As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Digital.gov — celebrating its 10th anniversary on February 14, 2024 — used to be called WebContent.gov. In the mid-2000s, the WebContent.gov team published the top 10 best practices for great government websites. In those days, they printed this list on a clipboard so every web manager across the government could have it at their fingertips, on their desks.
Despite a significant amount of change in federal websites and digital services over the past two decades, the fundamental aspects in how they are managed have remained the same.
Let’s take a look at the constants that persist over time and each best practice — then and now.
1. Meet all federal requirements, policies, and other directives
When this checklist was first published, the overarching policy guiding federal web management was OMB M-05-04 Policies for Federal Agency Public Websites, issued December 17, 2004.
Today, that policy has been updated twice, evolving into OMB M-23-22 Delivering a Digital-First Public Experience. Management practices are more sophisticated, but the core principles remain the same.
2. Have a web governance plan
Twenty years ago, web governance was a new idea, but now the principles of web governance are key to maintaining any digital environment. Web governance is especially important for federal agencies, since a federal website is often the first (or only) contact someone has with a federal agency. So, federal websites must be managed by skilled, knowledgeable people, empowered to publish websites that meet the needs of users.
3. Have an established process for managing content
Content is still king, and agencies continue to struggle with managing the sheer volume of content we publish. Many federal websites have been online for decades, and it’s often much easier to publish something new than it is to clean up what’s already online. A recurring theme in OMB M-23-22 is the need to review and clean up redundant, outdated, or trivial content.
Check out a conversation about content audits to get some ideas that you can incorporate into your content management process.
4. Collaborate across agencies to manage and deliver web content and avoid duplication
It’s always been in the best interest of our customers that we collaborate across silos and agencies. In response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, federal web managers came together and developed the “lane” concept to ensure agencies distribute accurate information on our websites during emergency situations.
Today, this concept is codified in Emergency Support Function 15 (ESF-15) of FEMA’s National Response Framework, which organizes authoritative “lanes” of communication across the federal government during emergencies.
5. Focus on tasks rather than information
People are busy. If they don’t have a reason, they won’t visit your website. That’s as true today (maybe moreso) than twenty years ago, so helping people complete their top tasks is still at the core of federal web management.
What are top tasks?
There are two core elements of top tasks: top tasks identification and task performance indicator. Watch this one-hour talk to understand how to use top tasks to prioritize and continuously improve what is truly important.
6. Follow usability best practices
The field of usability has broadened to address the varied experiences of people as they use our websites. You may hear people talk about user experience, customer experience, or digital experience. They are all slightly different fields of work to make our websites and digital services easy to find, understand, and use.
When the first federal web policies were issued, smartphones were in their infancy, but now digital practitioners incorporate mobile-first designs into their products. Today most people use mobile devices to view government websites.
According to analytics.USA.gov, about 54% of sessions to federal government websites in the executive branch are from a mobile device, 45% from a desktop, and 1% from a tablet. Over time, these best practices have had to adjust to changing technology, but because the best practices always center user experience, that shift has been seamless.
7. Evaluate the effectiveness of your website
As agencies look more and more to digital channels to serve customers and meet missions, accountability for delivering useful and effective information and services continues to be a priority. We have better tools now to measure website performance and user experience, as more teams across government continue to mature their ability to gather, analyze, and use data and customer feedback to improve effectiveness of digital services.
Learn from the Internal Revenue Service as they share how they collect user feedback and use web analytics to improve Free File, one of the IRS’s most widely used applications.
8. Get found on search engines
Search continues to be a primary way people find information on the internet. Agencies continue to get better at creating and editing content that’s tailored to reader search patterns, because if users can’t easily find the content they need, it may as well not exist.
9. Create opportunities for customers to interact with their government
When the first federal web policies were issued, social media was in its infancy, but agencies have fully embraced the idea of participatory government, and today it’s easier than ever to interact with government agencies. For example, now it’s commonplace for agencies to offer a variety of communication and collaboration channels to the public—from social platforms, to email, blogs, feeds, and even challenges and code repositories.
10. Celebrate when you’ve done the Top 9!
We don’t often take time to celebrate our successes, as most people we know who work in this space always have plenty of tasks on their to-do list. When they check something off, they typically move right on to the next thing because a web manager’s work is never done. But our communities have come a long way in the past two decades, and we continue to grow, and learn, and deliver for the public, every single day.
Take a minute now to think about all we’ve accomplished together, while remaining true to the core values and best practices this community was founded on. We have a lot to be proud of.