I have just finished reading the Congressional Management Foundation June 2008 draft report “Communicating with Congress” and want to salute the organization and contributors for collaborating on stage-setting research to help lawmakers blaze the next trail in constituent communications.
While the findings related to grassroots advocacy and trust – showcasing a disconnect between the advocacy organizations, lawmakers and citizens — what struck me as the most important part of the study was classic disconnect between Congress’s reputation and the behavior of specific offices. The lessons here hold power for all large decentralized organizations hoping to up their game in web technology.
On the one hand, those who responded to the CMF survey were talking about their experiences with specific lawmakers. On the other hand, it is clear that Congress as a whole suffers when an individual lawmaker lags behind the curve in leveraging technology to better communicate with citizens. This is an important distinction because each member treats his or her office as a fiefdom on Capitol Hill.
If we can agree that there is a problem, who owns it and who is going to fix it? To me this goes to the heart of managing web publishing for enterprise organizations in the public sector.
TECH FREEDOM SPELLS CHAOS
While it is true that all elected officials have common budgets and rules to follow, it is also true that each office has a tremendous amount of freedom to cut its own path in their online communications plan and agenda. It’s also important to remember the place is rife with competitive spirit between the parties, so any cooperation hoped for is found at the Caucus level not with Congress at-large.
Take the state of website quality, for example. The CMF report sites their own 2007 research that found 42 percent of the lawmaker Web sites were failing on their quality scorecard. While it is difficult to argue with the conclusions, the quality score is at the surface and not the root cause of the problems.
When it comes to management practices, knowing your return on investment and your budget gets closer to the bone for accountability. I would have liked to ask if anyone had any idea how much the websites cost to build and maintain for each office. It would also have been interesting to find out how many use available metrics tools to get a fix on which parts of their website are popular, and which are getting few visits or using a survey to benchmark user satisfaction with common questions everyone shares.
Because current practices allow each office to make independent decisions about their site operations, office after office reinvents the wheel on just about everything. Isn’t it time for a standard information architecture across all offices? Why does the question of what a web form look like stay up for grabs? And since the lawmaker can decide to have a vendor do it, have their staff do it or have the institutional staff build it, there is no interoperability between these sites. Which means the search function will never work as people expect it to.
Meanwhile, large web operations in the private and federal sector alike have stopped experimenting on primary navigation so users have a reasonable expectation of finding similar information in consistent places. And organizations like Yahoo have adopted patterns libraries to put best practice forms and applications in a common place for all developers to recycle and reuse. (Update: In 2015 the federal government published its own Design Standards, an outgrowth of this trend) That way they can focus their energies on building new things and not reinventing the wheel on functionality that has already been built.
ATTACK THE ROOT CAUSE
I agree with the CMF reports findings that the time-strapped congressional staff can ill afford to constantly reinvent the wheel, but simply adding new staff (which is the CMF proposal) without attacking the root problem is ill-advised. A user-centered design process should launch to identify a standard information architecture for all Member sites. Then after a date certain, any new site should follow this plan.
The lack of policy on technology also inhibits the ability to share. For that reason, it is time – indeed long overdue – to do an inventory of all supported technology and then start choosing best-in-breed solutions and trimming the list to a reasonable number of products and services. I imagine a world where all lawmakers are on the same platform, so that when you navigate from house.gov to a lawmaker page you are not sent off into Candyland where every site is uniquely branded with custom labels and tagging.
Those familiar with institutional resources will attest to the problem that even the offices that serve the House or Senate as a whole have rivalries and turf issues when it comes to technology issues. When everyone is allowed to make independent decisions about which database to use, which platform to build on and how to implement search, the result is very chaotic and inhibiting for the end-user as well as the stakeholder.
When the report mentions the Clerk of the House, the Sergeant of Arms, the Architect of the Capitol and the Library of Congress the possibilities seem endless. Until you acknowledge that nobody seems to talk to each other, let alone use the same technology road-map. Yet these subject matter experts hold the keys to some of the most valuable content available on the Hill. Imagine a world where the content is packaged in a way that could be shared across websites and managed in one place. That is what Really Simple Syndication is and it exists today.
There is no logical reason every office on the Hill seems to have its own tourist page for DC visitors. At a minimum everyone should point to content that is managed and regularly updated on house.gov. Better yet, the content experts should share this content with feeds that are picked up by any website on or off the Hill and updated in real-time.
The cross-list every lawmaker page seems to provide for federal websites suffers the same fate. When I did a review of sites several years ago, many had not updated the information about the closure of the FBI tour or the renaming of the INS to ICE. Why not have everyone point to a single source of truth managed by the content experts at usa.gov?
One area where the institutional players in the House and the Senate could play a critical role is training. Turnover of Hill staff is a significant barrier to success, and if the technology leaders in both parties of both chambers got together and crafted a critical skills curriculum it could do wonders for improving the value of the posted content.
Take press releases. A cursory review of any Hill website will show you that press releases remain a staple of the content-mill for web publishing. Yet, as the CMF report points out, unacknowledged friction exists between serving the old media and the new media. Press releases are written for journalists, not citizens. When you write content for citizens you should construct it bite-snack-meal. Forget the wall of words dishing information by the gallon at your web visitors. If an investment is made in teaching writing for the web and this skill is valued and leveraged, web publishing quality on the Hill could climb.
The rules of the House and Senate on website use, called the “franking rules” in the USHR, are also long overdue for a review. For example, one House rule says that all content must live on house.gov servers. The problem is last time I checked there are no streaming servers. So technically speaking it violates the rules to put your video out on YouTube. This rule also makes maintaining other social media sites like Facebook and MySpace out-of-bounds for government staff.
A lively debate at the Committee on House Administration over updating the franking rules for the House promises some change. At present, however, everyone is stuck with a policy that ironic at best. Those who break the rules know that they are unenforceable. Those who choose to follow the rules are trapped in yesterday’s web distribution model, and are out of touch with those they want to reach out to.
MY PLAN FOR A BETTER WAY AHEAD
Because the political parties regard the web as a means of competitive advantage, each party should organize peer teams to communicate, recognize and share best practices across their caucus. One best practice that would be easy to adopt across the board would be to ask member offices to use the AddThis widget to encourage visitors to share content from Capitol Hill with sites like De.licio.us, Digg and others.
Representatives from each outreach team should form a governance committee along with stakeholders from content providers from the institutional offices like the Clerk and the Library of Congress. Together this council should be chartered by the leadership of the House and Senate and given the leash to recommend:
- A common set of key performance indicators
- Technology policy which lists supported technology
- A road-map to identify and share content across sites
- A patterns library to stop the endless cycle of reinventing the wheel
- A common information architecture for primary and secondary navigation
- A review of House and Senate rules related to websites
The bottom line is that we need to shake up the web enterprise on Capitol Hill, and not just at the fringes. At its core, to be successful, any website has to do three things well: provide valuable content, help people find stuff and do the feedback loop. The Hill is in the danger zone on all three.
The trouble is, you could be succeeding at all three and still fail if your governing process – where you do your strategic planning and metrics – is missing. The last critical building block is the enabling processes – which is your training, budget and infrastructure. Succeed at core processes and governing processes but fail at enabling processes and you are still fried. The whole system needs to work in concert because you are only as strong as your weakest link.
Congress needs to leap into the future and develop a coordinated plan to tackle Web management at every level. It is not for the meek of heart, but as the CMF report underscores, without due attention lawmakers risk a disconnect between citizens and their government.