NOTE: This case study draws on experience I had in the public sector as an employee of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
DHS is the lead agency in the federal government for incident communications and oversees the US Coast Guard (USCG). USCG rules for oil spills (that pre-dated the Web) required the responsible party to conduct joint communications with the government. So when the website was created at DeepwaterHorizonResponse.com, it was on a dot com platform and BP shared publishing rights.
The White House wanted to put the government in charge on a domain owned and fully controlled by the federal government. It directed DHS to end operations on the dot com site and launch an independent website on a dot gov domain in its place.
Multiple agencies involved in the oil spill clean-up used the existing site. Our mission was to develop a replacement Web site while the need to communicate to the public via the Web was on-going.
The CMS platform that the dot com site was built on proprietary software that did not meet the capabilities required for the new site. Also, the existing process of Incident Communications via the Web was not ideal: visitors only saw a list of links from other federal sites where the real content lived.
Under the settlement agreement, ultimately the U.S. Government would bill BP for the costs of the website. The higher cost was the labor of federal employees: resources from across government shifted away from core duties to support this new Website. In the future, what could the practice of Incident Communications via the Web look like — aside from creating yet another government website?
It was time to make way for something new.
We launched a new interagency portal to content related to the Deepwater Horizon-BP Oil Spill — www.RestoreTheGulf.gov — in two waves.
First the domain came to life in an html format (version 1.0); the last incarnation stood up in a CMS format (version 2.0).
When the second version of the site launched we de-commissioned the DeepwaterHorizonResponse.com site per the White House mandate and point visitors to that old URL to the new RTG.gov site.
Restorethegulf.gov version 2.0 is built on the Drupal platform and hosted in the cloud, representing the agency’s first try at using open-source solutions for Web development activity.
The team completed the project in record speed. Over 33 business days, the team marshaled resources to:
- Migrate over 1300 assets from a site scheduled for de-commissioning
- Re-purpose existing content in a user-friendly topic centered navigation system
- Migrate and post translations for core documents in 10 languages
- Source, clear and publish a relevant A-Z index of related content by agency and by topic
- Setup and deploy a third-party email subscription capability reaching over 20,000 subscribers from the media and the public
We collaborated with OCIO to set up new protocols to let content from other federal agencies be published to the DHS Network, an agency first. There are six government organizations involved in publishing to this platform, and over 30 people received training and authority to publish. We on-boarded and trained an interagency publishing team of 36 consisting of staff from DHS HQ and the USCG, Commerce and NOAA, FWS and HHS.
The site received an award for excellence in education and outreach from the Center for Environmental Innovation and Leadership in 2010 shortly after its debut. We achieved the primary goal of the White House mandate in record time: publishing controls were put firmly into the hands of government employees and all content was migrated to a dot gov domain. Other noteworthy results included:
Interagency Publishing Transformed: In an experiment that paid off, the www.restorethegulf.gov Web site represents the first time the federal government set up a Web site that has enabled interagency publishing to a common platform.
While RTG.gov still acts in a portal capacity, it also has enabled content-rich agencies with an active role in the oil spill recovery, such as NOAA, to publish directly to a common platform. This innovation holds promise for future federal government efforts where multi-agency collaboration can streamline operations and remove bottlenecks to publishing information for the public.
Open-Source and Cloud Hosting Piloted: Our work with Drupal and hosting in the cloud provided a successful pilot for DHS, which in turn paved the way for an agency-wide program to adopt cloud publishing and open source for all public facing Websites. Cloud hosting has the potential to save the agency significant funds in the years ahead.
Government Resources Saved: As the federal agency lead changed hands three times over the intervening years, operational control of this Web site shifted easily as a result of the cloud publishing model. The site was first run by DHS, then EPA and finally the Department of Commerce. Because the restorethegulf.gov site existed, it was not necessary to build more websites, spend more taxpayer dollars, or retrain the public about where to find content.
Future Incident Communications Practice Realized: I teamed up with the Incident Communications team at DHS Public Affairs, to develop a new policy to direct existing Web site owners across the federal sector to use the usa.gov site for web communications in the event of a future incident.
The proposal was approved by the White House. Soon after, it was put into operation when instructions were added to federal workforce manuals that govern how Incident Communications does its job.