Post 9-11, the world is a changed place. Governments need to realise that Web site information for their citizens needs to go beyond how to make online rates payments and where to get a dog licence. Before the psychological scar tissue from the September 11 terrorist attacks on US soil had even begun to harden came the anthrax attacks. With the soft underbelly of the United States exposed for the first time, already badly traumatised citizens found themselves laid open to new levels of fear and uncertainty. Suddenly everyone looked like a potential victim. No one could be sure they were safe, every individual seemed vulnerable to this mysterious white powder harbouring its all-but-invisible plague of death.
Rumours and misinformation abounded, partly fuelled by the talking heads presenting an endless chain of breaking news. If fear and confusion were the aim, the terrorists looked well on the way to achieving their goals with relatively little additional effort.
So much foreboding poisoning the air far more effectively than the anthrax spores themselves created a huge demand for good, reliable information. How real was the threat? How do you get anthrax? Am I likely to be a victim? Should I get a gas mask? Should I be vaccinated?
Sadly those who turned to US government Web sites for information, reassurance and timely guidance about how to prepare for, or react to, terrorist or anthrax attacks were sorely disappointed. Gartner last October conducted a survey of 10 US government Web sites to evaluate their effectiveness as a tool in the war on terrorism. Every single one received a failing grade.
The survey evaluated three US federal sites:
- Firstgov, which is maintained by the General Services Administration (GSA) and positioned as a single source for US government interaction;-The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was responsible for much of the relief, rescue and other emergency recovery coordination related to the terrorist attacks of September 11; and- The Department of Health and Human Services, which also had some humanitarian relief responsibilities after the attacks, but more importantly has oversight of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and other public-health infrastructures.
Gartner also selected six states for evaluation. New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania were naturally all included, given that each of those states had felt the direct impact of the terrorist attacks. Gartner also threw in California, as a recognised early adopter of e-government; and they looked at Florida and Texas as states that had made significant e-government efforts. As a benchmark they chose the government of the United Kingdom's site, UKOnline, because of that government's experience with repeated domestic terror attacks tied to the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The results overall were unimpressive. The researchers found little accountability for the terrorism-related information government agencies provided to the public. Worse, different agencies were offering different advice on similar subjects, with the US Post Office, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and New York State each providing conflicting methodologies for handling contaminated mail. Few sites even had much information on terrorism, and what was on offer was out of date.
The failings have proved a timely warning - and are of much more than academic interest to Australian governments. In these troubled times the best immunisation against fear and hysteria are the weapons of knowledge and information.
Yet as Gartner research director Steve Bittinger points out, governments around the world, including those in Australia, are going to have to do much, much better in future. "No country is safe, no matter how many locks and chains you put on the door," Bittinger says.
"Every technology can be used for both good and for evil and so we have to think about how to build into our technologies mechanisms to minimise the risk of them being used wrongly." Bittinger says it's a challenge for society as a whole, with global pressure to start to re-engineer society to be less fragile. If society fails to re-engineer to become more robust, then "bad things will happen".
In Bittinger's book, building robust societies in part means keeping citizens as fully informed as possible about any new menace as it arises. When citizens feel under threat, they need information and as much reassurance as those they have entrusted with their safety can legitimately provide. Governments have a responsibility to provide both.
In this context Gartner says the US government Web site lapses were all the more serious. "Government agencies have an obligation to provide the public with relevant information, such as preparedness resources, and to allow citizens to interact with government," Bittinger says. "National authorities responsible for homeland defence must establish authoritative content sources for Web-based information on terrorism. National, state or provincial, and municipal agencies should use the national authoritative sources when developing their localised Web sites."
But when three Gartner analysts evaluated sites for information regarding terrorism threats, specifically: usefulness as a resource for protecting against terrorism; where to go with information related to suspected terrorism; what to do if affected by terrorism, directly or indirectly; and the availability of relief for victims of terrorism; they found the sites badly failed their US constituents.
"Only the Web sites of some of the states that had experienced working with natural disasters - hurricanes, tornadoes, floods - had more information and more practical details available," says Bittinger.
When Gartner analysts evaluated the government Web sites based on three criteria - use of medium, content and constituent centricity - no site scored above 40 per cent. They found state Web sites were often highly political, sprinkled with references to press releases announcing government initiatives by senior political officials, elected or appointed. The most egregious example was Pennsylvania's site, which encouraged users to "watch the inauguration" of Governor Mark Schweiker.
US federal sites meanwhile suffered from "bureaucratese", leaving citizens struggling to decipher the value of links with obscure titles. Firstgov was a jumble of information from many different agencies that was basically only friendly to government employees. While a navigation scheme provided some guidance, there was no overall concept of what "should" be on the site. Worse, since the information provided was all linked from agencies, users had to learn new navigation schemes and layouts for each bit of information.
This led to the researchers' most damning criticism: "The search function is advanced and useful but, overall, the site suffers from the lack of a vision and understanding of the information and service needs of constituents."
And while all the federal sites had front-page terrorism links and information, most were mere news reporting. Even FEMA, which might have seemed to many citizens the logical place to turn for assistance, sorely disappointed. Like the US government main site www.firstgov.gov, it proved to serve government employees far better than it did the general public. Those citizens turning to it for serious information were forced to scroll extensively before even reaching the search field.
"The site is stingy with information for businesses and families that may want to prepare for terrorism, and it is difficult to find the information," the Gartner researchers found.
The US Department of Health and Human Services site was found to be useful to its employees as an intranet site but less so to citizens looking for guidance.
Indeed of all the sites surveyed only three were consistently rated as useful: Firstgov, the main entry point to the US government, along with the Web sites of California and Florida. The California and Florida sites were found to be effectively leveraging the disaster preparedness material relevant to earthquakes and hurricanes (respectively) and providing up-to-date advice to citizens - although less so to businesses.
And when it came to the UK government the news was little better.
"Having decades of experience combating domestic terrorism, it would be expected that the United Kingdom would have a reasonable level of support for citizens, businesses, emergency responders and others who are looking for help," the analysts wrote. "The Home Office maintains such a site, but it is a random library of materials, useful, but poorly organised."
And the report noted that no effort was made to quickly update the site in the aftermath of the US attacks.
"Several sites have information on the attacks in the United States but no reasonable navigation scheme linking everything together in a coherent fashion. The search capabilities include an exceptionally robust advanced search, as well as helpful relevancy rankings of results. The best feature of the site is the consolidated online 'help centre' (www.emergencynews.ukonline.gov.uk/helpcentre.htm). Overall, however, despite tremendous investment, the site is disappointing," the report said.
Lessons for Australia
In absorbing the import of the Gartner research Bittinger suggests Australian governments should start to look carefully at the way their Web sites are handled. He says the tendency here is for every government agency to feel as if their job is to reinvent the wheel, and it shouldn't be that way.
"We have today a situation where many government agencies have their own Web site and the question is: 'Is that really a good place to be?'," he says. "There's a challenge of keeping all of those Web sites up to scratch.
"There is however good indication that that's not the way it's always going to be. There's indication that in future we'll see far more of a consolidation of separate independent government agency Web sites into more of whole-of-government type Web sites," he says.
Indeed in some instances he believes agencies will move into allowing specialist commercial organisations to handle whole-of-government Web site provision on their behalf. That way, instead of having to keep dozens or hundreds of Web sites up to a high-quality standard the challenge becomes the much simpler one of keeping a relative handful of Web sites up to a high-quality standard. Coordinating between Web sites or referring to best practice in a particular area suddenly becomes a much easier task too.
"All of those government Web sites that the US survey looked at would have been better off if they'd all pointed to a very well recognised central focus point for disaster management issues. They could leverage that and then in their particular industry or area of coverage provide some additional insight that tacks to the basic core information," he says.
Bittinger says governments should also be working hard on getting feedback from citizens about the usefulness of the information they provide. vSudden SensitivitiesSometimes the war on terrorism is as much involved in trying to remove information from the Internet as it is in getting information out there designed to build public confidence.
On November 27, 2001, Los Angeles Times staff writer David Colker reported that within days of the September 11 attacks the US federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry moved to pull a document called "Industrial Chemicals and Terrorism" from its Web site.
Unfortunately the document, with its description of sources for home-brew nerve gases and improvised explosives, proved far harder to kill than officials might have hoped.
Colker reported the thorny document was at several locations, despite officials' best efforts to eliminate it. For instance, at the time of his report it was available at the site for the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. It could also be found at a UC Santa Cruz graduate student's Web site and the databanks of the Internet Archive, a non-profit venture that has electronically stored an estimated 10 billion Web pages in an effort to preserve the Web's history.
More tellingly still, Colker noted the Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is but one of several agencies, both public and private, facing this problem.
"Contrary to concerns about too much censorship in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the reality is that some agencies are having a hard time censoring anything that was once published on the Internet," he wrote.
In his story Colker noted that a host of supposedly erased documents were still living on in the electronic ether, including maps of nuclear reactors, pictures of secret spy satellite facilities and a description of a NASA space propulsion project.
In many cases, agencies were ignorant of the fact that their erased documents were still available to Web surfers. One example he quoted was that detailed maps from the Energy Department's International Nuclear Safety Centre were still readily retrievable through the Internet archive.
Sites Illustrating Crisis Communications PrinciplesThe Gartner report said that September 11 transformed what had previously been a public-safety issue into a crisis management issue. As a tool for crisis response, a Web site is only a vehicle for delivering a coherent message, for fulfilling a well-understood mission and for detailing a vision. Immediately following the 9-11 attacks, the two Web sites best illustrating these three principles were:
- The Official New York City Web Site: www.nyc.gov- Maryland US Senator's Bill Frist's inspiring and useful (particularly for bioterrorism information) Web site: www.senate.gov/~frist/.
Improving Government Anti-Terrorism Web SitesAccording to Gartner researchers F Caldwell and R Valdes, government sponsors must be sensitive to three areas: use of medium, content and constituent centricity. The following guidelines are suggested in development of anti-terrorism Web sites.
Use of Medium
- Place a "hot link" on the official Web site that takes the user to a special Web site for terrorism-related information.
- "Get inside the user's head." Use a life-events navigational strategy for the special Web site that guides the user to the information and services.
- Validate and improve search functionality. Ensure information is tagged in a way that improves the search results so that users get the most relevant and recent information.
- Establish consistent layouts and navigation so that the user does not face a different scheme for each source of content.
Content - Use an authoritative content strategy by assigning accountability for each content source.
Business and Public Policy: business and public policy.
Government: e-government and e-governance.
Drivers, Strategies and Management Issues.
- Get ahead of the problem. Decide what should be on the special emergency or terrorism Web site and the official national, state or agency portal. Don't just react to the next event.
- Use a frequently asked questions (FAQs) page for short answers to the most-pressing questions from constituents with links to more detailed information.l Avoid news reporting.