There’s More to Technology Than Technology

Contrary to a rumor that surfaced a few weeks ago, Governor-elect Kaine has decided to fill the Secretary of Technology position. His choice is Aneesh Choprah of Arlington, an information technology executive and campaign contributor. Choprah certainly appears qualified and, according to Jeff Schapiro, said at his introductory press conference, “I view myself in many ways as the technology advisor to all the other secretariats.”

Choprah might do well to look beyond all the fancy hardware and gadgets to check if all the information technology infrastructure is really delivering information. For all the money spent on technology, many Virginia government web sites remain stubbornly impervious to offering user-friendly information. Failing to provide useful information raises or sustains unnecessary costs down the line.

Let me just give one small example of many–I’m considering doing a larger commentary on this for the Bacon’s Rebellion e-zine.

The Virginia Employment Commission administers the state unemployment insurance program for employers. Many would-be employers want to factor in the cost of unemployment insurance before they hire someone. I challenge our readers to go to the Virginia Employment Commission website to find the unemployment insurance rate. When someone can’t find the rate online, they are forced to make a phone call to ask. They get a tape, they get frustrated, and they wonder if Virginia really is as “business friendly” as advertised.

Virginia could do a lot more with existing resources in the area of information technnology, but I know that’s not as sexy as big contracts with CGI and Northrop Grumman.


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18 responses to “There’s More to Technology Than Technology”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    does the unemployment insurance rate vary according to your employer history?

  2. Will Vehrs Avatar

    Yes, but there are starting/base rates.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Actually, VITA has already begun with aligning the state sites to help users to find what they are looking for.

    It’s pretty well explained here:
    http://www.vadsa.org/watg/

    All agency sites are now required to use this template with similar menus, site maps, search engines, etc. We can, at least, change the logo. This will also make the sites handicap accessible. I don’t know if the VEC is exempt or not but all the standards are to be met within a year unless you have a really good reason that you can’t.

    I would highly recommend that you email/call them if you haven’t already and give them your suggestion. As a web developer, I am glad to hear from users when they have a suggestion. Web developers and business managers are not always on the same brain scan as the users. Being a “digit head” like me sometimes makes it very difficult to discern what the average user is most interested in and how each of them want to get to the information. If you put too much, it’s too confusing. If you put too little, it can’t be navigated… It’s an art in itself.

  4. Will Vehrs Avatar

    Anon 4:52, you are correct and it’s a good thing to get these web sites redesigned.

    Here’s a new web page that was designed by VITA with content and organization provided by the Virginia Business Information Center based on two years of customer experience: http://www.business.virginia.gov

    It’s just a shame that it’s taking so long in so many cases to get the most useful information in an easy to find place. I have emailed webmasters of state sites with mixed results.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    The template looks pretty simple to incorporate to most people but the complexities of many of the agency sites honestly make it a very time-consuming transition. For small/medium sites that have “article-type” pages and straightforward “click here”, “click there” links, no big deal. The larger sites that have a lot of searches, menuing, forms, etc. have a substantial amount of work on their hands.

    I understand some agencies are struggling to get their sites up to snuff. Some agencies have fairly static sites and don’t have webmasters in house. The fees for services offered through Virginia.gov are pretty high. Some agencies don’t control their entire site, like the health department. I think the branches handle their own “sites”.

    Just today, a request came through the webmaster list asking for help for a major agency. They’re predicting at least a year to transition. We’ve also been seeing emails from former employees who have gone on their own and are now “advertising” their services for this project. Also, the WATG group says they will offer assistance if you contact them. So, there are some resources available.

    It’s too bad it took so long for VITA to come up with the template. The agencies were informed this change was coming long ago but couldn’t make plans until the requirements were settled. It’s been a wait and hurry situation!

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    A few comments, if I may…

    Yes, it is good to get many of the state sites redesigned. In many cases user needs were less of a priority than the preferences of a designer, Agency Head, or marketer. Proper usability is a science, and if treated as such can reliably transform a site into the best it can be, both aesthetically and functionally. If done wrong, it becomes a crapshoot. The previously mentioned business portal falls into the “crapshoot” category, unfortunately. It has nothing new to offer other than design, and appears to have had no input from the users it attempts to serve. It’s difficult to find information a business user really needs, and an intuitive search tends to lead one in circles. The only good thing it provides is a difficult-to-read link to customer service.

    The templates are a step in the right direction, as are the Web Standards. But these are just the bare minimum to get by. The days of ignoring the needs of the Web population are gone. Sure, it’s taken awhile for the template to be finalized by VITA. But usability and accessibility research has been around for years. These “former employees” have been lecturing about it for at least two years; I’ve been at the meetings myself. No one bothered to respond or fix what needed to be fixed. No one addressed issues that could have been addressed during those two years. And now that the rain has come, everyone’s looking for an Ark.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    No, no problem with the advertizing. I could have just as easily put “offering their help”. I quoted the word in hopes of showing it was my word, not that of the former employees. It’s not like they’re putting up billboards or anything. I didn’t want it to come off as derogatory. Sorry if it came out that way.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    No one addressed issues that could have been addressed during those two years. And now that the rain has come, everyone’s looking for an Ark

    In defense of some of the agencies, I will have to say some of these sites are huge and when you know requirements and templates are coming down the pike, it’s not prudent to make massive changes and then have to turn around and re-do it all again to conform. Even though the templates are bare minimum for accessibility, the restrictions on using JavaScript alone puts a big dent in a lot of these business sites. It’s not as easy as it seems.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    I have to disagree with Anon 9:04. As a minority business owner, I have visited the Virginia state web site several times over the last few years looking for information only to find a few random and poorly organized links. The new business section is much more comprehensive and useful. I also found a link to recertify my business online (a significant improvement over the paper forms I had to complete initially). With these recent efforts, VITA, the Virginia Business Information Center and the Minority Business Enterprises are showing a commitment to helping small and minority Virginia businesses by providing greatly improved information and services via the web. This is a step in the right direction and I hope more agencies follow their lead.

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    Thanks for the PR plug. You sound like a marketer with a biased interest. If you’re a minority business, why would you go to the state website for anything more than a link to the DBA or the MBE? In fact, there isn’t any clear link to the DBA, the SCC, or the MBE from the first page of the business “portal.” Trying to finance your business? Better already know how to do it, because the “portal” isn’t much help.

    Please…enough “steps in the right direction.” Let’s just get there already.

  11. theShadow Avatar

    Now, now. Play nice.

    Anon 1:21, you said, “The new business section is much more comprehensive and useful.” Can you give some examples? Something other than, “the old state page that didn’t focus on this wasn’t as good.” How is it more useful than, say, the Department of Business Assistance site? Is the new portal anything more than a rehash of the older busiess section? What is it doing that other agencies should do?

  12. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    B/C VITA did no environmental assessment prior to assembling this plan, it really could not create a genuinely effective template system suitable for statewide use. So, right, what they ended up with is probably adequate for static little websites, but it presents an absolute, expensive nightmare for big, dynamic sites. The first step of planning is always to take a look at where you are: What are your mandates, goals and resources? Hope, my dear, is not enough.

    VITA failed to do the assessment, so this hasn’t really got a chance of working. Skipping step one of strategic planning – the environmental scan stage – was a huge mistake. (Yeah, I’m a planner.) Granted, it was a tall order in this case, but you absolutely must do the scan for your plan to succeed. Otherwise, it’s doomed to become a dust magnet… at best a CYA paperweight.

    Plus the resources are far less than was promised by VITA in 2003. That stymied a lot of progress b/c people had been told to expect more help and funds. And you can’t realistically keep holding substantial site development, after all, for more than three years, eh? Get real.

    I agree that state sites should usually have the same look and feel, but this project’s management was downright sad. VITA scores an F in my book on this one.

  13. theShadow Avatar
    theShadow

    Do we KNOW that VITA didn’t do an environmental assessment? Not arguing with how difficult it will be for large sites to comply, or whether or not they should have been working on it anyway, or whether or not there are any resources available for this level of undertaking. Just, did VITA take all that into account and decide it needed to be done anyway, or did they NOT take it all into account?

  14. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    They theoretically put the standards together “by committees,” a fair percentage of whose members came from VITA itself. The committees weren’t representative; just look at the folks listed in the standards. I imagine they’d considered this approach a sufficient assessment, but it’s not strategy-wise. It’s adequate CYA methodology, sure, but it’s not a scan. Even today VITA doesn’t know how big state websites are, how they’re configured, where they are, what applications have been developed, how complex online offerings are, staffing, funding, mandates, etc. And VITA really shouldn’t b/c, in VITA’s own words, agency websites are out-of-scope. Or at least they’re supposed to be. In effect, an uninvited guest comes to your home and, not even bothering to look around or ask about your finances, demands that you rearrange and replace all of your furniture regardless of who lives there.

    If they did an assessment, why do so many of the elements in the plan agencies must submit next month pertain to what’s online and staffing? Much of the “plan,” sadly, will actually include an assessment that should have been done and considered years ago. It’s the old cart before the horse, no?

    But your point about them possibly not taking even a latent assessment into account is likely accurate. VITA’s take is, Who cares? It’s in state code so your opinion doesn’t matter. We’re just being CYA polite. But if you take the time to carefully read the code they’ve cited, you’ll actually find instructions contrary to what VITA’s done – e.g., ss51.5 specifies 14 state entities, not all executive branch agencies, to “make best use of available resources” re accessiblity. ss2.2-3500 specifically says determinations should be on a “case by case” basis, not this blanket approach. And ss2.2-2012 says we’re not to exceed requirements of the Rehabilitative Act of 1973. The first iteration of what’s now GOV106 actually had a reference to EO51, which merely contained the word “accessible” and had nothing whatsoever to do with handicapped accessibilty. I still wonder… who’s actually pushing this? It had been VIPNet in 2002-03, and I can understand that, but who pushing now?

    I know it seems mean and a bit like bashing puppies, mom and apple pie, but, hey, they’re the ones citing this code as justification. Agency heads serve at the pleasure of the governor, so questioning the standards (a/k/a, politic-perception-wise, bashing handicapped people) just ain’t gonna happen, even if it is an unexpectedly unfunded mandate.

    (Er, this is anonymous, right?)

  15. The Big Kahuna Avatar
    The Big Kahuna

    Having been involved in this process from the beginning, I thought I’d take a moment to unofficially address some of these concerns.

    “They theoretically put the standards together “by committees,” a fair percentage of whose members came from VITA itself. The committees weren’t representative; just look at the folks listed in the standards. “

    Not a theory. The first committee that did the bulk of the work included representatives from large (DMV, Tax), medium, and small sites. Techies as well as Directors. At the time, only two committee members were from VITA.

    Two years later, the Standards were re-evaluated by a larger committee, with members from a variety of sources. It was sponsored and run by VITA, but everyone from the state portal to the Department of Education had a hand.

    The goal was twofold: provide a common look and feel, and provide standards for sites to maximize their usability and accessibility to better meet the needs of citizens. There were a few members who wanted to push for a higher level of accessibility, but in the end it was greatly toned down.

    VITA may not have known much about the large sites, but the large site stakeholders did. Sometimes fixing something that has gone untended for so long requires tearing out a lot of walls and foundation. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

    “In effect, an uninvited guest comes to your home and, not even bothering to look around or ask about your finances, demands that you rearrange and replace all of your furniture regardless of who lives there.”

    A better analogy would be an univited officer of the court comes by and tells you that your office building is unsafe, and you need to make it safe immediately. It’s not your home, it’s more important than just the wrong pattern on your sofa, and it belongs to all citizens, not just your agency.

    Unfortunately, all this becomes more complicated when resources are scarce.

    “But if you take the time to carefully read the code they’ve cited, you’ll actually find instructions contrary to what VITA’s done – e.g., ss51.5 specifies 14 state entities, not all executive branch agencies, to “make best use of available resources” re accessiblity. ss2.2-3500 specifically says determinations should be on a “case by case” basis, not this blanket approach. And ss2.2-2012 says we’re not to exceed requirements of the Rehabilitative Act of 1973. The first iteration of what’s now GOV106 actually had a reference to EO51, which merely contained the word “accessible” and had nothing whatsoever to do with handicapped accessibilty. I still wonder… who’s actually pushing this? It had been VIPNet in 2002-03, and I can understand that, but who pushing now?”

    We had to get legal opinions on some of those topics, just to make sure they were being interpreted correctly.
    Regarding 51.5, you left out: …”and such other agencies as the Governor deems appropriate…”
    Regarding 2.2-2012, the code is unclear. The AG’s Office was called in to clarify. What it actually means (don’t get me started on the word choices and phrasing) is that when purchasing technology, you must meet the Act requirements at a minimum, but you don’t have to add extra stuff that the Act doesn’t cover. We were told this clause applies only to purchasing and not to the access of site content.

  16. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    After reading the previous two notes, I had to get out some old notes taken at the last Virginia Government Webmasters meeting, July 11, 2003, (the only such meeting in the last thee-plus years, which in itself is hard to believe given how desperately state webmasters needed to know what was going on). According to my scribbles, someone asked the final speaker (from then-VIPNet) why the committee was so “technically” oriented, why 10 of the 12 members came from agencies that were either themselves IT agencies or of agencies fairly well endowed with IT resources. She responded that it was never the intention of the committee to be “representative.” Rather, that it was a technical committee meant to derive technical standards. There was another committee of “communication coordinators,” but they were rarely apprised of status of the standards (our secretariat’s representative couldn’t even get a copy of the then-current standards). And the two agencies that were not “well-endowed” had websites that had been put together by VIPNet, so how representative could they be? Our communication coordinator, by the way, stated, “We’re not real happy with the representation” and called the committee’s composition “peculiar”
    and “inverse.”

    I notice, as well, that there’s no explanation for the ss2.2-3500’s reference to “case by case” determination. It seems pretty clear to me. At the very least, since code references are fairly dubious or, shall we say, required extraordinary clarification by the AG, shouldn’t there have been at a minimum an executive order? That would have made muddy waters clear and helped webmasters immensely.

    I don’t think a reasonable person disagrees with either the accessibility or look-and-feel standards, but you gotta put your courage and money where you mouth is. If it’s so important, why’s there no funding (as had been promised)? Why no EO? Above all, why no assessment? Why is the environmental scan being undertaken only now? It’s a bit late for that.

    At the same above referenced meeting – and I think you have access to the person who said these words, BK – the speaker first declared, “I’m here to report that I have nothing to report.” This did not go over well with the already frustrated group. The person also said, “VITA doesn’t wish to implement the standards without a funding mechanism,” and, “This will not be an unfunded mandate,” and that the funding would “cover all agencies.”

    Really? So what happened?

    VITA didn’t do its homework, but it needn’t pay the price for it. Agencies must. What’s sad is that these are worthy goals: They deserved better consideration.

  17. Big Kahuna Avatar
    Big Kahuna

    Although I can only comment on what I was personally on hand for, and not even all of that for various legal reasons, here’s what I can say at this point:

    “After reading the previous two notes, I had to get out some old notes taken at the last Virginia Government Webmasters meeting, July 11, 2003, (the only such meeting in the last thee-plus years, which in itself is hard to believe given how desperately state webmasters needed to know what was going on). According to my scribbles, someone asked the final speaker (from then-VIPNet) why the committee was so “technically” oriented, why 10 of the 12 members came from agencies that were either themselves IT agencies or of agencies fairly well endowed with IT resources. She responded that it was never the intention of the committee to be “representative.” Rather, that it was a technical committee meant to derive technical standards. There was another committee of “communication coordinators,” but they were rarely apprised of status of the standards (our secretariat’s representative couldn’t even get a copy of the then-current standards). And the two agencies that were not “well-endowed” had websites that had been put together by VIPNet, so how representative could they be? Our communication coordinator, by the way, stated, “We’re not real happy with the representation” and called the committee’s composition “peculiar”
    and “inverse.””

    I think you may have misread your notes, if it was from the VGWG meeting (not to say it may not have occurred at a different meeting). The committee certainly wasn’t that technically oriented. In fact, only about three or four of the members could have been considered true techies (from the original group). The rest ranged from Art Directors to Content Experts, to Agency Directors.

    Were some of the agencies rich in resources? Yep. DMV, for example. Can even DMV afford to retool their whole website? Ask DMV. It’ll hurt them as well. Was the committee supposed to be representative? I guess it depends on what you think that means. Large, medium, and small sites were represented by at least one member, and the group had a wide range of skills. It was as large as could be kept managable. And we definitely had our marching orders.

    As far as I know there was never any committee of communication coordinators, although the name might be throwing me. As to getting a copy of the Standards, they sat on the VIPNet site for two years, available to anyone who cared to read them.

    Which agencies were put together by VIPNet? The only true VIPNet-represented site was virginia.gov, as far as I can remember. But my memory is not what it once was.

    Sorry your communication coordinator didn’t like the committee. Can’t invite everyone to the party, and some people feel it’s personal.

    “I notice, as well, that there’s no explanation for the ss2.2-3500’s reference to “case by case” determination. It seems pretty clear to me. At the very least, since code references are fairly dubious or, shall we say, required extraordinary clarification by the AG, shouldn’t there have been at a minimum an executive order? That would have made muddy waters clear and helped webmasters immensely.”

    “Case by case” is one of those phrases that can be so easily abused, I didn’t feel it merited comment. For example, what’s to keep me from evaluating 91 sites case by case over the course of an afternoon?

    An EO was discussed, but most of those peter out when the sitting Governor leaves office, and this initiative was planned to have a longer life than that. And, since the Powers That Be agreed that their authority extended into this area, and it certainly extended over us, that was that.

    “I don’t think a reasonable person disagrees with either the accessibility or look-and-feel standards, but you gotta put your courage and money where you mouth is. If it’s so important, why’s there no funding (as had been promised)? Why no EO? Above all, why no assessment? Why is the environmental scan being undertaken only now? It’s a bit late for that.”

    I can only discuss this part in person, and only if I’m not there.

    “At the same above referenced meeting – and I think you have access to the person who said these words, BK – the speaker first declared, “I’m here to report that I have nothing to report.” This did not go over well with the already frustrated group. The person also said, “VITA doesn’t wish to implement the standards without a funding mechanism,” and, “This will not be an unfunded mandate,” and that the funding would “cover all agencies.””

    It didn’t go over very well with her, either. We drew straws and she lost. Plus I promised to do a lot of swearing if I was made to say it. Welcome to state government.

    I’m not even allowed to say I can meet with you in person to help you out. At least not for another seven months.

    But you’re correct that the ideas are good. If you’re in the position that so many others are in, and can’t figure out how to connect the dots on your own, call VITA. Call Virginia.gov. They’ve gone on record saying they’ll be there to help, so take them up on it.

    If that doesn’t work, you probably know how to reach me. 

  18. theShadow Avatar

    It looks like the real problem is a lack of resources. How difficult will it be for agencies to work the new standard into their regularly scheduled site redesigns and updates?

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