May 31, 2007 By Paul W. Taylor
A decade ago, before Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, outgoing British administrators noticed that government hotlines in the former crown colony had grown conspicuously cold, despite their proliferation.
Residents were overwhelmed by more than 1,000 hotlines that were supposed to be their one way to access government information and services. Hong Kong consolidated the hotlines around a single number -- 1823 -- that, owing to the good fortune associated with the number eight in the culture, was promoted as being as easy as 1-2-3, but with a bit of luck.
What was true of hotlines then is true of government Web sites now.
The United Kingdom, this time on its home ground, was among the first to oppose the proliferation of Web pages, microsites and what were called with characteristic British candor "vanity sites" that don't serve a unique, useful purpose. After the change, only 26 of 951 official government sites will remain live, 551 are slated to be shut down, and content from hundreds of others will be consolidated into the 26 more focused and fully featured sites.
"That is very similar to what Massachusetts has been doing," said Susan Parker, director of Mass.gov, the commonwealth's Web site.
At first, the state's strategy was to rein in individual agency Web sites in favor of a topic-based structure. But that meant starting from scratch, which was too risky, and included the prospect of organizational resistance. In a creative compromise, the relatively few Massachusetts Cabinet-level secretariats -- where hundreds of agencies report -- were used as proxies for a topic-based structure.
The secretariat model is well known, Parker said, and carried the added advantage of being "the most politically feasible and practical way to do it."
Two years into its content consolidation effort, Mass.gov serves as the top-level portal that aggregates all content from the secretariats' subportals. The Web presence of the public safety and consumer affairs secretariats are almost fully consolidated, with others well along the way.
The Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services comprises 18 agencies, each of which maintained at least one Web site. Under the Massachusetts' nonproliferation pact, the work done by the decentralized 24-person staff to maintain 18 different sites is now done by a centralized team of seven people working on a single site.
All the content, a single interface and shared services standing behind it all -- the legacy of consolidating massive amounts of content and managing the attendant change.
Parker said consolidation is not an end unto itself, but a way of presenting government in ways that make sense to the people it serves. "In a pure model, you would have no bureaucratic structure reflected in your Web presence," she said. "It would all be organized by topics that citizens care about."
As for the British government, most of the 951 sites are being replaced by "supersites," a term markedly less lyrical than "portal."It is noteworthy that the portal is narrowing while search is expanding in a Web environment where surfacing information and services is the new holy grail.