March 1, 2001
After the Earth Stopped Moving
I can still remember the very minute it all started. It was on August 19, 1999 at about 2:00 p.m in the afternoon. A group of us had come together to explore the issues involved in developing a "unified look and feel" for New York State's agency websites. Six agencies and two not-for-profit organizations were represented around the table. We had been kicking around ideas for ways of helping citizens find the information they wanted from the plethora of web-based data available on state agency web sites. This was the latest in a string of meetings to gather all the ideas together and see what floated to the top, so to speak.
It was my turn, and I brought a prototype of the solution a couple of us had talked about and were advocating for. It was stunningly simple, but it "branded" agency web sites and effectively allowed people to sift through the offerings and come fairly close to their goal with nothing more than a mouse click. I'd been pitching the idea for several weeks now, but couldn't make anyone see what I meant. That was when I designed the prototype.
After I demonstrated it, there was a long, awkward moment of silence. "They hated it," I thought glumly. But after a moment or two, one head, then another began nodding, and everyone burst into speech at once as they threw out ideas and suggestions for improvements to the model. Two more meetings later, I hardly recognized my offspring. But it was a vastly improved idea, and the six of us began selling it hard.
To shorten a long and very distressing (at least to me) story, when the idea evolved to the point that it was receiving attention from cabinet-level officials, those of us who'd spent the summer in hot, airless rooms birthing the concept were in essence, patted on the head and told to go play. "Project managers" were brought in and we were relegated to the citizen interface portion of the project.
All of us were a bit chagrined at losing control, but we persevered and came up with yet another great idea for a citizen interface, organized around "life events" such as the birth of a child, buying a house, registering a car, or seeking a college for your kids that everyone goes through. We built a database to feed the information in, queries to spit it back out dynamically...it was a lovely thing. But for those of you who aren't into geekdom, I will once again gloss over the gritty details.
When the "project managers" discovered how flexible and responsive our database-driven Citizen Guide was, that was taken away from us too. Once again, we were patted on the head and sent out to play. This time, our task was to develop editorial guidelines for the little bits of information that staff from each state agency would feed into the system. We not only did that, but mounted a pilot program with a variety of agencies to see what they'd actually submit. Based on what we received, we modified the editorial guidelines and proposed an editorial board to perform quality control and to ensure that the final product "spoke with one voice."
The "project managers," in their infinite wisdom, decided that the reason we recommended an editorial board was because we were working with the "techies," who couldn't be expected to have that kind of talent. They decided that the only people who could handle this task was the agency public information officers. And I guess you know what they did with us ...
It's six months since they cut us out of the project completely, and their "splash date" has been moved three times now. Today they finally unveiled the final product, and boy am I glad my name isn't on it anywhere. What a mess! Still, I felt a little miffed.
This morning I was frantically clacking away, working on a web page, when the bell for my e-mail program went off. I opened my inbox and there were two messages there.
The first was from the person who headed up the little group gave birth to the idea for the citizen interface. It was an invitation to lunch tomorrow to celebrate "our success."
And after the earth stopped moving, I opened the second message. "Congratulations!" it read. "We have decided to use your story A Sad Imitation in our March issue of The Independent Mind."
One outta two ain't bad!