Author: Denise Eisner

Denise Eisner is a senior-level web strategist and communications specialist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a member of the Government Service Excellence practice, Denise’s experience and specializations include web strategy development, information architecture, web analytics (WebTrends and Google Analytics) and web project management. She has led large-scale content audits, developed performance measurement frameworks, and coordinated site updates to meet Treasury Board policies standards and guidelines. Engaged in the evolving spheres of information technology, corporate communications and media for almost two decades, Denise has transformed business objectives into web strategies and information architectures for corporate and government clients in the U.S. and Canada.

Systemscope Volunteer Day: Riding with the Tour for Kids

by Denise Eisner

I’ve done charity bike rides before, including two Boston-NY AIDS Rides in the nineties. That ride lasted three days, covered 434 kilometers and four states, and had the best support crew ever, some in drag. It was the hardest thing I had done in my life, and it represented the kind of challenge that makes you realize that your true potential lies in what you can do, not what you can’t. More importantly, everyone gets a healthy dose of the real big picture.

This year I was again reminded of the big picture on my Systemscope Volunteer Day, when I participated in the Tour for Kids, a cycling odyssey through the rolling hills north of Toronto.

Tour for Kids exists for one reason only — to help children and their families impacted by cancer. Through the generosity of sponsors, the dedication of dozens of volunteers, and the 500 riders who participate, 100% of the donations raised go directly to three camps that let kids with cancer be kids, and heal their hearts and souls toward a full recovery. The ride this year has raised more than $1.2 million, putting a lot of smiles on the faces of children and families that face the daily rigours of cancer.

The challenges faced by a young person with cancer have a strong parallel to the ride. On the ride you face many battles, some small (potholes, flat tires, road kill, rain, heat, cold) and some large (more hills than you can count, aggressive drivers, hail and lightning). There are moments when you want to dismount and throw the bloody bike into the ditch. There are glorious moments when the scenery is breathtaking and your lungs are pumping and everything is working. Then you get a flat. So it goes.

But through it all, you have the support of people around you. On the ride, I had the support of 459 strangers, dozens of volunteers and one wonderful husband. Some were riding 100 kilometers like me, others were going for 160 and the truly possessed rode 200 clicks per day. At the end of each day, we came together for our carb-rich dinner and tear-producing presentations from parents, kids and the professionals who work with these amazing kids at the camps and Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.

Denise Eisner finishes the Tour for Kids, August 2010

Denise Eisner finishes the Tour for Kids, August 2010

The programs supported by Tour for Kids receive no government money. Government gives the bricks and mortar health care, but the Tour is the emotional top-up that these kids and their families need to keep going. It’s a cause that demonstrates what determination, passion and a common goal can achieve, whether at work or in our personal lives.

We help people like Marisa, shown in this video. God bless her and all the 10,000 kids and their families in Canada braving cancer. You’ll see me back on the Tour next year!

Denise Eisner is a consultant in the Government Service Excellence practice. Follow Denise on twitter

Web Renewal Series: Building a Foundation for Success

by Denise Eisner

Our last post on web renewal examined the different flavours for large scale transformations of a departmental web site. While there are various types and combinations of renewal strategies – content, information architecture and technical – planning their implementation as distinct projects with a beginning, middle and end typically should be regarded as an ominous sign. Treating web renewal as a project means the foundational pieces needed to support the web in a sustainable fashion are weak or perhaps nonexistent. We’ll look at the relationship of web renewal efforts with those pieces to illustrate the optimal path to web renewal success.

Part 2 – Renewal through Constant Change

For large organizations, delivering a web product that is useful and meaningful requires constant change, since the needs and expectations of your users are constantly changing. Large scale overalls of your web presence are sometimes required if you need significant change in direction. The value gained from these exercises, however, will slowly erode if the structures that support the web presence are lacking.

We’ve drawn three simple diagrams to help illustrate why changing your look, content and technology may only get you so far. The first diagram shows an ever expanding gap in your service offering if you take a lights-on approach to your website. The second one shows a similar scenario of service gaps if web renewal projects are carried out in isolation from the management of your foundational structures. The final illustration should be the goal of any organization management a web presence, with the right support in place to evolve alongside the client needs and expectations.

Graph 1

Graph 1

Graph 2

Graph 2

Graph 3

Graph 3

Continual Improvement through the Web Maturity Model

The foundation required to properly manage a web presence can be measured against our Web Maturity Model, which encapsulates a sustainable foundation through seven pillars, each of which plays a critical role in effective Web channel management. The pillars are defined as follows:

Governance – Governance structures define decision-making authority and accountability, typically in the form of persons or groups (committees, boards, working groups, etc.) and are responsible for addressing issues of budget, capacity and ongoing sustainability.

Strategy and Planning – Strategies and plans for the web demonstrate that the organization is making efforts to use the Web effectively, manage and control costs, ensure compliance with relevant statutes and policies and improve service delivery as well as internal business processes.

Roles and Competencies – Developing an effective Web site requires many different competencies and skills working in concert, including:

• Specifying who does what in a given process;
• Specifying the boundaries between different functions in a given process; and
• Specifying accountability for the activities in a given process.

Research-Driven Design – There is increasing recognition that effective Web sites reflect an in-depth understanding of the site’s users and their needs, and that effective Web management requires a commitment to undertaking appropriate research to inform design efforts.

Performance Management – A performance measurement framework defines the means by which the organization will measure success against defined outcomes. The framework should specify which metrics will be used for each outcome, and how the results will be obtained.

Web Standards and Guidance – Almost all federal Web sites are expected to comply with a number of Acts and federal policies, i.e. Common Look and Feel. In addition, standards and guidance should be developed for information architecture, editorial, visual design, IM and technologies.

Technology – The operating systems, applications, programming languages, standards and tools that underpin the organization’s Web development and publishing activities are planned, implemented and evaluated in accordance with desired business outcomes.

Together, these seven components can give your organization the footing it needs to keep pace with the ever-changing needs and expectations of your users and produce a web product that truly delivers. It’s more than just a “web renewal project”: it’s about a program of web management.

Our next post in this four-part series will look at sustainability in web channel management as an antidote to the resource-intensive web renewal project.

This blog was written by Denise Eisner with support from Alexandra Katseva and Kellen Greenberg.

Website Rx: content audit

By Denise Eisner

Do you find yourself looking at your organization’s website and wondering: why can’t we just throw it all out and start over? Wouldn’t that be better than working with stale content that no one reads? Or that was architected by previous management who have moved on?

We’ve yet to see a government department act on this impulse, which is fortunate. Starting from scratch undoes months of work and means throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There’s likely some nugget of good content lurking here and there, and more importantly, some relevant thinking about audience segments, content types and tasks. So what is the logical next step for an ailing site?

A web strategy is always a good start. It has the benefit of setting a direction that then guides all future development. Another more hands-on effort (which can occur simultaneously) is a content audit. An audit involves conducting an inventory, identifying ownership and then having owners make decisions about their contents’ future.

Environment Canada recently used a content audit approach to sift through 100,000 pages. They ended up with a much leaner content repository that now stands at a third of the original. By getting rid of the stale content, the relevant content is easier for users to find

During an audit, you want owners to make decisions about their content. No owner willing to step up? Archive the content and take it off the site. No owners willing to make decisions? Give them plenty of notice (and gentle reminders) and explain the end goal (better site management, satisfied users, etc.) but give them a deadline you’re ready to act upon. As in, you’ll remove the content unless they decide. And do so. A reaction sets the stage for a fulsome discussion of the content value relative to the goals of users and desired business outcomes.

If you’re looking at a site with more than 500 pages, this is a full-blown project, requiring a dedicated coordinator and one or more other team members to talk to content owners and catalogue the results. The effort in days will depend on the number of pages, owners and complexity of the site structure. You’ll need well-written criteria to make content decisions and a communications plan to articulate the project to various stakeholders. Management should regularly be apprised of your progress and alerted of any issues or risks requiring their action.

A content audit sounds like tough medicine but it’s the most effective way to deal with sites that have lost their way, without throwing the good pieces in the trash by accident.

Denise Eisner is a consultant in the Government Service Excellence practice. Follow Denise on twitter

If I Could Be a Government Web Site Manager

By Denise Eisner

I work alongside some very dedicated, passionate web people in government. They want to have web sites that are usable, readable and of value to the audiences they’re intended to reach. For reasons both obvious to those in government and to anyone else who has tried to push new ideas in large organizations, there’s a set of what we euphemistically term “challenges” to achieving these goals.

But let’s say for a moment that said challenges were surmountable and the HIPPO (Highest Paid Person in the Office) was giving me carte blanche to run the web site per accepted best practices and the latest in research-driven design principles. Wow! Colour me happy!

Quick, before the HIPPO changes his/her mind, here’s my wish list:

  • Double the size of the web team – No site that is designed to reach audience segments as vast and varied as those served by government sites can be run with two people, neither of which have time to strategize, plan, write, edit, apply metatags, code, test, and perform quality control, all while responding to the latest request to convert a 200-page report to HTML. Scale the team to the size of the site really needed by users.
  • Let my team control the site design – Everyone has opinions but design by opinion war only leads to chaos and bad feeling. I’ll consult with stakeholders, sure. I’ll amass quality research to back up my ideas and proposals (web metrics, surveys, usability tests, etc.). But I’ll make all high-level design decisions regarding navigation, breadcrumbs and landing pages. And I’ll be able to defend those decisions with data.
  • Have dedicated IT resource(s) on the Web team – Rather than have the disconnect that can exist between varying business units, combine the various skill sets needed to have a strong web group capable of supporting high-quality content and web infrastructure.
  • Publish good content, not FAQs – I was recently inspired by R. Stephen Gracey’s post on how FAQS “seem to constitute a basic instruction manual or else call attention to selling features, making them only marginally useful to users with real questions.” I want good writers to develop quality, searchable content and an editor to oversee publishing standards.
  • Help me get the web strategy approved – I need senior support for defining why we need a web site and who we really serve (beyond the catch-all “all Canadians”). This will help me maintain a focused web operation that strategic, not reactionary, and supports our business priorities.
  • Approve a governance model for the web – In order to make informed, strategic decisions around the web, particularly for the aforementioned strategy, let’s implement the roles we defined for a web champion, working group, ad hoc teams and steering committee.
  • I’ll just do Web 2.0, now – Hey, I’ll start a blog! I found a SME who’s willing to share his/her expertise with a specific audience (teachers, businesspeople, scientists), so I added the blog to the site, moderated it myself, and can report the site activity to management. It involves extra work but as EPA web 2.0 guru Jeffrey Levy told me last year, you learn by doing. We’ll keep an eye on performance and keep tweaking it as needed.
  • Good measurement tools – You only can manage what you can measure. Let’s get the right tool and get a professional to configure it according to our performance indicators. I can help find efficiencies if I have good data to present to senior management.

Quite a wish list, but these approaches all point to effective site management.

A planning formula for senior managers in federal government

Based on his experience working with federal government clients, Systemscope Partner Stephen Karam of Systemscope’s Government Service Excellence practice has crafted several strategies for senior managers who are about to plan their business transformation projects for the following fiscal year. Colleague Denise Eisner chatted with Stephen about how these strategies support decision-making in a time of limited resources.

Government managers are heading into a key planning period. What should be top of mind when they sit down to chart out next fiscal year?

There are three key themes that management should focus on before initiating large business transformation projects: engagement, framing the problem, and defining specific tools as drivers of transformation.

Let’s first look at engagement. Many times, we have observed managers who have an idea and try to push it up the chain alone without engaging with their colleagues first. Frame your issue it so it engages your peers and their ADM or the DM. Tie yourself to a hot political item in the organization and demonstrate how your plan brings the greatest value internally and to your clients.

How should a manager start the planning process for a new project?

That question brings me to the second theme: not only framing your business problem in a way that engages executives and builds a peer community in support of your vision, but doing so in a way that can be measured.

Have you noticed that a lot of recent Treasury Board initiatives are internally focused? Examples include the upcoming Service Strategy, initially focused on internal service improvement, as well as efforts on improvement of Grants & Contributions (Gs&Cs), looking to reduce administration costs by 10%. I recommend that managers quantify their improvements in the same way. The more you can demonstrate what you want to achieve and how you plan to do it, you are better positioned to receive your ask.

In terms of framing projects, you also want to align with your organization’s Program Activity Architecture (PAA), the Management Accountability Framework (MAF), and the Federal Accountability Act. A common pitfall of a lot of initiatives is that they can articulate how external clients will benefit from transformation, but they do not specifically map outcomes to the machinery of government. When an executive has to prioritize within their portfolio of projects, you must make it easy for them to choose your initiative – both from the client perspective but also from the bureaucracy lens.

Is what you’re describing typically referred to as a business transformation project?

People want to label anything transformation. A common misconception is that business transformation is the same as service transformation. Business transformation is focused on an improved way of doing business and fulfilling strategic policy; it’s truly a change in business and culture. It’s not only a set of projects, but an ongoing program of change.

Executives have to be very clear about what they are trying to transform. How is the business going to be better? When talking to the ADM or DM, rather than touting a technological platform as being better, talk about how it can make the business run better – using measurable improvements to sell your case. Show how the proposed solution can reduce errors, improve throughput and by how much. Now you’re talking about performance metrics. Now you’re starting to align with MAF and PAA. Apply the transformation label only if it truly transforms or enables that process.

Many clients still tend to lead with technology when labeling a transformation project. Does this work?

The challenge is that tools are part of “engineering” a solution; effectively planning focuses on the architecture of an outcome. For example, GC organizations who are Microsoft-based are saying they will invest in MOSS as part of their evergreening process, yet they will label the project as a transformation initiative. It can be, only if the organization focuses on why, what and how it wants to transformation from the perspective of business, process and data/information. Only then can it be determined how to engineer a solution to support the transformation.

One of our clients has fully integrated their systems with MOSS so it is the interface where users have to log in to all their systems, acting as a Business Process Platform. In order to make this successful, the client did a lot of upfront work in the way of business, process and information architecture previous to MOSS being installed and configured. MOSS enabled but did not change the way they do their core business.

What supporting skill sets are needed to plan big projects effectively?

One of the significant gaps in government now is the ability to effectively capture and translate business requirements into actual functional and system requirements that will enable programs’ business needs, both external and internal facing . There must be a group in the organization to bridge that gap. Some departments have a group in the CIO called portfolio management or a similar name. These teams are designed to enable their clients to fulfill business goals. But the missing ingredient is often solid business analysis skills. True business analysis is driven by a deep understanding of business outcomes. Building that business analysis capability represents a fundamental internal challenge that senior managers still need to address. While there has been advancement in this area by some departments, we are observing a critical lack of capacity and capability for these resources across organizations to keep up with the demand of the business.

When Social Media in Government Works…Or Not So Much

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is one of the U.S. government leaders in the creative use of social media tools to support its mission. Jeffrey Levy, EPA’s Director of Web Communications, has made it his mission to share his experiences, including successes, lessons learned, and barriers – both perceived and real. He did so again with more than 60 Canadian public service managers at the Systemscope Executive Breakfast at GTEC in October, 2009.

Denise Eisner of Systemscope’s Government Service Excellence practice sat down with Jeffrey after GTEC to discuss his experiences and impressions.

You met with several federal Canadian department representatives during your brief stay in Canada. What stood out for you in terms of the challenges faced by departments who are planning for or engaging in social media to reach their audiences?

The fact that we all face the same issues: serving our missions, being creative, yet exploring new tools while meeting good governance requirements like records management and accessibility.

Any surprises during those conversations?

I didn’t realize that everything the Canadian government does has to be done in both French and English.  I’m guessing that doesn’t merely double the difficulty, but more like squares it.

In your experience at the EPA, how has social media moved the agency’s agenda forward? How were these activities connected to your overall communications strategy?

So far, social media at EPA is mostly about communications and education.  As we consider our needs, we ask what social media tools would help and choose the ones that will help most and fit within our resources.  For example, last Earth Day, we wanted to deliver daily tips to people, so we used a mix of “traditional” tools like email distribution, social media like creating a podcast series that we put into iTunes and also put the tips into a widget people can put on their own site.

We’re also slowly starting to explore using social media for policy development.  For example, our enforcement office currently has a discussion forum running to hear people’s thoughts about setting enforcement priorities:.

And we have two efforts to build communities around managing watersheds and providing training about green jobs.  The idea is that by helping people do their environmental jobs better, we “produce” environmental protection, even when it’s not EPA staff doing the work.


Canadian departments and agencies have a number of requirements when communicating with the public, particularly in terms of our bilingual policies. Any thoughts on how to best meet these challenges when engaging in social media?

Start small.  That’s really the same advice I give everyone.  It’s very easy to jump into multiple projects and then discover it’s not quite as simple or quick as you thought.  So especially with the dual-language requirement, try things that lend themselves to being done simply.  For example, we put all of our news releases out via RSS on Twitter.  Since Canadian agencies are already publishing news releases in both languages, set up two Twitter accounts to promote them.

The same thing might go for a podcast series, where you record each one twice, but then there’s no ongoing resource use.

In contrast, running two Facebook fan pages really does at least double the complexity, because you have all the issues of encouraging engagement and then reacting, but now in two languages.


At the Systemscope executive breakfast at GTEC in October, you mentioned social media projects that didn’t always go as expected. Can you elaborate on one project and the lessons learned from that experience?


Pick 5 for the Environment is a project where we challenge people to commit to at least 5 of 10 environmental actions.  We went from concept to launch in 19 days.  It included a Facebook fan page and groups on both Flickr and YouTube.  Our hope was that it would take off in all three social media communities, without much input from us. We were wrong.  The fan page has actually gotten some attention, and we have nearly 1300 fans.  But the accompanying Facebook app hasn’t really taken off.  And the Flickr and YouTube groups haven’t generated much interest. So now we’re reassessing, thinking creatively about whether and how to use those outlets.  Most of our energy is going into thinking about how the people who signed up can generate excitement, share their stories, etc.


As part of our web maturity model, Systemscope focuses on helping clients examine roles and competencies that will support their web strategies. What is the skill set that government organizations need to acquire or build to be truly proficient at social media?

Great question.  Can you let me know the answer? 🙂  There really isn’t a single answer, but here are some of the skills I’m trying to build and encourage within my team: creativity, time management, writing, project management, analysis, and actually using social media tools.  That is, I believe that to use something like Facebook well, you need to use it yourself; reading about features and diving in yourself are two entirely different experiences.  I play Facebook games partly because they’re fun and partly to see what kinds of experiences they create, in hopes we can mimic that in what we offer.  The same thing goes with Twitter, Flickr, and any other site.

What do you like about Canada?

Natural beauty and friendly people.  I’ve had the great fortune of visiting Banff, Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, and now I’ve had the pleasure of exploring at least a little bit of Ottawa.

Web Usability as Part of Your Public Opinion Research Planning

By Denise Eisner

As government departments and agencies ramp up efforts to measure their websites’ performance, they increasingly look to usability testing as one of several tools available to gauge user acceptance and satisfaction and make site improvements. A new set of guidelines by Treasury Board in effect as of June 9, 2009 however demands a new approach in planning usability tests by defining this research approach as public opinion research (POR).

“Quality of service/customer satisfaction studies” is defined in the TBS procedures as POR. What does this mean for Comms and IT teams planning usability testing in the near term or next fiscal year?

If your usability testing is planned before fiscal year end, the procedures stipulate that approval comes from the minister or equivalent role per the Financial Administration Act. Given the challenges in bringing such a request to that level in time to conduct testing by March 31, the risk to web projects is high.

The good news is that web teams have time to prepare their annual POR plan for next fiscal year. Find a management champion to support the project, then get together a small group of stakeholders from the appropriate teams to build a proposal. Present your approach to management for consideration and approval according to your organization’s planning timelines.

How to prepare your usability plan for next fiscal

After you have thoroughly digested the TBS procedures, build a solid case for your future usability testing by including these components in your proposal:

  • Project Background – tie the methodology to your business and site goals per your Report on Plans and Priorities, other departmental/agency planning documents and the website strategy
  • Information Needs – define specifically the goals of the research
  • Partnerships – specify any extra-departmental partners and explain the nature of these partnerships
  • Rational and Intended Use of Research – How the research will support department or government priorities, benefit Canadians, and is prescribed by legislative, policy, evaluation or litigation requirement. Also specify the privacy risks of collecting information, if appropriate.
  • Target Populations – description of the participant demographics
  • Methodology and Scope – method for collecting data with detail on any personal information to be collected
  • Deliverables – nature of research outputs, i.e. format
  • Anticipated Timeline – when the research will be conducted and the deliverables completed
  • Budget – costs for contracted services, etcs.
  • Project Authority – name and title

Ideally, your proposal will reference a completed Annual Research Plan which is associated to an overall performance measurement framework approved by senior management. In the absence of those key guidance documents, strengthen your proposed approach by tying your usability testing goals to future development of these web channel components.