Government Web

by Jin, 07-10-09 // 6 comments

I used to do a lot of freelance during the dotcom days, then I started working for an agency. The projects were interesting and the turn around time was fast. In the past five years, I’ve been working as an in-house designer for the government. The projects aren’t always as glamorous as they were before, and usually take much more time to complete. However, I feel the end result is more rewarding for me.

Government web sites are not typically up to date on their web technologies and design. If you go to most .gov sites and you will see archaic designs, bad usability and poor accessibility. Sites are often just a portal of a labyrinth of links. There are many reasons why government sites are lagging far behind those of corporates’, which are themselves lagging behind smaller, more agile companies. Paul Boag’s article 10 Harsh Truths About Corporate Websites pretty much summed up many difficulties government sites face too. More so, government sites take much longer time and effort to redesign and re-architect. There are a lot of legal and political issues involved.

This is why last year I was very excited to see Barack Obama’s campaign site. My review for his site didn’t cover the main reason why I was impressed. His emphasis on a modern and embracing site was rare for a politician at the time. Since I’ve been working within the government, both state and federal, I know just having a competent design team is not enough, the political will has to be there too. A lot of things have happened since I wrote that review: Mr. Obama went on to win the presidential election and launched a series of impressive federal government websites. The new whitehouse.gov went live seconds after the Inauguration ceremony. In the past few months, data.gov, recovery.gov, it.usaspending.gov were launched.

The man behind his internet campaign, Mr. Julius Genachowski was sworn in as the chairman of the FCC(Federal Communications Commission) a few weeks ago. He’s my new boss now. I have no doubt, that under his leadership, a much needed redesign of the FCC web site will launch soon.

I always thought the government sites needed the most help since they serve the general public. Currently most government sites suffer from these common problems:

To overcome some of these issues when redesigning:

The new federal web sites launched are impressive, in terms of the design, informativeness and outreach. I love how consistent the branding is throughout these sites.

whitehousegov
datagov
recoverygov
itspendinggov

For the past few months, I was involved in redesigning the dtv.gov website. The team did a superb job given the time constraint. The old site was dated and didn’t have all the up to date information the public needed. With the redesign, the FCC stressed the importance of getting the public all the information they needed in preparation for the DTV transition. The news release was constantly updated, also many web apps were available on the site as well.

Recently I’ve met several people in real life or on twitter who share the same passion as me: to make a better government web. I met Macon Phillips, the new media director of the Whitehouse. He’s a big proponent for the use of social media tools to reachout to the general public. He’s behind the new whitehouse.gov and many other WH social media outlets such as Flickr, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.

If you’re interested in social media for the government, I recommend following Jeffrey Levy on twitter. Mr. Levy is the web director of EPA.gov, he led an impressive effort of putting the EPA in the forefront of interacting with the general public via appropriate use of social media sites.

Gov2.0 Links of Interest:

I never thought I’d say this a year ago, but now is an exciting time to be a web designer working on a government project. The political will is definitely there. I believe many agencies, both state and federal will redesign their web sites to the standard the new administration set. Now is the time to fully utilize our skills to make those sites to serve the public better.

6 comments

also feel free to contact me on twitter or via email
tericee 07-10-09

Great post, Jin! It is amazing how much has changed in just one year. Many government agencies and organizations that were having trouble getting new initiatives started in 2008 are finding it so much easier to open doors that seemed they would never open. Seems a lot like one of those stories in Malcom Gladwell’s “Tipping Point.” Are things easier now because of the change in Presidents? Was it because social networking tools helped so many people on the bleeding edge to find each other and band together? Was it because more digital natives are working for the government now? Perhaps it was a combination of all of the above, as well as factors I haven’t even thought of. Either way, it’s very refreshing to see both citizens and government working together to find new ways to improve government — and government websites! for everyone.

One site that you didn’t include on your list of Gov 2.0 links of interest is http://www.webcontent.gov, which is a microsite on http://www.USA.gov. It is run by the Federal Web Managers Council, which is an interagency group of almost 30 senior web managers from the federal government. Perhaps you and the other web-savvy folks you mentioned in your post can help them out, since it looks like the last time they updated their strategic plan was in 2007, which as we know is millenia ago in Internet years!

Teck Hua 07-10-09

I guess it’s a pretty tough job but you are fortunate to be involved in making public service sector websites fulfill their #1 purpose: to serve thy people.

Hope to read more of your account in this respect in future.

古語有云:「得民心者,得天下也。」 忘記“為人民服務”的真諦,似乎是世上許多公共機構的通病,在互聯網上也亦然。

Chris Ballance 07-10-09

The current administration has really blown me away with how much they “get” the web and are able to effectively communication information using it. Well done on these .gov sites, sites I never thought I would be able to stand to look at, much less effectively use.

Jin 07-10-09

@tericee, thank Teri. I added the webcontent.gov to the link list. I think it’s all the factors you listed. Both the awareness of the importance of the internet and social media by the people at the top, and internet savvy citizens and gov workers.

@techhua, thanks. ha haven’t heard “為人民服務” in years!

@Chris, yeah my thoughts exactly! That’s why it’s very encouraging for me these days.

Jeffrey 07-12-09

Yep, good post, Jin. The thing I’ve most excited about is how people outside the gov’t are now finding people inside the gov’t to work with to improve gov’t sites. That is, a year ago they all seemed to assume we insiders were the problem. Now they’re understanding we face enormous hurdles, and are actively help us overcome them. Gov20camp was just one example.

I agree with you – this is a very exciting time to be in gov’t web.

Jin 07-13-09

@Jeffrey, Thanks! It is encouraging that not only the new gov sites are up to date with design and usability, but also the amount of effort put in to out reach to general public. Thank you for all your work put in gov20 movement. I enjoyed the unconference you organized.