Federal CIO Prods Agencies to Revamp Websites

The U.S. government’s new chief information officer wasted little time in directing federal agencies to significantly improve the way they manage information technology resources. Steven VanRoekel, who took over the federal CIO post on Aug. 4, quickly issued a directive designed to push agencies to meet an Obama administration goal for operating federal websites more efficiently.

While VanRoekel’s directive was actually mandated by an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) memo issued last June, the tight deadline he set for compliance by federal agencies indicates the importance he attaches to the administration’s federal online reform initiative.

The goal of the federal website reform program is “to improve online services and eliminate wasteful spending by developing a comprehensive and consistent strategy for efficiently managing web resources and assuring that valuable content is readily accessible and available online,” VanRoekel says in the directive.

The first step in the program is an OMB order “freezing” the creation of new federal websites. VanRoekel extended the freeze through Dec. 31 “to reinforce the importance of curtailing the proliferation of stand-alone government web sites and infrastructure.”

Targeting 1,000 Domains

The U.S. government maintains 2,000 Web addresses (URLs) that support 24,000 sites. The reform initiative sets a goal of reducing the URLs by half by mid-year 2012.

In his directive, VanRoekel sets some ambitious targets for meeting the website reform goal. Agencies must either reduce or redirect to existing sites the number of federal executive branch domains by 25 percent by the end of September. Also, by Sept. 6, agencies must provide an interim progress report with a list of government website domains that are outdated, redundant or underperforming, as well as a list of “redirects” that no longer provide value, or domains that are nonfunctioning and no longer in use.

By Oct. 11, federal agencies must provide a report with an inventory and analysis of all registered dot-gov domain names and an assessment of “web governance.” The report must include a list of candidate sites for merger or elimination, a list of sites that provide high value to the public and can serve as models, and a plan for managing websites more efficiently.

A panel of government IT specialists known as the “.Gov Reform Task Force” has been established to assist agencies in meeting the Wweb improvement program goals.

The website reform plan is part of a larger federal program to improve customer relations with the public through various means, including the use of innovative technologies.

“The federal government has a responsibility to streamline and make more efficient its service delivery to better serve the public,” President Barack Obama said in kicking off the customer service initiative earlier this year.

The General Services Administration (GSA), which has taken a lead role in improving the use of information technology at the federal level, is taking an active part in the website reform program, partly through its support of the Federal Web Managers Council.

“The Council is very supportive of the website reform effort. We’ve been calling for agencies to clean up the clutter for many years now,” Rachel Flagg, deputy director of the Center for Excellence in Digital Government at GSA, told CRM Buyer. Flagg also serves as a cochair of the Council.

“Streamlining and consolidating websites … will help the public to more easily find the information and services they need and enable agencies to more effectively manage their online information. It should also save money, if agencies take advantage of their existing Web infrastructure to host their content instead of creating new, stand-alone sites which often require additional servers, content management systems and design services,” Flagg said.

GSA already has adopted some of the reforms on its own Web sites. The agency recently deleted redirects for dot-gov domains that yielded fewer than 300 referrals annually. However, GSA kept redirects such as, a legacy domain that refers hundreds of thousands of users annually to the current domain,

Public and Private Sector Lessons

“Our definition of transparency is that information should be easy to find, it should be available quickly, and it should be easily accessible,” Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee, told CRM Buyer. “If anything, the larger aims of the government reform task force will greatly improve transparency because it will address those three core issues.” ForeSee is a customer experience analytics firm that works with more than 200 federal government websites.

“This task force won’t get us all of the way there, but it is a definite move in the right direction,” Freed said.

While the goal of the reform effort is to improve communication, the initiative does pose some challenges.

“The temporary freeze on the issue of new dot-gov domains is unlikely to have much effect on transparency or public access to information,” said Daniel Schuman, director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency for the Sunlight Foundation.

“There’s a bigger concern with the consolidation of domains, if the consolidation means that information is taken off the Web or becomes more difficult to find,” he told CRM Buyer.

“It’s generally not the number of websites, but rather their internal structure and the way information is described that’s confusing to the public,” Schulman explained. “The government needs to make more use of websites like to share data sets and other types of information that power private sector innovation. The public needs to be empowered to reuse information gathered by the government. All too often, government information is made publicly available in difficult-to-use formats.”

The program will not only improve customer contact mechanisms, but also should provide substantial savings.

“Stand-alone domains can cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to maintain,” notes VanRoekel’s Aug. 4 reform memo. “Although migrating a stand-alone web site to another domain requires an initial investment, consolidating infrastructure and operations can provide significant long-term cost savings.”

The website improvement panel is composed of federal Web managers, but the group is open to help from the private sector.

“The Task Force has, in fact, already consulted with some industry experts,” said Flagg, “and there are plans to open a public dialogue on this topic very soon. We welcome input and feedback from both industry experts and the general public.”

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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