Blog post

Time to Pull the Plug on Government Web Sites?

By Andrea Di Maio | August 11, 2011 | 23 Comments

web 2.0 in government

Those who have been following my research since my early days at Gartner may remember my note about the irrelevance of government portals (published in January 2001, login required), as well as my rants on the same topic on this blog.

I just read that the city of Takeo in Japan has decided to shut down its official web site and just maintain a presence in Facebook. The web site will be maintained mostly to redirect visitors to the Facebook page.

One could argue that this is a controversial choice and that forces people to join Facebook to get access to city information on-line. Also, there is little evidence that people really like institutional pages on Facebook.

But this is not the point. The point is that it is possible to get rid of the web site, and even more of those government portals that aim at providing a life event view of services and information to citizens and enterprises and almost inevitably fail to model access the way people do expect or need it.

Think about it.

  • Citizens who are occasional, infrequent users of a government web site or portal, will most likely search for what they need: whether on an external search engine (more likely) or on the web site itself, they are not looking for a fancy, consistent interface that takes them through the “logical” steps, but just for effective search results.
  • Citizens who are more regular users, as they have periodic administrative obligations or have the right to periodic benefits, may either use intermediaries or expect those interactions to be modeled around what they see as the “logical” steps (e.g. integrated with their on-line banking access as well as their social networking connections) rather than what government believes are the logical steps.
  • Small business are likely to behave like the citizens above, while larger businesses want to run applications that do integrate with web services provided by the relevant authorities they interact with, so they are not likely to be interested in the web sites either.
  • Last but not least, anything that smells “participation” or “engagement” needs to take place on a mainstream social media platform, possibly on the citizens’ own virtual turf (i.e. their groups, their blogs, their Facebook pages) rather than on the governments’ one.

So, as governments are struggling to save money going forward, why don’t they start with pulling the plug on their web sites? And I am not suggesting to just consolidate them into a single portal, like the Brits have been doing for some time. Let’s see if they can pull the plug or, more realistically, dramatically scale those down too.

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  • Jimi Bostock says:

    Been reading ya stuff for a long time – sorry mate, you are losing the plot big time. Just saying

  • Carolyn says:

    Even if we don’t shut down the government website, your question is helpful in clarifying the reasons citizens use government websites.

    One main reason not to shut it down is government is expected to always “be there”. Like any business, social media sites and online news sites can (and sometimes do) go away overnight. Don’t forget the Failwhale. And why Facebook? Why not Google+?

    Second, there should be no (login required), so to speak. Believe it or not, some people trust Facebook even less than they trust government. Why make civic participation dependent on surrendering portions of your privacy to a corporation that will monetize it?

    I don’t want a crowdsourced opinion on when my garbage will be collected. I don’t want to have to sift through the mass of information out there on the web to find the proper permit application, or tax form for my business. And I don’t want corporate interests controlling my access to my government.

    It’s one thing to use Twitter, another thing entirely to make interaction with elected representatives dependent on it. As a citizen I don’t want my local, county, or state government to surrender its existence to, and become dependent upon, corporations to provide basic service information to me, the citizen. When I want to talk to my alderman, I don’t want to have to create a FB account to do it.

  • @Carolyn – You make some excellent points, pretty much in line with the “no-wrong-door” policy that many governments have been adopted in building a multi-channel presence. But the question is: with declining resources and the risk of defaulting on some statutory obligations, is there a way to make choice that – although not ideal – allows governments to more effectively utilize their IT money? Now, I am not suggesting that governments stop providing information (e.g. on when garbage will be collected), but stop spending on making their web experience particularly compelling and on “seamlessly” integrating on-line services, since most of us will keep “google” those.
    As far as the shift to a particular platform, I understand it has been a thorny issue for Takeo as well. However if you want to support participation and engagement at an affordable cost reaching out to the largest possible audience, Facebook today is a sensible choice. Again not ideal, again it does not answer the “openness” question, but a much better way to start than spending money on building web 2.0 functionality on a web site that not so many people do care about.

  • @Jimi – Your comment is a bit succinct, but from your link I understand you are in the gov 2.0 consulting business. If that’s the case, I do understand your reaction: the more governments leverage simple, consumer stuff, the less vendors are able to make money out of web strategies. But this is true only if those vendors do not understand the opportunities that moves like Takeo’s do create.
    It is interesting, and somewhat refreshing, that now, as much as ten years ago, when I was advising against spending too much money on portals, criticism mostly comes from vendors 🙂

  • Rory Gibson says:

    Disclaimer: I work for Technphobia, and we’re currently engaged in a local government project that’s effectively building a portal for Council services – a microcosm of the situation you describe. (We’re not a vendor, we’re technology agnostic and we favour Open Source solutions.)


    It’s all very well to say “people will just Google for it” – and quite right – but it misses the point that the information has to exist somewhere; and in some cases those pages *have* to be on Government sites, as it’s important to identify a single source of truth (“how do i pay my taxes?”).

    In order to publish this information, websites are required – previously, many Govt’s – including the UK – have suffered a proliferation of sites, and the cost accrued is massive (£130m p.a. from this reference:

    Bringing those sites together represents a potential cost saving, and allows the data to be presented in a coherent, logical fashion – which is important, not just for users – but also for search engines.

    If you read the collateral produced by the UK effort (now – see previous link) one of the key aims has been to identify nodes – loci of information on particular subjects – which act as jumping-off points from search engines, and act as that single source of truth for a given domain.

  • Shaun Hills says:

    To add to what Rory’s said, a couple of years back the UK Department of Health commissioned a study of National Health Service (NHS) website usage. In UK Government IT, the NHS is somewhat notorious for the number of websites it runs.

    If I recall correctly, the results suggested the NHS *brand* was quite important for end users. They cared less whether it was NHS site A or NHS site B (or D, or E, or…); after all most users of NHS services will have little idea how the service is structured behind the scenes, nor should they need to know. Instead, importance was attached to it being “an NHS site” and therefore a trustworthy source of health information.

  • @Rory – Thanks for your points and link. There is trade off between consolidation and devolution though. While a single and coherent information architecture makes perfect sense from a cost containment perspective, it may clash with the need for flexibility and for targeting different web sites (or – for that matter – social media pages) to different target audiences. It also misses that point that information collected by people themselves (social data) is becoming very important. When I google “how do I pay my taxes” I want advice from people who are like me, people who found loopholes in the system, expert accountants, as well as the tax office. I guess the question one has to ask is: “a coherent. logical fashion for whom?”. As failing one-stop shop and life event models have shown, what makes sense from a government perspective may not make much sense from the people perspective: and web 2.0 is making the latter increasingly important.

  • @Shaun – Last year, when I was moderating a round table with government CIOs in Belgium, we were discussing about a similar topic, and one of them said “Truth and trust are two different thing: even if we build a web site that is meant to be the single source of truth, with people trust it?”.

  • Hey Andrea – Two quick things:

    1 – Your thinking is in alignment with the push toward consolidating and eliminating Federal websites, as discussed here:
    So I’ll give you points there.

    2 – But I would contend that rather than moving government websites to social destinations on the web, the opposite should happen: government should more fully integrate social elements into their websites, seeking to improve the user experience and create opportunities for engagement on their “home turf.” The primary reason for this recommendation is that government websites provide the official designation that ensures trust and an authoritative voice – two critical elements for public information.

  • Martha says:

    Hi Andrea –

    A hot topic as of late. I’ve been watching the UK alpha — beta gov work unfold.

    I think many governments, mine included are still struggling with the Web 1.0 world. A return to the basics is needed by way of web content as there is still tremendous value in it as long as users/citizens are kept at the forefront of our thinking.

    Trim the fat (considerably), design for users/tasks and not government officials and see what you’re left with. I think it’s then that we’ll be able truly determine content/site value and how best to move forward. I think consolidation is likely that better answer to “portals” which I agree, only put a pretty face to an underlying mess.

    Great discussion to continue. Thanks.


  • Eric says:

    A city government’s decision to pull the plug on their website is akin to saying, “I’m not very good at throwing a ball, so I’m just going to stop trying.” There are an amazing number of open-source solutions governments can leverage to create cost-friendly, effective sources of information as well as engagement.

    “Gov 2.0” is a blossoming field, and we’re all working to define it. As more and more options are explored by governments around the world, the “best practices” will rise out of them, and I commend Takeo for taking such a bold step. It should be educational to see how the decision plays out over time, since, at this point, every experiment and decision is a learning lesson for all.


  • Kerry Webb says:


    I’m a little confused. I think you’re suggesting that whole-of-government portals could be abolished, not all government websites. Is that right?

    Otherwise how are we going to do our motor vehicle licensing or apply for a building development permit. Please don’t tell me “there’s an app for that”.

    For all its clunkiness, Web 1.0 has one big benefit: no barrier to enty.

  • It’s interesting that I’ve been forecasting for some time now that what Takeo did would start happening gradually to commercial websites (particularly starting with small business sites), but it hadn’t occurred to me that government sites could actually do this, specifically for the reasons that @Carolyn mentioned above. But thanks for bringing this example to light, I’m really interested in seeing what the longer-term results will be (If they’ll be measured in some strategic, coherent way, and with government, that’s always a big if).

  • @Andrew – It is important to balance how much engagements should happen on other stakeholders’ virtual turf (e.g. a citizens’ group on Facebook or an NGO blog) and how much should take place on the government’s own virtual turf (for which moderation and public record principles clearly apply). The latter, though, comprises two different approaches: (1) enhancing an existing web site with web 2.9 functionality (including community support) and (2) leveraging an existing social media platform.
    I would argue that government should listen to and engage on its stakeholders community and then determine for which topics and at which point in time (e,g, when official records must be kept) it should adopt (1) or (2) above.
    So it is not B&W, but making the business case for (1) is not straightforward

  • @Martha – Indeed, but I suspect that the “design for users/tasks and not government officials and see what you’re left with” part is not so easy.
    So, if I make an analogy with what’s going on with the open gov and open data movement – where governments open their data hoping that external stakeholders will make something valuable with it – then I would argue that the same should apply to the way government web sites are organized. Let’s make sure information and services are there, work reliably and are sustainable from the cost perspective, and let others (search engines, app developers, intermediaries) figure out how to pull them together. Of course if rigorous architectural and interoperability principles are applied, that’s going to be far easier: but we live in an imperfect and resource-constrained world, so we have to live with what is possible and what with what is desirable.

  • @Kerry – You’re right: my main focus is on government portals. However when it comes to new or revised web sites, the social media platform option is interesting to explore, as @Eric suggested above.
    And, speaking about barriers to entry, I do appreciate that asking a citizen to have an account on Facebook is debatable, but if citizens are more compelled to spend time on Facebook than connecting to a government web site (and possibly use Facebook credentials rather than a userid and password they will most likely forget), then I am not sure it is more a barrier than an enabler.
    Of course there is a long way to go to make the Tekeo option sustainable. Think about public record, and data location when you move from information to service provision.

  • Andrea,
    We are a small state government with only 2.8 million citizens. And yet, our domain – now receives between 1.2 and 1.4 million unique visitors a month. In 2010, we performed over 25 million online transactions through, making it perhaps the greatest vehicle for generating government efficiencies that allow us to reallocate funds to education, transportation, and other critical needs. The brand is recognized across the state and is widely trusted by our citizens. The portal is a very important part of creating that brand and helping our citizens get to the information and services that they need. Do we do Facebook and other social media? Of course we do as you can see at . But, we’re not about to abandon all the services and content that we have on for a more transitory Facebook experience and I hope that there aren’t too many others who are taking that idea seriously. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    Dave Fletcher

  • fran foo says:

    Hi Andrea, who holds the IP/copyright for the content/citizens page? facebook or the government agency?


  • Buddy says:

    Somehow I don’t think that shuttering a website is really going to have a meaningful impact on a city’s financial well being. Do you have any data to support your assertion? What percentage of the overall cost actually goes to keeping the website online? I’d think the greater cost is in content generation and management — something that won’t go away by switching to Facebook. What about cities that provide transactional services via their websites (pay you water bill, pay your taxes, apply & pay for permits, pay speeding tickets, etc)? On the topic of privacy, why should I have to log into a service and make information about myself known just to get some tidbit of civic data (like when I’m allowed to water my lawn during rationing periods)?

  • @Dave – I guess yours is a great example of a web site that serves its purpose, and it is sustainable. I concur that it would make little sense to discontinue it. Nor was I suggesting that Facebook (or some other consumer social media platform) should replace government web sites: the Japanese example was meant to present an alternative course of action that clearly challenges the common wisdom and may be useful when doing some scenario planning exercise around the future of government web sites, especially in those cases where they are failing (or start failing) to address their intended audience.
    The point you make about the brand issue is an important one. A trustworthy online resource branded by government makes a lot of sense, but maybe less in places (clearly not Utah) where trust in government is low or is decreasing, or in places that have struggled to attract a significant user base, and so forth. What is important is to provide accurate information and access to decent e-services, while the channel may be less important (unless there is an urge to control it to protect one own’s brand).
    I suspect that the future looks like a blend between the Tekeo and the Utah approach.

  • @Buddy – I have never said that transactional services should be implemented on Facebook, but that Facebook (and a lot of similar channels, for that matter) can be effective conduits to the services. For what concerns information, a platform like Facebook would allow a much easier and more natural blending of official government information and citizen’s one. One example is information to attract tourists: rather than hosting those pictures and videos provided by citizens (or shot by professional crews), just let them go on Facebook (et al.).

  • @fran foo – I am not aware of tekeo having any special agreement with Facebook (unlike the US Federal Government), so I assume that the standard terms & conditions apply

  • Shaun Hills says:

    @Andrea I disagree that truth and trust are necessarily two separate things. Though I concede that in some cases they could be (you could have a trustworthy website that’s factually incorrect).

    The fact of the matter is this: at least some research suggests that users trust govt websites more than they trust other sites. It’s not a huge stretch to say they’ll trust the information on those sites more. Or in other words they’ll consider it more truthful.

    The obligation is then upon government websites to live up to that trust, by not posting misleading or outdated information. This is done with varying degrees of success of course.