In a post published on the White House blog my friend and former colleague Dave McClure invited people to join the Dialogue opened to ask people suggestions about how to improve the US citizen portal USA.gov. This online dialogue will be open only until January 15th and, like previous similar initiatives (e.g. Recovery.gov or Regulations.gov), is a step towards crowdsourcing requirements analysis and design.
This is certainly a good initiative: looking at the first comments USA.gov folks must be commended for the timeliness and articulation of their responses. However it is fair to say that comments are not terribly exciting so far. A few focus on the value added by USA.gov as a search engine or a structured set of links with respect to Google and the likes. One comment raises the issue of web site costs and seems to allude to a possible role of USA.gov in consolidating web sites (pretty much like Direct.gov.uk).
I wonder about the real expectations behind these dialogues. Are they intended as a communication tool to show that government is serious about engagement? After all, at GSA Dave heads the Office of Citizen Service – which runs USA.gov – and Communications – which includes Public Affairs: maybe the latter is a more important component than the former in this initiative.
Wouldn’t it be more exciting to launch a competition for how USA.gov could look like and let people vote and comment on actual mock-ups (either running web sites or simple layouts of the front or sample pages)?The risk of unstructured dialogues is that suggestions and conversations go in multiple directions, and rarely reach a critical mass. Visualizing suggested improvements would be much more powerful and help focus the discussions of those who have a genuine as well as vested toward functional and technical improvements.
The objection is that this would further limit the target for respondents. My reaction is: who cares? In any case an online dialogue publicized on USA.gov and on the White House blog won’t attract more than a negligible fraction of those who use and visit USA.gov. Engaging fewer people on providing concrete proofs of concept may be far more effective.