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Energy shutters first website in governmentwide campaign

The Energy Department might win the prize for the first agency to actually shut down a website in connection with the governmentwide campaign to bring order to the federal online footprint.

An Energy official told Nextgov on Thursday that the department had shut down Energyempowers.gov, a sort of online energy news service, and folded that content into its flagship Energy.gov site.

Department managers made the changes during a redesign of Energy.gov's user interface and as the site was transferred from Energy servers to Amazon's public EC2 computer cloud. The move to cloud hosting will save the department $50,000 annually, according to an Energy statement.

The consolidation was part of a pan-agency campaign to slash the government's Web presence, which has mushroomed to more than 20,000 individual sites since the early 1990s.

In addition to saving the cost of maintaining thousands of websites, officials have said, the campaign is aimed at cleaning up the government's loose Web presence, which contains dozens of different architectures and designs and often leaves users confused about what's an official government site and what isn't. The British government, a leader in Web rationalization, pared down its online footprint by nearly 75 percent over the course of five years.

Energy's overall website consolidation should save it more than $10 million annually, a department official said. In addition to cheaper cloud hosting, those savings will come from shutting down content management systems and hosting platforms used by existing websites that will be integrated into Energy.gov.

The savings also will come from building new sites as subdomains within Energy.gov rather than as stand-alone sites, which the department estimates will save about $150,000 per site, the official said.

Two Web pages that have been built into Energy.gov since the department's consolidation initiative began are one page devoted to its Quadrennial Technology Review and another for its Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, the official said.

Savings estimates associated with website consolidation are notoriously hard to pin down. Energy's $150,000 figure could be reasonable or even low if the department had built a whole new architecture for the sites and filled them with newly produced videos and graphics, Lisa Welchman, a Web strategy adviser to government agencies and corporations, said.

On the other hand, it's easy to imagine the sites being significantly cheaper than that if they used the same basic architecture as Energy.gov and served mostly as a repository for press releases, studies and other documents that weren't originally produced for the site, she said.

"I don't know how they've teased out the cost of maintaining an individual site, but there are a lot of different variables," Welchman said. "You could probably come up with three or four different numbers and they'd all be true."

Estimating the average cost of building and maintaining a federal website is especially difficult, Welchman said. For one thing, government sites range from extremely complicated and dynamic operations, such as the stimulus tracking Recovery.gov, which will cost roughly $18 million to build and maintain over five years, to minor and rarely visited sites that only cost a few hundred dollars a year to maintain.

Even tracking the cost of a particular site is difficult, she said, because content for many federal sites is a mélange of statements, videos, photos and speeches produced by people who are doing something else full time and not quantifying the amount of time they're spending on Web production.

"At least they're actually trying to quantify that cost," Welchman said of the Energy Department figure. "Most agencies don't even attempt to do that. And it looks as if they've done a good job of revamping the site, giving it a consolidated look and feel. So, I say, more power to them."

The U.S. Agriculture Department might arguably get credit for shutting down the first federal site -- devoted to the Fiddlin' Foresters, a Forest Service-affiliated string band -- immediately after the website cutting campaign was announced. But President Obama had already refused to keep paying for the site in a Web video earlier that day, leaving the USDA's level of autonomy murky at best.

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