As the United States enters its third week of shutdown, how are its Government to Business websites reacting? Some have their act together but others are a complete disaster - both in the short term and long term impact. And of course there is a hidden victim from the shutdown that is going to reduce the quality of the government's digital service delivery offerings.

Listen to the show here using our podcast player or Youtube:


Or download and subscribe to future episodes using iTunes or Stitcher for Android.

How are US government websites for business dealing with the shutdown?

Transcript:

Gavin: G'day folks. My name is Gavin Atkinson and welcome to another episode of Government to Business.

First up an apology though, I've been off the air for a good six weeks or so and that's got a lot to do with the fact that I've been basically celebrating my son's graduation from high school. Having a well deserved family holiday, basically tripping all around the world. So it's been actually a really, really invigorating experience.

So my apologies though that I haven't actually been putting any of the episodes out.

That being said there's obviously plenty of content and plenty of information to be talking about at the moment when it comes to government to business service delivery around the world. The most obvious one that springs to mind at the moment is the current government shutdown in the United States which is now well and truly entering into its third week.

At the time of recording there has been some conciliatory approaches between the new Democratic leadership within the House of Representatives and the White House. There's some positive elements that have been discussed there from both the president but at the same time there's also the messaging coming through very clear that, you know, that perhaps this shutdown will be continuing for a long time. It's currently actually getting close to the second longest if not probably the longest shutdown within the US Government history.

The impact of the shutdown on digital Government to Business service delivery

And that has a really big impact when it comes to businesses and to the way that government continues to service them digitally. One of the things that I guess I really, really want to touch on is the importance of maintaining continuity of service when basically nobody is paying the bills.

So within the United States the way the actual system of government works, obviously as in any government around the world, there needs to be appropriations approved from a budget to be able to continue to fund the services and the activities of government and that's currently obviously on hiatus in a number of different elements across the US federal government.

Business as usual

It's not impacting on all so I had a bit of a look around at the moment and wearing the hat of an actual business owner or a small business owner, if you can kind of go at the moment to the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS, I can go to their pages that are actually dealing with for small business people and also for self-employed people. And basically going to their tax center, it's basically it's business as usual.

There's no impact at all. The website works. The websites being updated. There's nothing there talking about any actual shutdown of government services at all.

Most sites "press pause"

That said there are many, many other websites across the US federal government at the moment that are actually maintaining little warnings if I can kind of put it that way. So, whether we're talking about the Small Business Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture - obviously there for the farming industry, USA.gov itself - the main portal into the federal government, the Department of Commerce.

Many, many other actual government websites across the US at the moment basically are maintaining warnings. So as an example the Small Business, the US Small Business Administration, which is I suppose the primary conduit the main government portal for small businesses within the United States has a special announcement saying that, "Due to the lapse in federal funding this website will not be actively managed. But disaster assistance however is still available."

It's good that actually that some of those more urgent elements can still continue to be delivered and assist businesses that might be actually going through a bit of a hard time. That said this website up and running. You can continue to navigate and go through to www.sba.gov, you can find out all the information that was being published and provided by the Small Business Administration up to and prior obviously to the actual US government shutdown and that all works that works fine.

Obviously if you're trying to send a message to the SBA, trying to contact them about something, you're not going to be hearing anything back because those services are currently not being provided. And the main reason for that is if there's no money there to keep the actual Department up and running that means that the actual department employees are not being paid depending on what's going on there. They either turn up to work and don't get paid or alternatively are just not turning up to work at all.

In this circumstance it does mean that a lot of these government sites across the United States that are being delivering services to business - and the same thing actually applies to citizens as well but obviously I'm focusing on businesses - it means that all of them are actually able to access those services but there's actually no new content that's being added to those sites. There's no changes being made to those sites. There's no maintenance being made to those sites.

Now obviously maintaining and making sure that your information on your website is up-to-date and accurate is essentially critical in modern society and that being said you can probably let it go for a little bit, so for example we're entering into the third week. Unless of course there's mission critical information there that needs to be updated and maintained it's probably not going to have a big impact on businesses. That being said there's a lot of other different things that are going around across government at the moment.

Blink and you'd think these sites were off the air

A great one about that I guess would be if you're looking at both the Export.gov website and the SelectUSA.gov which is aimed obviously at attracting investment into United States.

When you go into either Export.gov or SelectUSA.gov the home page there and everything at the moment is defaulting to a, you know, Export.gov/shutdown and gives this massive all capitals, like shouting if I can put it that way, message smack bang in the middle of the screen saying:

"DUE TO A LAPSE IN APPROPRIATIONS EXPORT.GOV, SELECTUSA.GOV AND STOPFAKES.GOV - which is an interesting website - AND ALL ASSOCIATED ONLINE ACTIVITIES WILL BE UNAVAILABLE UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE."

And then there's a learn more link telling you about the shutdown.

The thing about this message is it's glaringly obvious you can't miss it. It's not at all subtle.

It actually gives you very much the impression when you kind of go to that page that as it said, all associated online activities will be unavailable until further notice. That's a pretty strong message to be providing to businesses.

The interesting part about that though is you can actually kind of use Export.gov and SelectUSA.gov. You can actually still use the navigation bar to navigate around and find everything that you wanted to before. You can still use the search engine and find everything you wanted to before. So that's very much like the SBA and USDA and other websites where the information is still available. It's still accessible. It can still help businesses.

But you probably wouldn't really know that if you saw this big massive message and obviously I'll include links within the show notes so you can go and have a look at what it looks like after the event when hopefully all this gets sorted out.

What NOT to do during the shutdown

The other thing though that's really interesting is one particular US government website that's aimed at business taking a very, very different tact. And that is the actual website Trade.gov.

Now Trade.gov also has a message smack bang in the middle of the screen. It's not shouting in all capitals, but then again it looks like actually it's gone super old-school with actually no cascading stylesheets, there's no images, it's just Times New Roman in heading one, black on white saying:

"Due to the lapse in government funding Trade.gov and Export.gov and all the associated online activities will be unavailable until further notice."

Trade.gov website during the US Government Shutdown

So the same message as what we saw before with Export.gov but the difference here is quite literally all associated online activities for Trade.gov are unavailable.

There is no navigation on that site. There is no, there's no search available on that site. There's nothing.

There's just that initial message and that's it.

So obviously you want to continue to have a presence online even if there's no changes being made to the site. And that's not just about actually maintaining continuity of service to business it's actually about maintaining continuity of service to Google.

And the reason I bring that up is the fact that if you have a website like Trade.gov which is quite literally off the air with just a single home page there and nothing else available, when the Googlebot goes out and starts crawling your website, and obviously it does that for government sites all the time, because they are considered to be generally very, very trustworthy.

When it goes out and finds this message and this message alone Google's not going to take that very, very well. It basically says to the Googlebot that look this web site just doesn't exist anymore apart from this one single page and there's no content here. It basically loses all that authority that's been built up for that website over many, many years.

Essentially what it does is that, it means that after this event when actual funding starts coming through, anyone within the US from a business perspective when they're trying to find information about, that would normally be available from Trade.gov when it's up and running, if they go to Google chances are they're not going to find it anywhere near as easily as they used to be able to in the past.

Lessons of the past

That's not a really good message for business because it means that there's an ongoing impact of the shutdown well and truly after the event. I guess the only one thing that's really, really good around the current 2018-2019 shutdown is that at the moment this is the only website that I found aimed at business which is basically just slamming the door in Google's face and slamming the door in business owners faces.

In the past there's obviously been other instances where, and I've actually wrote an article last year, back in January last year, when there was just a three day shutdown within the US federal government and how some particular government websites at the time were taking a similar tactic.

Back in 2013 which is probably the longest shutdown that happened at the time I think was around about 18 or 19 days, so we're fast approaching that at the moment, and during that period of time from my experience and you know, maintaining relationships with various government websites within Australia who maintain and deliver services to business, there was a very, very marketable impact when it came to the traffic that was coming through from the United States actually into government websites in Australia delivering services to business.

You might think that sounds a bit weird but at the end of the day when a business is looking for information it's looking for authority, it's going to find out whatever actual Google is putting up there and what Google's going to be putting up there are those pages that actually are continue to be maintained, continue to be made available and actually deliver quality content and quality services through to business.

That's one thing to really kind of think about. That there is an impact when you kind of switch off the lights so to speak within an actual government website, that your customers essentially go somewhere else.

The thing that was very interesting was say for example in the 2013 shutdown, that long period there was an increase there in the amount of traffic coming through from the United States to some of these government sites in Australia. You know it went up around about a third or so, and what was particularly surprising was the fact that kind of wasn't just during the period of the shutdown. That maintained a an actual impact past that point of time, going a month or two further where it took a long time again for those sites obviously in the US to be rediscovered by Google, to be considered to be authoritative again and for Google then to change the search engine ranking so that US businesses when they're looking for government information were instead of getting temporarily those Australian sites they were then getting back to the US websites.

That's something to consider when it comes to the shutdown and hopefully many, many of these government departments have actually gone through this unfortunately too often and have actually developed plans and I'm very surprised that the Trade.gov site is actually doing the current plan of just shutting the door because it's not very smart. It's not very forward-thinking.

I'm sure they obviously needs to switch off the lights figuratively speaking but at least maintained the service. It's not like, you know, the actual hosting arrangements can't continue. Government obviously enters into long-term contracts, they continue to maintain and pay those services in advance or on a longer-term. Yeah, very, very surprising.

The shutdown and its economic impact on business

There's a couple of other things though I just wanted to touch on when it comes to this particular government shutdown and its impact on business. It's not just about the fact that any of those websites at the moment that I mentioned who are still available and businesses can still find the information although it's not being maintained the overall impact generally across the economy is not a good one when it comes to conflict obviously within the government system between the different levels of government, between the executive and the legislature.

And that basically is because of all the extra uncertainty that creates within a economic perspective. That's not a very, very good thing as far as businesses are concerned.

The forgotten victims of the shutdown: US Government employees

But the one element I think nobody is really, really thinking about here at the moment is the impact on the employees within these government departments in the United States.

I say that in the sense of, as I said we're entering the third week now that these government departments and their websites have been shut down. That means that for those employees who look after and maintain those government sites within the US for business. They're not getting paid.

When they're not getting paid that puts a whole heap of financial pressure obviously on their lives and on the lives of their families. They still need to put food on the table, they still need to pay mortgages or pay rent, they still have student loans or other loans that they need to pay. And if the cash isn't coming in from their employer, the federal government, their loyalty to that federal government and to their department even if they might be, you know, great people to work with, even though they might be in a very, very challenging, rewarding environment of delivering public service, they're delivering public service. They're not delivering a public charity.

Their time is valuable. They still need to pay those bills.

And chances are the long-term impacts of this particular shutdown is actually going to flow its way through to the quality of the employees within the US federal government who are delivering those services to businesses.

I can imagine of the hundreds, if not thousands of different US federal government employees who are actually supporting and delivering services to small business many of those will have doubts in their mind. They'll be looking at their bank accounts. They'll be going down to the grocery store and going, "What can I afford to put on the table this week?"

And in their minds they'll be going, "What other opportunities are there available within the private sector for my skills?"

So I do fear that there's a real risk of a brain drain in the US federal government, particularly within this aspect of digital service delivery to business and that's going to have a big impact I think longer-term on businesses as a whole.

Because if you're not making sure that you've got the best people on board who are servicing businesses across the US federal government, they're going to be delivering unfortunately less of an actual quality service, they're not going to be actually listening to their customers and delivering to businesses what they need to know and that in itself is then going to have a detrimental impact more broadly to the US federal government.

Hopefully this situation gets resolved sooner and I'm not coming back in another couple of months saying "Geez this is getting even worse," and providing an update as literally hosting environments are no longer being paid. But these are pressing times and these are concerning times when it comes to the actual digital service delivery to business from government within the US.

Takeaways for government executives outside the United States

And I do hope that it gets resolved sooner rather than later. Of course if you're not in the United States all of this has been pretty pointless but there actually is some significant learnings for you regardless.

It's about maintaining that continuity of service even if you're going through an actual website redevelopment, maintaining that authority with Google, that consistency with Google. That's always going to be critical as well if you're ever going through a plan to migrate or move your websites onto a different content management system or redesign the website.

Ensuring that you've got continuity of your 'Google juice' if I can call it that way, it's basically your pages they continue to be known or if you've moved them to another location that you've done a 301 redirect, so permanently redirected the Google juice, that's critical as well.

So those are the type of things that at the moment are going to have an impact on people like Trade.gov and potentially other web sites in the future if the shutdown continues.