Federal Government Urged to Embrace ‘Web 2.0′

Published March 1, 2009

Federal agencies are taking seriously President Barack Obama’s call to bring the government into Web 2.0 and make the public’s use of government Web sites more interactive.

The Federal Web Managers Council, an interagency group of the top Internet and Web site directors of the federal government, published a white paper outlining how the federal government will attempt to implement the interactivity goal Obama set during his campaign.

The council is the steering committee for the Web Content Managers Forum, the powerful, 1,400-plus group of government Web site directors throughout the nation. The group’s desire to take the federal government into the “networking age” is notable because it reflects the thinking of government’s tech elite.

Setting a Strategy

“Nobody stepped back and asked strategically, ‘How do we do this?'” said Bev Godwin, senior manager of USA.gov, the main portal of the federal government’s 24,000 Web sites. “Whenever there is a new initiative or program, they just put up a new Web site.”

There is little fear of federal Web managers spending tax dollars to set up fancy federal social networks and spread pro-government views. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for instance—along with nearly every other federal agency—bans employees from even visiting social networking Web sites such as Facebook or MySpace on government computers.

Most of the thinking about bringing the federal government into the modern digital age is not about requiring federal agencies to use social media strategies and services to spread government propaganda. Instead, the focus of Obama’s plan is to make government more responsive and interactive with the public.

Stressing Customer Service

“At Housing and Urban Development, for example, one of the missions is to reduce homelessness,” Godwin says. “If you go to HUD.gov, can you find shelter? The answer is no.”

In response to such deficiencies, the Federal Web Managers Council, which published its paper in November, would like to see all federal Web sites cleaned of clutter so citizens can quickly find what they want online. It urges agencies be well-funded for the effort and required to have the best possible search engines running on their Web sites.

The white paper also suggests federal agencies should consistently engage the public in improving customer service and “the Web site experience.”

Getting More User-Friendly

Most government Web sites today serve as little more than warehouses of press releases and personnel pictures, and virtually none help citizens do anything constructive, according to the white paper. For instance, American citizens cannot obtain passports through the State Department’s Web site.

“Having worked as a career civil servant for three years, and closely with HHS, let me submit that the risk aversion and internal regulations of the federal agencies make it very difficult for them to get into Web 2.0’s user-generated content,” said Ralph Benko, a Washington, DC-based public relations and technology expert.

Macon Phillips, Obama’s deputy director of new media, said the transition will take some time.

“Day one is going to be a lot different than perhaps day 100,” Phillips said.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.