When’s the last time you looked for a specific information on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) website? If you’re like me, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. I spent several weeks last fall working on a paper for a Mass Communications class, and I spent many hours on the FCC site looking for rulings, report and order documents, and other material. It made for a lot of teeth-grating. It seems I’m not alone in my frustration with the FCC site. Michael Marcus, a former FCC employee, recently wrote in his blog,Spectrum Talk

:

The Smithsonian Institution is sometimes called the “nation’s attic” for its jumbled collection of historical artifacts. The jumbled nature of the FCC’s web site deserves a similar name. All sorts of information is there, it’s just hard/nearly impossible to find.

Marcus then delves into the specific limitations of the FCC site, including poor search, visual clutter, redundant links, and the difficulty of finding specific content on the site. Amazingly, the FCC site doesn’t even link directly to published rules and statutes. IP Democracy’s Cynthia Blumfeld cites an example of how difficult it is to find information on the site:

Let me put it this way: without a ââ?¬Å?Docket Number,ââ?¬Â? the average user canââ?¬â?¢t find anything on the FCCââ?¬â?¢s website. Even with a Docket Number, users have to choose from among eight different types of databases and if, by chance, the right database is selected, the results can be a garbled, gargantuan mess. Getting a hold of the Docket Number is not the easiest thing in the world for the uninitiated, either.

The Technology Liberation Front has jumped into the bashing act as well. Jerry Brito kicked off a multi-part analysis of the FCC site by highlighting the site’s search. He searched for Kevin Martin using the fcc.gov search box then ran the same search in Google. The Google results were obviously much more relevant. Building and maintaining the website for a government agency isn’t easy, for several reasons. Here are a few of the many ways a government website can go wrong:

  • The person in charge of the website isn’t given enough political clout. Sometimes the task of running the website is assigned to the IT department. Sometimes it goes to the communications department. In most cases, the person who runs the site has to manage laterally as well as up, obtaining buy-in from several different departments and senior management. This is no easy task, and it takes up a lot of the time the website manager should be using keeping the site up to date.
  • The person in charge of the website isn’t given enough resources. Given that a well-implemented government website can reduce the amount of telephone calls and emails employees receive, you’d think it would be a priority to staff the web team adequately. Unfortunately this often isn’t the case.
  • Information to be published on the website often resides in several different silos within the agency, each of which uses its own database system. While there are methods of dealing with database integration (everything from ad-hoc perl scripts to enormous web application packages), the cost and hassle associated with pulling from the various databases requires management buy-in and money. If even one or two of the database owners drags their feet, it can make such an integration effort supremely difficult.

Whatever the behind-the-scenes cause, the FCC needs to catch up to the rest of the federal government. The website for a government agency can no longer be thought of as ancillary to the agency’s primary function. The transparent, friction-free delivery of information to citizens via the Web is vital to informed debate and good governance. The FCC has been failing us in this regard for too long. Full disclosure: I was the webmaster for the Corporation for National and Community Service (the government agency that administers AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve America, and the Senior Corps) from September, 1997 to January, 1999.

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