Q&A: An interview with Susan Parker from Mass.gov

massgov_screnshotWe were fortunate to catch up with Susan Parker at Gilbane’s 2009 Content Management conference in Boston this week.

Susan is the Director of Mass.gov and is responsible for managing the State of Massachusetts’ online strategy in connecting more than 150 different state agencies, departments and services into a unified online experience. In short, both a daunting and exciting challenge.

In addition to being a keynote panelist at Gilbane, Susan was gracious enough to sit down with the CMS Myth for a discussion on how she approaches the web strategy, governance and technology behind such a massive and decentralized organization.

Hi Susan, it’s great to talk with you. So tell us a little bit about what it’s like to run a website for an entire state?

I’m glad that your perception is that Mass.Gov is “a” website – that is as it should be.

Technically though, behind the scenes, it’s dozens of websites that we’re working to simplify and consolidate into a handful of consistent sites.  There are also a lot of transactional web applications with Mass.Gov branding.

My organization maintains the top level Mass.Gov website, that aggregates links to all other state sites; we also provide a centralized web hosting and publishing platform that most of state government uses. We are part of the Executive Branch so legally anyway, we can’t “run” the entire state’s web presence, though the other independent offices and branches can (and do, to varying degrees), “opt in” to using Mass.Gov’s platform and brand.

Does Governor Patrick ever mix it up in the CMS, or does he have people for that?

I don’t think Governor Patrick has ever mixed it up directly with our CMS, but I know that he has tweeted and blogged.  He really is a proponent of using the web to promote civic engagement. He has a Director of New Media & Online Strategy, Brad Blake, who is responsible for his website, mass.gov/governor, and its many innovative uses of social media to stay connected.

For example, if the Governor tweets about signing a bill, his communications team can use the CMS to quickly post the text of the bill, embed video of his remarks at the signing, and link off to photos, press releases and other pertinent information

What has been your experience implementing and managing a web content management system for such a large and decentralized organization?

Challenging to say the least. It’s really more than a web content management system. We’re also providing comprehensive information architecture services, web best practices and web publishing templates. This all helps provide a single face of government online.

Traditionally, staffing for websites was all over the map; there were “haves” (agencies with relatively large, highly skilled teams and slick websites), and “have nots” (agencies without a web presence at all, or very dated websites).

In trying to level the playing field, it’s really tough to satisfy both camps. For some our CMS is still too hard to master.  For others who were used to “hand coding” their sites, it’s perceived to be too restrictive.  While we’re constantly battling “We’re different, we’re special, so the rules of consistency don’t apply to us,” there are some times when one size really doesn’t fit all.  Our current CMS doesn’t accommodate such needs very well.

Government sites often represent the internal structure of the organization, but it looks like Mass.gov is organized around key stakeholder needs (residents, business, visitors).  How do you approach planning the information architecture of the site?

We view it as a work in progress, but I am so glad you noticed!

The high level breakdown used on the top level site was the result of some analysis done in the early days of Mass.Gov (2000-2001). It’s pretty similar to the constituencies and task-oriented sub-groupings used on other state portals, but we need to continuously subject it to usability testing and fine tuning. We also recognize that many customers navigate and find content in other ways –by specific agency, by granular topic (either via search or an A-Z subject list) and via external search.

Is there a centralized team that supports the website? How are you staffed and what do you see as the key roles necessary for success?

We have a very small team of 13.5, about half technical and the other half focused on business, project management and information architecture activities. The latter team is responsible for maintaining the top level site and migrating agencies to consolidated sites using the Mass.Gov templates.

I think it’s crucial for any organization that maintains web content to have a lead information architect. Some other roles include an HTML web standards specialist and a social media coordinator.  Again though, behind the scenes there are many other websites; the agencies are responsible for the content on those sites and staffing models vary. Some have strong, centralized teams, while others don’t.

We deal with a lot of CMS myths here on the blog. What’s the biggest misconception about CMS internally that you’ve had to overcome?

I remember in the early days of Mass.Gov, before I was in my present position, that there were visions of highly decentralized publishing.

Folks thought that with a very sophisticated CMS, automated workflows, and some templates, we’d see agency heads, press secretaries and lawyers publishing their own content directly to the web.  (Well, maybe I exaggerate a little…).

Aside from being an unrealistic vision of what attorneys and press secretaries are willing and able to do, it neglected to account for a strong centralized information architecture to ensure the content fits together in a coherent, user-focused way.

In fact, that whole concept of “information architecture” was new to us. I don’t think any of us really understood we were “doing “information architecture until around 2003. Before we bought our current CMS, there were visions of highly structured data being compartmentalized into XML and being reused on across many sites and devices. Well, everything’s in XML now, but it’s not compartmentalized in a way that lends itself to such reuse. It’s still a worthwhile goal, but is going to require much more work and analysis to realize that vision.

What advice would you give someone just starting a large content management-driven project?

  • Clearly document your high level needs and challenges and get stakeholder agreement on them.
  • Governance is very important.  Changing out a tool is a perfect opportunity to revisit your processes for managing content.
  • Get good information.   Spend money on vendor neutral reports.   You need to go beyond the big generalist consultancies to get the details.
  • If you are buying a product, you need to be ready to compromise.   This is not custom development.   In a proof of concept, consider adjusting your business processes to fit the product rather than the other way around.
  • Figure out how you want to support a new system going forward.   If you don’t want to have to rely on consultants in the future, be sure you factor that into your decisions up front.
  • Analyze total cost of ownership up front, not just purchase and initial implementation.   Big ticket items to include are staffing and infrastructure.
  • Don’t buy more than you need.  Keep it simple but scalable. Focus on your core business needs.

How is the site evolving to meet the needs of its residents? Any big changes planned for 2010?

We are in the midst of a major retooling and redesign project. We are seeking to replace our current content management and delivery system, which will hopefully make web publishing a lot simpler and more feature rich. This in turn will hopefully lead to an improved end user experience.

We’re also going to be doing a redesign of our layout and navigation based on a usability analysis. In addition to our governor, state agencies have been making good use of social media. Our Department of Public Health has been using its blog to get the word out about H1N1. You  can expect to see increasing use of social media like blogs, Twitter, video and more, in addition to opening up data for use by the developers, researchers and the general public.

Thanks for your time Susan!

About the Author
Jeff Cram

Jeff Cram is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design), a digital agency based in Portland, OR and Boston, MA. As the Managing Editor of the CMS Myth, Jeff is passionate about all topics related to content management, digital strategy and experience design.

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