Feds aim to serve citizens better by revamping Dot-Gov

Cutting the number of websites is just the first step in reforming agencies' sprawling online presence.

Around the time he took office as the nation's 28th president in 1913, Woodrow Wilson wrote that "government ought to be all outside and no inside."

That simple binary made sense 99 years ago. At the time, the results of government studies, executive orders and meeting notes were either available to the public or they weren't. The so-called outside, where government information met the public, was limited to a few key places such as the Government Printing Office and the National Archives.

With the birth of the Internet, the "outside" became effectively limitless, which has resulted in a new set of challenges. While the government is publishing more information than ever through about 18,000 websites, it's become increasingly difficult for agency information to reach the public.

Older federal sites weren't designed to work optimally with Google and other search engines, so Web searches today often list government data well below less authoritative, outdated or recycled sources. That doesn't mean that data is outside the public view, but it's not exactly catching the average citizen's eye, either.

The Energy Department, for instance, collects and publishes troves of information about fuel prices, alternative energy development and nuclear security. But before an August 2011 relaunch of its main Energy.gov website, that information typically ranked so low in Google search results that people often got their data elsewhere, says Elizabeth Meckes, Energy's digital reform lead.

In other cases, agencies' Internet footprints are so broad the departments themselves can't keep tabs on them, and their Web managers sometimes duplicate each other's efforts. The Homeland Security Department noted in an October 2011 self-assessment that its "Web publishing is fragmented across nearly 300 websites" that are extremely difficult to harmonize.

The Office of Management and Budget tried to rein in this Web sprawl in June by ordering a freeze on new dot-gov sites and launching a program to slash the federal Internet presence by one-fourth or more. The White House simultaneously released a blog post and a video in which President Obama mocked a dot-gov site devoted to the Fiddlin' Foresters, a Forest Service-sponsored string band, and tied the dot-gov reform plan to his larger Campaign to Cut Waste.

Much of the dot-gov reform effort has so far focused on eliminating excess government sites that sprouted up during the Web-crazed 1990s and now do little but diminish the dot-gov domain's gravitas.

The sole purpose of Time.gov, for instance, is to display the current time in all U.S. time zones. But in a Google search for the "current time in Denver," Time.gov didn't even make the first five pages of results.

Disabling and archiving silly sites likely will be the easiest part of the White House's reform campaign. A periodically updated list of top-level dot-gov domains showed that at least 200 of them were officially retired between June and November last year. There were nearly 1,800 top-level dot-gov domains before the reform initiative began.

The government distinguishes between top-level domains such as State.gov, which hosts all the State Department's Web content, and websites within a larger domain such as State.gov/travel/. The federal Web presence is also pockmarked with stand-alone sites such as MLKday.gov, which are officially top-level domains but don't have much content and aren't regularly updated.

Federal Communications Commission new-technology fellow Benjamin Balter conducted an informal survey in October with a custom-built Web crawling tool that showed at least 200 of the remaining 1,600 domains had likely been unofficially retired. Many other domains simply redirected to other dot-govs, according to Balter's analysis, a common practice with abbreviations, nicknames or typical misspellings for a site name.

The more difficult parts of the dot-gov reform effort will be, first, folding important but underutilized sites into larger domains so they form a comprehensive whole, and second, updating the governments' content management systems, search functions and social media interfaces so citizens are not only more likely to find government sites but also to be engaged by them.

The British government has been a model for many large institutions looking to consolidate their Web presences. Officials there managed to reduce the government's 2,000 websites by more than 75 percent and to shift its online organizing structure, which used to be based on the interests of agencies creating content and now focuses on the interests of the citizens consuming that content.

That effort took five years and concerted pressure through several leadership changes. A similar endeavor could be a tall order for the considerably more sprawling U.S. government, especially when it comes to consolidating sites across agencies.

Some agencies have made an early stab at such consolidations. In an October self-assessment, the Health and Human Services Department suggested folding Flu.gov and several other topical sites into USA.gov, a General Services Administration-run site that leaders of the Dot-gov Reform Task Force have said likely will form the seed of a single portal for general government online information.

GSA also has built Search.USA.gov, a multiagency search engine that compensates for agencies' often clunky internal engines and delivers up relevant information regardless of which agency produced it.

The federal Web landscape, however, is still awash with stand-alone sites that are difficult to find, partly because they can't leverage the search prowess of their parent agencies or the rest of the federal government.

StopFakes.gov, for instance, could easily be folded into the main website of its parent agency, the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration. A Google search for "counterfeit Chinese technology," one of StopFakes.gov's major focus areas, also didn't bring that site up in the first five results pages.

Several agencies have revised or relaunched their main Web pages in connection with the dot-gov initiative and a related executive order to improve the government's online customer service. Those reforms include transitioning to open source content management systems that make it cheaper to maintain sites and easier for third parties to pull data from them. Such systems are better at integrating blogs and social media into websites, which can raise the sites' search rankings.

There's also the issue of people. Simplifying and rationalizing a Web footprint usually means pulling the work of updating and maintaining the agency's websites from the hands of many subject-matter experts and putting it into the hands of a few communications and information technology professionals.

"For a lot of people, having a website is why they think they exist," Energy's Meckes says. "We're not just building a new platform, we're building an entirely new culture."