Is Smarter Dot-gov Reform on Its Way?

As part of his Campaign to Cut Waste, the president promised to shutter about half of what were then believed to be 2,000 government websites in the following year.

As part of his Campaign to Cut Waste, the president promised to shutter about half of what were then believed to be 2,000 government websites in the following year. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

A new campaign to rationalize the federal Web presence may be about metrics-driven customer service.

Could a new push to cut, consolidate and rationalize the federal Web presence be on the horizon?

Two things make me think it might be. First, there were federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel’s comments in a budget talk with reporters on Tuesday that he plans to expand his PortfolioStat initiative to focus on government agencies’ customer service.

Second, there’s VanRoekel’s history of taking a government initiative with a hard numbers goal and rejiggering it into a more complex and nuanced metrics-driven goal, as he did with the push to consolidate federal data centers.

Federal websites were big news for about five minutes in 2011. That’s when President Obama called out the website of the Fiddlin’ Foresters, a U.S. Forest Service string band, and several other niche websites as examples of “stupid” spending that the government couldn’t afford in a time of rising deficits.

As part of his Campaign to Cut Waste, the president promised to shutter about half of what were then believed to be 2,000 government websites in the following year.

The twists and turns of the dot-gov consolidation program are too numerous to detail here. (According to a later estimate the government may have actually had as many as 20,000 individual websites depending on how you count them). Suffice it to say, the government succeeded in trimming its Web presence from about 1,500 top-level domains in 2011 to fewer than 1,000 domains by mid-2013.

Since then the pace has slowed. The number of top-level federal Web domains stands at 925 now, according to a government tally, down from 993 in May of 2013. A top-level domain is something like Treasury.gov with a common infrastructure that may contain numerous individual websites.

VanRoekel’s plan to loop customer service into PortfolioStat could signal a renewed focus on dot-gov consolidation with a more metrics-driven approach than the predecessor campaign, which focused more on reducing the overall number of seldom-visited and seldom-updated government websites.

More broadly, it could signal a more metrics-driven approach to improving agencies' customer service. That initiative stretches back to at least April 2011, when President Obama issued an executive order directing agencies to adopt best practices for customer services learned from industry. The 2011 executive order left it largely up to agencies how they would improve customer service and what metrics they would look at to determine if they were doing a good job.

Two final notes. First, of the four websites President Obama described as cuttable in his 2011 Web video, one, InvasiveSpecies.gov, is still online today.

Second, as a signal that the dot-gov consolidation campaign is currently low on the government’s radar, note that the Web page that lists the consolidation task force members hasn’t been updated in at least several months judging by several members’ outdated titles. That’s not a good omen for the task force’s ability to keep the rest of the federal Web presence updated and useful. 

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