Less is more for government websites

Many governments have so far approached the Web with a rather crude strategy of getting every service online. This has resulted in a proliferation of often poor quality websites. The strategy should be to identify the most appropriate government services for the Web and to do them really well.

Over the last couple of years I have met hundreds of people involved in managing government websites in countries such as Ireland, Britain, United States, Australia, and New Zealand. These people are often struggling with limited resources to implement a national strategy that can be summed up by the phrase "put everything online".

This sort of strategy might have made sense as a way to kick-start web activity about 5-7 years ago. Now, it is a crude approach that is actually damaging the effectiveness of government on the Web. The problem is that the senior management who drive this strategy often lack a genuine understanding of what the Web is useful for.

Lack of understanding at a senior management level is by no means a problem unique to government web strategy. In many other environments, senior management are hampering the development of appropriate web strategies. The reason for this is because senior management tend to be older and therefore don't really use the Web that much.

This lack of experience often leads to unrealistic expectations. A lot of money has indeed been spent but it has been spread too thin over too many projects. Often, the web budget is part of the overall IT budget, so it is hard to get specific figures on how much it is costing. There hasn't been enough clarity of purpose, and it is hard to see how the taxpayer is getting genuine value for money.

In many countries, government websites have grown like weeds in a garden. The citizen is faced with a vast array of confusing choices. Many of the websites are not properly updated, and many of the online applications are not properly designed and tested, resulting in an unsatisfactory experience.

Every department and division of government feels that they have to have a website. Why? What does the citizen really want from government online? What services are well suited to the Web, and what services are better delivered over the phone or in person?

Ironically, the freedom of information acts initiated in many countries are having negative side effects when it comes to web strategy. Huge quantities of content are being placed online just so that it can be said that "it's on the Web". It may be badly written, it may be poorly organized, but it's on the Web, and therefore the job of government to inform its citizens is done.

Not so. Citizens need to be protected from the vast quantities of useless content that is churned out on a relentless basis. Citizens need to be able to find what they need as quickly as possible. They need to be able to fill out forms that are as simple and short as possible.

Many governments have done great work on the Web, but in order to create a genuine knowledge society and economy, they need to reverse "the more the merrier" approach and focus on a "less is more" strategy.

This article is written by Gerry McGovern, celebrated content author and content consultant on web content management.

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