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Over the past month, some encouraging developments took place on the Government of Canada User Experience (UX) landscape. By far the most important (in my opinion) is the creation of a permanent UX working group (UXWG for the purpose of this article) made up entirely of UX professionals, as part of an interdepartmental web governance structure.
Its original lineup includes the likes of @ResultsJunkie, @sagecram, @spydergrrl, @krisaston, @mjmclean, @patlaj, @jmacerve and @hilittle, all of whom have been actively raising awareness about the importance of positioning and conducting high-quality UX work within the Public Service. I'm not someone who is known for throwing superlatives at the Federal Government, but seeing the internal UX community finally step out of the shadows is truly a huge step forward towards improving the customer experience of every Canadian, regardless of which side of the firewall they are on.
Sadly (for me :O), details of the web managers council UX discussions have not been publicly shared to the outside world, so I've decided to write this post and share my own thoughts on the possible evolution of this encouraging endeavour.
My last blog article had some harsh words directed at those responsible for creating the new website of the Clerk of Privy Council. Public Service employees and people in the community rallied around the opinion that the public should leave the Government alone, irrespective of whether they produce quality or not (calling it 'experimentation'). I still absolutely disagree with that opinion. Everyone's work should be open to critical feedback, especially publicly funded projects. If you put something out there (be it a website, a social media profile, a poster, a photo, a sculpture, a painting etc.), you are opening yourself up for, among other things, criticism. You can choose to act on it, ignore it, or respond to it. But to say that it's ok to produce inferior material because those responsible are not interested in properly researching and creating their deliverables is a fallacy. Someone from within GoC told me offline that the Government can accept to be open, but cannot accept being wrong. When did GoC websites become exempt from being scrutinized?
Others have lamented I am in no position to question the quality of a website because design is subjective. I agree that design is subjective, and I would add that it is also personal. But regardless, we have had design contests since the beginning of time because quality and innovation are also obvious to the masses, and especially to those trained in creating or evaluating visual material. And because there is a huge number of GoC websites, those who have worked in visual communications, design or user experience for the government can pick and choose with relative ease the ones that stand out in quality as well as the ones who are not exactly up to par. So for today's post, I chose to agree to disagree with those who think we should tolerate mediocrity and create a Best and Worst list for GoC CLF-based public website designs.
Best and Worst lists are the bread and butter of many research bodies, including Forrester and Gartner. Bloggers all over the world publish Best and Worst lists every day. To choose these websites, I have reviewed the homepage of every site on the Departments and Agencies list available at www.gc.ca, and also looked at select microsites of some of those departmental homepages.
If you haven't heard the news yet, Mr. Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet (a.k.a. 'His Clerkiness' for brevity reasons for the duration of this post) recently launched his very own slice of web real estate at http://clerk.gc.ca. Nota Bene: no disrespect is intended by using the term 'His Clerkiness', it is simply a catchy, affectionate term that has been making the rounds on Twitter about a week ago, a day before the official launch of the website.
On its own, the very presence of the site marks a bit of a shift in the way the Government of Canada is interacting with its internal (PS employees) and external audience (the public at-large). A real-time Twitter feed (and not a link to a Twitter account) is prominently featured on the main page. CLF bilingualism requirements are met by way of echoing two different Twitter accounts: @WayneWouters for the English version, and @WayneGWouters for those on the other side of the Alexandria Bridge.
So far, His Clerkiness' newly adopted microblogging persona has been relatively quiet. There are only three tweets in the timeline, one announcing the launch of the website, a link to the Clerk's Annual Report and a Thank You note for those who provided feedback on the website. Well, Your Clerkiness, if you haven't received a lot of responses, consider this article my very own way of providing feedback to your new virtual endeavour.
Another relatively unusual component for a GoC CLF-compliant website that can be found on the main page is the presence of a Flash video introduction. Historically, flash video introductions have been used on social networking and blog landing pages. More recently, flash video intros have become increasingly popular within political websites. They are short, official, effective and easy to create, so kudos to His Clerkiness (and/or his communications team) for broadening the CLF spectrum. For those of you keeping track, you can find a second flash video in the How We Help section.
While the reaction to the Government of Canada web template design (CLF3Layout.doc, 100Kb) published in my previous blog post was extremely positive, the item that generated the most intriguing follow-up conversation was the concept of crowdsourcing the CLF 3.0 visual design to the general public.
It is well documented that the Government of Canada has fallen behind other governments when it comes to Gov 2.0 initiatives. Countries like New Zealand, Finland and Australia have all created clean, modern and professional look and feel standards for their government web properties. And although still behind Canada on look and feel standardization, the US Federal Government roared ahead of the pack on the OpenGov front, riding the popularity of crowdsourcing initiatives like Data.gov, Peer to Patent, the recently announced Design for America contest, as well as virally marketed local initiatives like Apps for Democracy. If you are not familiar with these, and youíre wondering just how successful our southern neighbours were in capturing the publicís interest, here's an example: when launched, in May 2009, Data.gov had just 47 data sets. 10 months later, it now has more than 168,000 and it's growing every day. Another country at the forefront of the OpenGov movement, New Zealand, has successfully released data.govt.nz, its own data catalog used for crowdsourcing purposes.
I would venture to say that while I am confident that Canada will (eventually) open its federal data (there are some great internal collaboration and OpenGov initiatives that are driven out by the enthusiastic W2P public servant crowd - twitter search: #w2p), we have clearly missed the boat on being leaders in the open data space. However, there is one initiative that can put Canada right up there with the leaders in this space: crowdsourcing the new version of our Federal Government's look and feel standards (CLF 3.0). To my knowledge, no government has done this yet and pulling it off would not only raise the profile of our Gov2.0 and OpenGov programs, but would bring much needed positive coverage both nationally and internationally for our battered Public Service decision-makers. As they say, if you can't win, make up your own sport :O)
Over the last few years, the Government of Canada has done its best to attempt to control the look and feel of its internal and external web properties by instituting the first two versions of the Common Look and Feel (CLF) Guidelines and mandating that every department and agency adheres to them by certain specific dates. And while the current version (CLF 2.0) is a definite improvement over the original version of CLF in terms of accessibility, coding standards and visual interface features, ask any user experience designer out there (and by out there I mean outside of GoC since I'm outside the firewall and therefore have no idea about the CLF pulse on the inside) and they will tell you that it is still nowhere near a modern web standard.
I mean no disrespect to the guys at TBS, but after a couple of iterations, it's time to get this thing on the right path. I think the first two versions have proven one thing: that creating the visual blueprint of our government's web presence should NOT be left (entirely) up to internal organizations. I can't even begin to guess the total amount of taxpayer money spent on creating the CLF specifications, and the even more obscene amount spent to port government web content from CLF 1.0 to CLF 2.0. And while there are a handful of departments (e.g. Service Canada) that have done a nice job of designing within and around the constraints of CLF, most of the Government of Canada sites (including the TBS site) are still a visual eyesore. And it's not just TBS' fault, it's the individual departments' complete ignorance of color theory and their inability to select design shops (because let's face it, most of them hire external consulting firms to do the web deed for them) that actually understand how to design a professionally pleasant website in the 21st century.
I could go on an on about why CLF 2.0 is bad, but that's not the point of this post. What I'm going to do is attempt to give you my thoughts on what would make CLF 3.0 a much more successful endeavour, from both the GoC perspective, as well as the taxpayers'. Feel free to download the template (MS Word document, 100Kb) that I created for the purpose of this discussion (you can also do so by clicking on the image above). The template is distributed under a Creative Commons (CC) Attribution Share-Alike license.
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