Design View | Design articles and news from Andy Rutledge

03/03/07

Federal Reservations

I was invited to speak at the Federal Reserve annual conference this year, to the Fed's Web developers group. It seemed like a terrific opportunity, and their cause worthy, but the details revealed they were only interested in window dressing and getting to play with cool Web 2.0 toys rather than serving Americans responsibly. I'm not interested in helping my government with masturbation, so after learning the details and objectives (and what sorts of ideas would not be welcomed) I declined their invitation. I believe I did the right thing, but I wonder if you agree.

I’m not one to kiss and tell when it comes to clients’ or potential clients’ flubs in our dealings, but when my government is shirking its responsibilities or misappropriating tax dollars …well, that’s different. I believe it’s important to shine a light on federal irresponsibility.

To be fair, the individual I dealt with in working to define and set up the program I was to deliver was, indeed, nice. He was enthusiastic and seemed genuinely interested in doing something worthwhile. The Federal Reserve’s Web developers group, on the other hand, was apparently uninterested in doing or learning anything worthwhile. And they certainly didn’t want their backward ideals or their irresponsible and unprofessional work and practices examined. But what makes this situation so laughable is that an examination of their efforts and methods is exactly what they were asking for.

Careful what you wish for

The presentation that the Federal Reserve requested was to have their primary educational site dissected, evaluated, and then re–imagined in a more intelligent, responsible, and effective form. Their initial idea was to concentrate on how emerging social technologies, “like [those used in] YouTube, Flickr, del.icio.us, Facebook, etc.,” could be utilized to improve their efforts to serve their audiences.

I decided that while it’s fun to consider installing an elevator in an outhouse, it’s not such a good idea when what the outhouse needs is a door for privacy and a roll of toilet paper. You know, so that everyone can actually use it.

So I had a look at the site and its multiple components. What I found was a site that was almost wholly inaccessible, completely unusable and unviewable without JavaScript enabled, and part was done entirely in flash without any alternative way to access content. Additionally, the markup is the worst sort of kludge one finds with websites developed a decade or more ago. Apparently, the Fed chooses not to comply with federal regulations. I believed it important that the Fed address these shortcomings.

After some digging, and some digestion of the information and the aims of the Fed, I suggested that the first thing to do would be to create a sound, accessible, and usable foundation for this vital informational instrument. I suggested that the presentation could first deal with those issues and then touch on some uses of the social technologies they were primarily interested in learning about. This apparently made sense to my contact, who then took these suggestions to his people. The response was something very close to, “No, they’re not interested in any of that stuff. They just want to hear about how social technologies like those used with del.icio.us and Facebook can be implemented into the site.”

After some reflection, I arrived at the conclusion that it would be somewhat irresponsible of me to help the Federal Reserve Web developers group ignore their primary responsibility. Playing with cool Web 2.0 tools would sure be fun, but it would be a distraction from what they really need to do: their job. I decided that while it’s fun to consider installing an elevator in an outhouse, it’s not such a good idea when what the outhouse needs is a door for privacy and a roll of toilet paper. You know, so that everyone can actually use it.

I’m left with one conclusion: The Fed employs unprofessional, irresponsible people to produce its online education mechanisms. Whether or not I’m correct in this assumption, I believe that neither I nor anyone else has any business helping them to perpetuate their poor practice. Part of my purpose here is to reveal their misguided practices and irresponsibility. Another part of my purpose here is to, hopefully, bring some pressure to bear upon them to refocus and reevaluate their work. One can hope.

One of the really sad things in all of this is that their site could easily be redeveloped in a proper and professional manner (initially without the social toys) for something quite close to the fee they were offering to have me speak. It would be a quick and relatively inexpensive job, but they’ll apparently not even consider learning about that.

I expect more from my government and I expect more from those who have truly important information to share; and I told them as much in my letter declining their offer. The Fed is failing many Americans. They should fix their house and their approach to serving up information before they play with embellishments. I hope someone there gets the message one day.

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