According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, over 85 million people report using the internet to look for political news or information—this makes up 58% of the 147 million American adults on the web. Not a surprising statistic, given that the actions taken by public servants are a matter of concern not only for policy makers and opinion leaders but, more importantly, for the common people. Unrestricted forums in which the public has an opportunity to engage, discuss, and analyze issues are an essential foundation of a participatory type of government. Yet there seems to be a shortage of informative and professional web sites fit to represent the public sphere in an unbiased manner. A handful of award-winning sites, however, are beginning to set a standard for the field. Both The WebAwards and The Webby Awards have compiled lists of nominees and annually present awards of excellence on the internet in web site categories including, but not limited to, “Non-Profit,” “Government,” and “Politics.” One site winning a particular WebAward for Standard of Excellence in the Non-Profit category is the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP). The site provides informative and knowledgeable textual research of public policies that affect low- and moderate-income Texans while creating an environment which is both easy to understand and easy to use—especially appealing to the general public. The CPPP offers visitors an excellent source of non-partisan research and initiatives that are under development. Although there is much to be praised about the CPPP web site, a number of pertinent weaknesses can still be identified. Possibly these are the reasons the CPPP web site did not secure a higher level award, such as Best web site of Industry; nevertheless the site does set an example for others in the public realm to refer to and even be measured by.
While The WebAwards and The Webby Awards differ in the criteria used to nominate and award sites, there is significant overlap in their evaluation processes. The WebAwards are judged on seven elements, offering a score between 0 and 10 in each area. What is troublesome, though, is that parts of The WebAwards criteria are quite ambiguous and open to much interpretation. The criteria by which The Webby Awards are judged, on the other hand, are more defined and helpfully summarized so that the judges may be, more or less, in agreement of the terms and definitions. Furthermore, the weight of each category in the Webby Award criteria is adjusted based on the purpose of the site at hand. These evaluation standards provide much-needed reasoning behind the awards process. Why was this site awarded? Why was another site not awarded in its place? What were the strengths of this site? In what areas could the site be improved? This can help not only nominated and winning sites improve the experience they provide to internet users but an understanding of the criteria gives guidelines for the bettering of all web sites.
Honoring the CPPP web site is timely as the site has remained relatively unchanged in all aspects—except content—during the past seven years, until its recent update. The visual design has been newly transformed: there have been changes in the color scheme used and improvements in the sharpness of text and images. Nevertheless, the thought-provoking aesthetic tone of the site has been kept intact. The latest design lends itself to somewhat of a more professional feel and creates an appropriate backdrop for a site that wants to be respected for expertise in the analysis of policies. As noted by the The Webby Awards criteria, a visual design which is “relevant for the audience and the message it is supporting” is of the utmost importance. A wider page layout has been implemented, changing the alignment and decreasing the amount of “white space,” which adds to the perception that the site exhibits significant authority. Pale shades of blue, beige, and coral used are less harsh and more appealing to the eye than the previous bold reds and purples. Furthermore, these new colors provide the user an emotional reprieve from the serious, and sometimes melancholy, topics addressed by CPPP. While the visual appearance is by no means extraordinary or exceptional, it is absolutely appropriate given the nature of the site’s broad audience, informative purpose, and intelligent content.
The most important features that must be considered in creating, improving, and enhancing a web site are the accessibility and the flawlessness of technology. After all, as with any medium of information, it is not useful if one cannot get to it. Used as one of the six criteria for The Webby Awards, “functionality” at its best “makes the experience center stage and the technology invisible.” This site loads quickly and clearly. With no broken links, seamless transition between pages, and impeccable movement from HTML to PDF policy pages, the CPPP site should be considered of the highest quality attainable with respect to the practical use of technological tools. Starting from the home page, in just two clicks of the mouse, visitors are able to to e-mail CPPP employees; this is done by choosing Staff (under the About Us dropbox) and selecting the desired individual. Such impeccable user-centered design always allows return to the home page, provides plenty of choices for navigating ahead, and does not appear to result in any “dead end” pages. Taking the aforementioned into consideration, it is unlikely that the CPPP web site obtained less than a perfect 10 for its well-designed and high-performing capabilities.
Because of the wide range of people who use the internet for political and governmental information, the structure and navigation of such sites must be straightforward but not boringly ordinary. The CPPP site succeeds at doing this. The web site is hierarchically planned out, making it easy for the visitor to find his way around the otherwise vast and overwhelming amount of information. Hierarchical site structures, as explained in the Web Style Guide, are “usually organized around a single home page…so most users find this structure easy to understand.” Upon entering the CPPP site a horizontal toolbar, directly under the site's title, lays out for the visitor what there is to see and where one can go: Home, About Us, Research, KIDS COUNT, Real Stories, Newsroom, Events, Contribute, or Initiatives. Not only is this basic structure easy to use, the site has made it easy to follow. Before moving away from the homepage, the visitor is able to see what choices await him on the upcoming page.
Specifically, this can be viewed when the cursor is placed on the “Research” tab (without selecting it) and a set of further navigation choices appear in a drop box. In this case, they include Workforce/Economic Development, Public Benefits, Child Protection, School Finance, Budget, Taxes, Family Economic Security, Federal Issues, View by Date. From here a selection can be made or extensive choices can be seen under the first two items in the drop box. The visitor is offered an uncomplicated way of quickly going where he wants and avoids the pitfalls of unnecessary return trips and perhaps getting lost in the breadth of material on the site. Thus, as with the technological functionality, the CPPP site’s consistent structure and easy to use navigation allows the visitor to focus on the content and purpose of the web site, almost unaware of the features which make it possible for the information to be accessed.
With all technical, structural, functional, navigational, and organizational aspects of the web site out of the way, the initial intention for entering is reached: the content. According to the criteria used in judging The Webby Awards, “good content takes a stand.” The specifics a visitor is searching for—whether it is text, video, or graphical evidence—must be interesting, informative, and engaging. The CPPP site presents a variety of information, ranging from initiatives launched, to research studies published, to personal stories of Texans who have been affected by program and budget cuts. One personal story in particular regarding child protection and foster care is especially touching: the appointed guardian of four young siblings explains that his (or her) parental rights expired in 2002 and because “the appeal process has dragged on,” the children are still without a permanent home. “It's outrageous!”
While there is an abundance of such valuable information, most of the content of the web site is in the form of text; the lack of videos, charts, or audio data leaves a lot to be desired. And despite the fact that the CPPP's body of knowledge is both interesting and relevant, it is severely deficient in engaging interaction between and among site visitors. Interactivity, as an element of The Webby Awards criteria, is an opportunity for visitors to “speak [their] mind so that others can see, hear or respond. Interactive elements are what separates the Web from other media.” However, on the CPPP site there are no chat rooms, suggestion areas, or discussion boards to allow users the opportunity to voice their own opinions. The web site could greatly benefit if such essential elements were added; chat rooms and discussion boards are especially effective in a forum where public participation and civic engagement generally produce sound and successful policy.
In order to gain knowledge from more visually interactive forms of information a visitor should certainly investigate some of CPPP's research publications. Most of these articles are presented in PDF pages that may create obstacles for some readers who do not have access to, for example, Adobe Acrobat. Nevertheless, the policy research is an excellent source of pertinent data regarding current social issues of interest. The policy page, "The State of Working Texas 2006", addresses the unacceptably minimal improvements in household income and labor wages following the 2001-02 recession. In a sophisticated but uncomplicated way the CPPP defines demographics of today's Texan labor force, measures current levels of labor market performance, and recommends higher education as the factor which can potentially stimulate economic development. Keeping with the purpose of the web site and taking into consideration the readers of the policy pages, the CPPP combines textual and graphical evidence to convey a strong message emphasizing the importance of education through their research. Furthermore, these tasks of research and policy analysis are undertaken by staff members boasting impressive educational qualifications of their own: Senior Research Associate Frances Deviney, for one, received her B.A. in Psychology from Vanderbilt University and has gone on to earn a Doctorate in Developmental Psychology. Staff members, including Deviney, are also responsible for coming up with innovative ways of adding to and improving on CPPP's initiatives. The Family Asset Building Project is one measure promoted by CPPP as an effort to help families gain knowledge about specific tools, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, that can be employed to help maintain financial stability. With their talented staff leading the way to initiation of incrimental changes in public policy, CPPP is providing a valuable service to all members of society—on and off the internet.
The presence of the internet is rapidly growing to replace T.V., newspaper, and radio as the primary medium for research and information. However, because almost anybody can launch their own web site, it is rarer to come upon a site that has undergone any type of academic review than one which has not. This is increasingly true as the number of web site choices is constantly on the rise. Thus the overall experience given to a visitor by a site, as a complete sum of all of its parts, is what should serve as a measurement of authority and success. Despite falling short in some aspects of its content and interactivity, the CPPP web site presents relevant, informative matters, with near-perfect structure and navigation, and extraordinary functionality. The Webby Awards criteria explains that “overall experience encompasses content, structure and navigation, visual design, functionality, and interactivity, but it also includes the intangibles that make one stay or leave.” It is not surprising that the CPPP web site—the flow felt and the experience granted—stands as an authority not only in the realm of public policy analysis but also in the discipline of web site creation.