Dr. Pullinger also explained the motivations behind the formal policies for the Governmental Web consolidations. It was then reported that the UK government has been closing more than one Web site per day since 2006 for a total of 696 site to date.

If the guiding principle behind the UK Web site consolidation sounds familiar to some, it is because some of strategies and tactics that came from the interpretation of the US E-gov Act of 2002 are very similar. In fact, the UK Directgov Web site is analogous in many ways to and the UK Businesslink is also analogous to in the US. To be fair, though, I must point out a key difference between the UK sites and the US sites: for the most part, the US sites act as a portal linking out to other sites instead of consuming the content of other sites; the UK approach is to shut down sites, normalize the content, and perform a strong contextualizing editorial function by actively placing links to that content in appropriate places on their one-stop sites. Admittedly, a big difference. And, interesting debates could be had regarding which approach is more effective. I think both approaches can work if well executed.

But the key point that determines whether either national approach will be well executed lies not in what is trying to be achieved but in the governments’ levels of seriousness about Web management and Web Governance in particular.  I think that the UK will be more successful than the US when it comes to government Web site quality because the UK is strategically managing and governing the Web, the US is not. The UK let 1,000 Web flowers bloom, noticed it was a weed patch and started pruning. The US let 1,000 Web flowers bloom and is just letting it all grow wild, to the detriment of those trying to get information or otherwise interact with government.

Most recently US government Web growth is being made under the guise of “transparency” as communications-focused US government Web managers cling to easy-to-implement Web 2.0 technologies.  I’m all for open communication and the transparency of government, but making new Web sites or layering bloated, poorly organized sites with a new face of Web 2.0 isn’t meeting the mission. Citizens and businesses need clear, easy access to information and services from governmental organizations on the Web. That must be the priority. 

Of course, it’s easier to start up a new venture then to police and correct an overburdened, poorly-managed large Web site. I understand the temptation to flee to the brave new world of Web 2.0 and abandon or ignore the low quality Web 1.0 sites. But that’s the easy way out, and the way that leaves citizens and businesses short-changed. There is a lot of valuable information on those sites. There is Information that citizens need in order to make decisions related to their family's health and education, and information that businesses need to operate legally. Transparency includes providing easy access to these deep repositories of information as well as the more interactive capabilities of the currently popular Web 2.0 technologies.

Upholding this agenda requires coordination and cooperation of Web stakeholders across the US government and that requires leadership. The US government needs to establish a framework for Web site decision making, establish clear Web policies, provide direction for Web standards, and recommend best practice for the management of federal Web sites.  This can not be a grassroots effort but must be a formal effort. The Web Content Managers Forum and the Federal Web Managers Council are excellent starts. But there needs to be a higher-level effort to establish government-wide Web Governance-- not just mechanisms to ensure effective Web Governance in individual departments, offices and agencies.

The leadership for this government-wide Web Governance effort must come from the top. Whether that is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) or the White House is of no real importance. Relying on government agencies and departments to police themselves when it comes to Web quality and Web policy compliance is not a strategy but wishful thinking. This has been shown by the lack of compliance to already existing Web-related laws and regulations. There are no enforcement mechanisms and no realistic guidance given regarding how government Web site managers are to uphold policies. Formal Web Governance would provide both of these.

The Web is new. Managing a set of Web sites as large as the set of sites the US government manages is a new practice and needs to be examined and best practices established.

The US would do well to follow the UK lead and conduct an audit of US sites and create an informed senior task-force to establish formal Web Governance practices, draft a strategy to clean up the waste US government agencies have left on the Web, and set the agenda for more informed, higher quality Web development moving forward.

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Lisa, your points sre on target.

And if we can get that kind of central, firm commitment, I'm right with you in terms of a governmentwide mandate to clean up and consolidate.

But the best implementation mechanism may still be what I'll call the Board of Directors, which is basically what we have with the current Federal Web Managers Council.

The difference would be that the Council would have the authority to set policy, make investment decisions, and really direct change.

Hi Jeffrey,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. Yes, a Board of Directors could work as long as it runs horizontally across government and is empowered by a very senior-level mandate.

I think the Federal Web Managers Council is on target. The group is really knowledgeable and clearly understands the issues that need to be addressed to raise the quality and effectiveness of Federal sites but they do lack real authority. Other special words in this debate are "enforcement" and "accountability." I know those are sometimes unpopular words given the autonomy of government organizations and the "do your own thing" Web culture. But without proper policy and standards enforcement mechanisms in place there are just too many moving Web parts to ensure uniform success on the Web across government.

Thanks again!

Lisa - I think you have hit the nail on the head in this post. Access to the deep repositories of information, which the government in most cases considers to be a matter of public record, is how to really drive transparency and accountability. I see way too much focus on Web 2.0 and not enough on finding ways to open up access points to the huge amounts of data. If government agencies (and I include state and local government in this) focused on achieving that the benefits to the public / citizens could be immense.

Thanks for the comment Stuart. State and local governments do offer an interesting cases as well. In particular, I think a lot about the relationship that state and local agencies have with federal agencies. Many state and local sites reference or re-use information found on federal sites. There are all kinds of Web records management, version control, link management, timeliness concerns here which could be addressed with smarter use of existing technology. But the smarter use of technology requires deep coordination at the people level (read, governance and execution).

We'll see what shifts happen in the coming years. This is the vertical reach that federal Web managers need to consider.

Thanks again!

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