Achieving e-Government compliance for public sector websites will require a makeover that’s greater than skin-deep. Zef Fugaz looks at the realities of putting public service websites on the operating table and making them skip to an e-Government beat.

Trevor has spoken. By 2006 all public service websites will have to be well and truly on the e-Govt Web Guidelines treadmill or face the wrath of the State Services Commissioner.

If the guidelines give you headaches then try looking at it this way – the road to compliance is partly cosmetic surgery, partly psychology and mostly a diet and fitness regime.

As any good health professional will tell you, before surgery you need to be as fit as possible. For a website your fitness level is greatly influenced by your content management systems and internal communications. A fit e-Government organisation will have designed clear pathways, signposts and checkpoints for its content and communications. A content addition or update process should take less than 24 hours, not weeks.

Then there’s the diet- what do you feed your users for breakfast? Is your content lean and meaningful? Are the use by’ dates still fresh? Do your users come away informed and empowered? If not then your content may be suffering from bloat and rot (redundant, out-of-date and tired).

When it comes to the content of your content’ there’s no quick fix- even web content gurus will merely nod and listen- or maybe spurt a few Rachel McAlpine mantras.

Content issues require inside knowledge – an affinity with the psychology of your workplace. Your chief content philosopher may decide you need to consult writers, policy advisors, lawyers and your Minister. They might ask questions such as; Is your content accurate, trustworthy – the authoritative version? What will be the benefit for the public by placing it online? Will your users be prepared to read a document that requires 100 metres of scrolling, or should you reformat it for the web?

You can’t be frivolous with what you feed users. Stick to the plan – follow those content mantras on the wall (or embed them as flags in your CMS) – otherwise you could inadvertently end up leaking a draft version of the unauthorised ministerial paper to tomorrow’s page one news.

Your information architect and visual designer could be likened to cosmetic surgeons- and it takes a specialists touch to wield the scalpel. They create building blocks for the structure, aesthetics and user interactions for your website. A comprehensive and well-researched navigable landscape is essential for the longevity of your website and user satisfaction. Without a sound framework, your website’s renewed face-lift will soon begin to sag. In under a year or two you could be in for another round of expensive surgery.

The overall visual identity you decide on depends on who you’re trying to attract- youth, elderly, businesses, ex-pats, scientists or construction workers? If you’re being told your site has to cater to everyone in New Zealand’ then chances are your website will either be devoid of any personality, or the other extreme, over-flowing with colour and busyness- driving your users to distraction.

Too many Government websites (there are exceptions) seem to be taking the blandness pill- playing it safe, not offending anyone, keeping it neutral. But if the State Services Commission wanted that wouldn’t they create one mega-bland website template and make every public service adhere to it’s design? Consider this – strictly speaking an e-Govt website without attention to aesthetic values could be breaking one of the E-Government Unit’s strategic objectives– “convenience and satisfaction for users”.

Evidence is that aesthetic design (appropriate to your audience groups), directly impacts on the usability of your website as well as the public perception of your organisation. Creating a usable, accessible and visually aesthetic website is a challenge, but it can be done. Take a look at www.webstandardsawards.com for examples.

As you can see, a kissable e-Govt Web Guidelines makeover is more than a quick nip and tuck and some designer drugs. It requires inner reflection, a fitness regime, a sturdy framework and ongoing commitment. Good news is you’ve got just under three years to make it happen- the treadmill is starting to whirr- will you be able to keep up by 2006?