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Open government requires accessibility, not just data, specialists say

Open government in the Internet Age shouldn't be about simply throwing information online but about making it easily accessible and searchable too, government information technology officials said at a conference Wednesday.

Making important agency information easy to find online can also be a key factor in improving the agency's public image, said General Services Administration digital government specialist Sheila Campbell. "People assume, rightly or wrongly, that your website is a reflection of your organization," Campbell said. "They make judgments about your agency based on their experiences navigating your website and, for most agencies, this is the way people most frequently interact with you."

In addition to playing to public assumptions of government inefficiency and sloppiness, a poorly designed website can also deter qualified people from taking jobs at an agency, Campbell said.

Campbell spoke at a conference on citizen engagement and open government sponsored by Fedscoop, a media company focused on government IT.

Campbell directs the GSA's Center for Excellence in Digital Government, which has launched a website aimed at sharing tips with agencies for building readable, navigable websites that pull their most popular links and services onto their home pages.

The center also hosts weekly training sessions for agencies on loading video and interactive elements onto websites in a functional, rather than a confusing, way and in effectively using Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

"These are the questions people, even subconsciously, are asking themselves when they're having an experience online," Campbell said. "Is this organization really trying to help me or are they just focused on themselves? . . . Are they aware of how busy I am and that I have two minutes to find the answer to my question?"

"Oftentimes on a website, you have all this extraneous, irrelevant information," she added, "your CEO's speeches, a list of press releases, that kind of thing. And it's not helping people accomplish what they need."

The State Department website, for example, doesn't have a link for passport information on its homepage, even though the largest share of people visiting the site are there for that reason, Campbell said. About a quarter of the Agriculture Department's home page is taken up by a graphic celebrating the 50th anniversary of the department's Economic Research Service, she said, even though that's likely not a major reason people visit the site.

The Agriculture Department's home page does have links to food recalls, a major reason for visiting the site, Campbell said, and State Department passport application information does come up very quickly in a Google search, which is a more common route to the information than visiting the State home page.

President Obama signed an executive order in April requiring agencies to rapidly improve their Web-based customer service and to create better mechanisms for accepting and responding to user feedback.

The order also included refashioning or shutting down some of the roughly 24,000 federal websites, many of which are rarely updated and are even forgotten by the agencies that created them.

Campbell on Wednesday shuffled through several of those rarely updated sites, such as couldihavelupus.gov and deserttortoise.gov, which she says crowd out and dilute more-useful government information.

"Our websites historically have been online parking lots for a lot of information," David McClure, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services, said at the conference. "We expected citizens to come to us and they had to understand the organization of government in order to know where to look."

McClure's office has launched the site usa.gov, a governmentwide search engine that corrects for the often-clunky search functions within individual agency sites and can help citizens who don't know which agency is in charge of what they're looking for.

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