Two years of my professional life were spent working at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. The first year, I worked on the World Bank funded eLiberia project with the task of creating a “One-Stop Shop” environment (Government e-Portal), to enable Government deliver services and information to citizens online. The second year, saw me working with various stakeholders (Government, Private sector, NGOs, etc) toward the achievement of a robust e-government program that would change the way Government delivers services and information to citizens. During those two years, I managed to complete my doctorate degree writing a dissertation on e-Government in developing countries with focus on Liberia. I learned a lot of things about our Government’s initiatives toward digital government or e-government. I also learned about those lingering problems that continue to hinder our efforts to achieve our goal. One of those “lingering problems” is the totally unorthodox and non-standard way in which Government’s websites are being handled, despite the existence of a comprehensive e-government web strategy developed by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MoPT) and its partners.
In today’s article, I place focus on Government websites; meaning the websites of Ministries, Agencies and Commissions (MACs). I try to discuss this “lingering” problem that continues to retrogress our efforts to achieve a robust e-government platform. I then proffer better ways to build government websites based on the E-Government Web Strategy that we developed at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications; a strategy that many MACs seem to be ignoring.
You see, government websites present the public face of “them” to their online constituents. As such, they should be the focus of much research, investigation and very meticulous implementation approaches. Their development must focus on the foundational aspects of e-government and must provide direction for future e-government development. The Government of Liberia already has the foundational aspects of e-government in place. But, it has been very difficult for those who do not understand the whole “e-government initiative” to adhere to the standards and policies that form part of the framework of our e-government program
Take a few minutes and examine a few of our government websites and then compare them with other countries’ government websites. Now compare them with the e-Government Strategy developed by the MoPT. You will find that, many GoL websites are dull and totally not user-friendly or user-centric. You will also find that there are websites that do not carry the .gov.lr domain, which authenticates websites as a GoL entity. Others were primarily developed in a hurry because the developer wanted to get paid simply for putting up a WordPress site with lots of images and scanty information about services provided by that MAC. In my opinion, this is an absolute travesty e-government and undermines the hard work and resources that were put into creating a robust e-government platform by previous stakeholders. Building government websites involves a lot of things including usability, visuals and the overall user experience. Not just an easy-to-use Content Management System (CMS) that allows the designer with no coding experience to upload photos of the head of the institution and his/her colleagues. That is not a website; that is a photo gallery.
Now that we have identified some of the problems with our Government’s websites, indulge me while I provide some insight into how to build a government website or an e-government website.
First, it is imperative that those developing Government websites familiarize themselves with the GoL’s e-Government Web Strategy, which should be or can be found at the MoPT.
Second, prior to considering the development of a website, a MAC must do due diligence. That is, before beginning the web project, certain details must be understood. We call this point, “phase zero”. This phase requires that all critical decisions and understanding of the initiative are made clear before engaging the various phases of the web development project because unspoken assumptions at the outset almost guarantee unnecessary delay.
Third, to build a robust e-government website, requires a team and that the initiative be seen as a “project”. The project team involves multiple stakeholder including designers, developers, graphics experts, content managers, employees, partners, other government organizations, businesses and citizens etc. Within this group is the technical team which could be formed in-house if the skills are available. Otherwise, the technical or development team, could be a private firm. The latter is encouraged as it enhances productivity and innovation.
Fourth, understanding the requirements and then performing several other tasks including interviews with stakeholders is crucial. Also, the team must be able to deliver a prototype and have the users both internal and external evaluate the site to how a system should look and behave, and then having users evaluate how well it meets their needs and expectations, Valuable feedback gotten from this exercise will help improve the final design, ensure that forms and other processes are simple and functional and reduce the need for changes during development.
Fifth, the developer must consider the fact that Government is experiencing financial strangulations, yet the citizens’ expectations for how Government’s information and services are delivered online remain high. In view of this, I recommend, (as does the e-government web strategy) the use of any one of the following Open Source Content Management Systems (CMS): Drupal, Joomla and WordPress. These are CMSes that are used by the other large institutions including the U.S.A’s Whitehouse.gov, Securities & Exchange Commission, Department of Commerce, Small Business Administration, Department of Education, Energy, EPA, FCC, Federal Trade Commission, Whitehouse.Gov, U.S. Congress, Congressional Budget Office, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the US Department of State (ShareAmerica.gov and U.S. Embassy Websites), etc.
Sixth, the home page of the website should be task-oriented. This is because, Citizens visit government websites to accomplish a goal, not to admire the graphic design. In addition, the developer must apply user-experience or UX design principles in order to keep up with citizens’ rising expectations for government websites. Also, Citizens expect to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime and on any device in a secure manner. Therefore, the website MUST BE RESPONSIVE.
Seventh, accessibility is crucial, therefore, MACs’ websites must be free of barriers that make it difficult for citizens with disabilities to access. An accessible design ensures that all potential visitors, including those with disabilities, will have a pleasant user experience. By making content accessible through screen readers, voice commands and keyboard-only access, agencies can ensure that all users have equal opportunity and access to government information and services.
Finally, a few other things to must be part of this process is the inclusion of search engine optimization. In addition, capabilities such as information sharing, working across boundaries (inter-organizational network), leadership, readiness, governance, data assets and technical skills should uncompromisingly addressed. That’s all for now. Until Next Week,
By: Dr. Darren Wilkins ([email protected] | 0777129092/0886703789)