CONSULTING OPPORTUNITIES ABOUND

The amount of work needed has spawned its own industry in Ottawa with a variety of firms working to bring the government into the Web 2.0 age. In fact, there's enough work to go around that collaboration has become key. The digitalOttawa collective of web strategists has even created a blog to cover all things CLF 2.0, including a countdown (to the second) towards the December 31 compliance deadline.

Feds need local Web 2.0 help to meet year-end deadline

From SCAN’s December print edition

By Robert Janelle

The clock is rapidly ticking within federal government IT departments.

By December 31, all government websites must be compliant with a new set of standards known as Common Look and Feel 2.0 (CLF2.0). This is a major overhaul of the original Common Look and Feel standard which aimed to give all Government of Canada sites a familiar appearance. The update aims to fix many elements on government sites, such as keeping URLs and eddresses consistent, as well as making sure there are both French and English versions.

But the biggest focus of the update is accessibility. Many department and agency sites remain difficult for computer users with disabilities to navigate. For example, a visually impaired user using text-to-speech software will have difficulty navigating sites that aren't properly designed with such software in mind. The strict, fast approaching deadline (any department that isn't ready by the end of the month clfcountdown2.jpgwill need to submit an explanatory report) has created opportunities for the National Capital tech sector. With less than a month to go, there's still a lot of work left to be done on hundreds of government sites. Elements like online surveys and web forms need to be changed, along with creating tools to verify compliance and ensuring that scanned documents are in the new format.

On top of that is the issue of converting various pieces of code over to new standards as some sites use PHP scripting while others are written in .NET, among other languages.

“There's a huge cost involved and a lot opportunities as well,” says Darren De Jean, director of business development for Thinknostic, one of many local firms working with government departments to get their sites fixed up.

The amount of work needed has spawned its own industry in Ottawa with a variety of firms working to bring the government into the Web 2.0 age. In fact, there's enough work to go around that collaboration has become key. The digitalOttawa collective of web strategists has even created a blog to cover all things CLF 2.0, including a countdown (to the second) towards the December 31 compliance deadline.

Another big challenge with CLF2.0 involves the government adopting more and more of the social aspects of the web that make it 2.0. Providing blogs to departments, for example, requires modifying blog content management systems to be compliant with CLF2.0.

The adoption of social web technology within the government has been slower than in the private sector but social media projects are being pushed along by tech-savvy public servants and outside web consultants. One of the government's flagship examples of social media use, which illustrates both the benefits and challenges of Web 2.0 technology in government, is the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) blog.

Along with standardizing the look and making sure everything is accessible, when adding in social aspects to sites that involve communication, there's also the aspect of creating policy to go with it. An example is dealing with one of the very features that separates blogs from other web sites: comments, where readers can leave instant feedback. In order to deal with this fear, comments on official government blogs are moderated but that still required the creation of a policy.

“It has to be constructive,” says digitalOttawa web strategist Marquis Coté of comments. While “Great post,” may be a positive statement, he says, it doesn't add to the discussion, and while criticism is welcome, writing an attack on the government that has nothing to do with the content of the blog post is also not accepted.

The second half of dealing with comments is allowing public servants working in communication departments to respond to the comments that are approved. This can become difficult in an environment that's notorious for making employees fill out requisition forms in triplicate and seek approval from multiple levels of management in order to perform even simple tasks.

Colin McKay, director of research, education and outreach at OPC, writes for the official blog. He says one solution to the comment reply issue is to take a similar approach to government researchers releasing a white-paper and being available for questions: anticipate what people are going to ask and have pre-approved answers ready.

That said, replying to comments could become less of an issue depending on the outcome of studies currently in progress. Within the public sector, there are two inter-department sub-working groups researching Web 2.0 integration, one of which is focused on current policies and how they might be repositioned to reflect the new social media age.

The second sub-working group is analyzing best practises for government social media strategy, looking at things like the OPC blog.

Social media within the government isn't useful only for communicating with the public. There are internal uses as well. For some time, the Treasury Board Secretariat has been using an internal wiki to draft possible policies, a process that has become faster as people in the department have the ability to log into the Intranet and start making suggested changes.

The use of internal wikis has received such a positive reaction that another pilot project has been to create a wiki across departments called GCPedia. So far its use has been limited to a few groups that include federal librarians and the social media working groups.

“That use is growing and there's more demand,” says Government of Canada CIO Ken Cochrane. “We didn't really understand them until we started using them.” Wikis have also proven useful for collaboration among those working on CLF2.0. Mike Kujawkski, strategist for the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing, has created one to compile best practices for government web sites.

Regardless of how reports from government committees or public policies turn out, according to Mr. Coté, the change is going to happen whether senior bureaucrats and politicians currently want it or not. “There's a generation gap,” he says of younger public servants. “If it's not done now, it'll be done later.”

He does note, though, that social media has become an easier sell. “It used to be that it was the techies screaming upwards that we should be doing this,” he says. “Now it's coming down from deputy ministers saying 'my kids are on Facebook, we should be using that.'”

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