Why Do Government Websites Need A Content Strategy?

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This blog post is part of a series on online content strategies developed in cooperation between the Europa.eu web team and web consultant Sue Davis. We will look at key resources, the relationship between content strategy and other tasks like Information Architecture (IA) and some essential tools and processes.

This article is part one of a three-part series on content strategy and government websites. This week we’re looking at why there is a pressing need for content strategists within government sites.

1. Too much content

Rahel Anne Bailie has recently been wrestling the huge content monster that is the City of Vancouver website. Her team is currently cutting the site down from 60 000 to 6690 pages. The new City of Vancouver site will be live late August 2012. She says: “The complexity of information and service provision at one end is compounded by the amount of content made available by an organisation. The organic growth of governmental online presence over the course of close to two decades often renders the content hard to find and hard to read, and ultimately impossible to manage as an important organisational asset.”

On the Liverpool City Council website there were over 4000 pages. 85% of traffic went to just 200 of these pages. 300 writers were given just a half-day of training before being let loose on the site content. They were not communication specialists. There was no incentive to reduce content. If content was measured, then people were rewarded for volume and compliance rather than their content being relevant or usable.

It is too easy to find examples of content that should not be on government sites. The UK’s Direct.gov has a page on beekeeping and a guide to growing your own vegetables. These will be dropped from the new Gov.uk website. And my local council’s page about local roller skating has a couple of paragraphs about the history of roller skating which pushes the content I need – the session times – down the page. The page gave the wrong session times for 3 months.

The UK’s National Audit Office report Government on the Internet referred to “ten or more years of un-coordinated growth of government websites” and “sprawling web estate”. The size and complexity makes it hard for citizens to find the information they want in a comprehensible form, the report emphasised.

2. Silos and departments

Government content is often organised by department. There are two problems with this approach: firstly this is usually frustrating for readers as they need to work out first which department is responsible for what they want to do. Secondly, it can lead to content that doesn’t focus on what readers really need.

Of the giant Vancouver.ca site Rahel says there was “no centralised governance to provide a mandate for managing the site as part of a wider digital strategy”. She lays the blame for their out-of-control content on department–based information silos.

Liverpool.gov.uk’s Kevin Jump found that their devolved content model made it hard to focus on what users needed.

3. Pressure from above

From training hundreds of web writers in many UK Government agencies and departments I’ve found that often web teams are told to “put this on the website” when there is very little case for their audience needing the content. It seems that those above may not understand web content.

Rahel again: “…there will be change-resistant bureaucrats who fail to understand the multitude of ways that publishing has changed over the years.”

4. Bureaucracy, jargon and official-speak

Rahel says: “…government bodies have long-standing reputations for being labyrinths of procedures that span multiple departments.…To be useful, content needs to be presented in ways that cut through bureaucracy.”

Not everyone can write. Policy experts within departments often write web content. Often these people have no specific communication or content training.

Janus Boye (http://jboye.com ) says that government sites have to “start talking human”.

Often using clear language meets with resistance from those who think it sounds unprofessional. “Sometimes people do it [use jargon] to make what they are saying seem more interesting than it is, to give something false importance,” says columnist Matthew Parris.

It is fine to use the language of your target audience, but most government content is for non-specialists. It’s when jargon strays outside into public-facing websites that it becomes totally meaningless.

5. Audience

A lack of understanding of who their audience is and what they really need can produce organisation-centric content. Diana Railton has been closely following the development of UK government sites over the last few years:

“Although government departments vary in size and purpose, I’ve found their website content teams usually share the same underlying problem: lack of understanding of who they are addressing – and why. Without this clarity and direction, content tends to be organisation-centric and more expensive to produce than it’s worth.”

Rahel Anne Bailie says that government sites have to grapple with the competing demands of a wide audience, which can be a challenge: “Government and other public-sphere bodies have a unique mandate, and that is to provide information and services to wide audiences. Private industry chooses their target markets and focuses their site activities, from marketing messages to ecommerce efforts, specifically on those markets. Public agencies have many “target markets” which they need to address, some of which are involuntary audiences, and often with a wide range of competing demands – and all of the audiences are entitled to information and service.

6. The web as a PR vehicle

Gerry McGovern finds that all too often the web is used by government as a PR vehicle, rather than serving the needs of users: “At all costs, governments should resist the easy temptation of using publicly funded websites as some cheap propaganda vehicle. One reason why many  citizens have become disaffected with government is because they believe that politicians and bureaucrats are more interested in supporting the system of government itself, rather than in genuinely serving society. Government officials are there to serve and government websites should be exemplary examples of self-service.”

7. Infrastructure

Others point to the shear size of government meaning that systems, both technical and HR, aren’t built to accommodate new best practice. Michael Boses says government websites face a: “lack of ready-made infrastructure to implement the strategy”. He sees technological problems when it comes to standards-based, “intelligent content”.

Frances Gordon points out that there’s lots of resistance to change within government as the wheels often turn slowly.

Difficult to use systems may also cause a proliferation of microsites. Agencies go their own separate way and develop their own in-house CMSs (content management systems). These systems then require a team of technical specialists to keep them going. This will often result in content duplication and wasted staff resources.

Next week we’ll look at what content strategists can bring to government websites.

Use the comments below if you want to suggest a specific subject we should cover in this blog series.

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