The “white paper” published by the Federal Web Managers Council in November of 2008, Putting Citizens First: Transforming Online Government. A White Paper Written for the 2008 – 2009 Presidential Transition Team, contains a series of common-sense recommendations that are clearly stated — and deceptive in their simplicity:
- Establish Web Communications as a core government business function
- Help the public complete common government tasks efficiently
- Clean up the clutter so people can find what they need online
- Engage the public in a dialogue to improve our customer service
- Ensure the public gets the same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, print, or visit in-person
- Ensure underserved populations can access critical information online
I like that social networking is mentioned in the discussion of the recommendations as a way to develop and cultivate better communications with the public. Establishing web communications “as a core government business function” is increasingly important as more transactions are performed online. Ensuring that the public “… gets the same answer” no matter what channel is used also can’t be faulted.
These recommendations are logical and straightforward. They are additional evidence that web management is not something that just the IT department should have primary responsible for. Web management is tied into all facets of government service that focus on serving citizens.
Still, there are a couple more items that also need attention as we consider the role of web based citizen services.
First, the cost of web based services needs to be considered in this era of belt tightening. Are we shifting resources from more traditional service channels or are we adding new resources? If the former, we need to expect bureaucratic opposition as influence and power in more traditional services areas are reduced. If adding new resources, we need to ensure they are managed appropriately (as the report recommends).
Second, the customer orientation of this white paper is valuable but may be oversimplifying the difficulty of developing and managing coherent web based citizen services. Government serves many different citizen “communities” as a result of long legal, regulatory, and cultural histories. Citizens as served by government constitute many different interest groups, some with very strong industry and congressional ties. Web management must respond to this reality. What this means is that web based services must reflect agency policies and goals, a point made by the white paper. The flip side is that policies and services provided by different agencies that seem to be at odds will still be at odds when they are supported via the web.
Third, the report glosses over the complexity of achieving a balance between using web based tools as a way to listen to the public, and using the web as a vehicle for delivering services. Will the public begin to expect — and demand — responses from Federal agencies based on the input agencies receive from online networks, polls, forums, focus groups, and discussions? This topic received some thoughtful discussion Google sponsored Tech Agenda 2009: Creating New Opportunities for Open & Participatory Government.
This is perhaps the most challenging issues associated with using the web as a vehicle for delivering citizen services. Will people demand more say in how services are designed and provided? How much authority and flexibility will individual agencies have in shaping services while remaining compliant both with public demands and with congressional and regulatory requirements?
The jury is still out on the question of whether web based services will be used either to transform government or to help maintain the status quo. Either way, though, there is no excuse for not managing government web based services in the coherent fashion recommended by this white paper.
Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald, an Alexandria Virginia based consultant who can be emailed at email@example.com.