Beyond 2005: The Sustainability of Web Services

With Treasury Board’s funding for the federal Government On-Line (GOL) program entering its final years, the challenge of sustainability is haunting many innovative cross-departmental initiatives. This is particularly true as TBS and many individual departments have revised their criteria for allocating GOL funding to require a long-term commitment from the department to maintain the proposed services.

By Annie Crombie

In the private sector, investment decisions are made by looking at short and long term costs, as well as short and long-term benefits. When developing ideas for and evaluating GOL projects, government must also look at the long-term implications of funding decisions, rather than choosing the option that will be quickest to implement and cost the least amount of money to develop.

Experience and best practices have identified some recurring challenges that impede sustainability as well as some approaches to help ensure sustainability. These should be considered by each manager who is developing or has developed Web services under the GOL agenda.

Predicting demise

Selecting the option that is least expensive and quickest to develop: Choosing the option that is least expensive or quickest to implement often means choosing the one that is most expensive to alter and maintain in the long term. While this will save money in the short term, it will end up costing more over all. It is important to carefully assess both the cost of development and the long-term requirements.

Spending money on content development without a plan to maintain the content: Developing good content is often expensive. If there isn’t a concrete plan to maintain the content and the funds to keep it up to date, the Web site will quickly become stale.

Developing content in static formats: When content is developed in simple HTML or PDF format, the ability to share it with other applications is limited by its inflexible format.

Choosing sustainability

Develop Criteria and Standards: Sustainability is often impeded by scope creep and a lack of standards. Developing specific criteria for the type of content that will be included in a specific Web service, as well as standards and templates that set out how it will be displayed and tagged, will help ensure the ongoing sustainability of the initiative and ensure that it is not unmanageable once it reaches a certain size.

Create Partnerships Based on Common Goals: Sharing the responsibility for the maintenance of a system can help to ensure sustainability. For example, a portal with thousands of links could require a full management team. However, by developing partnerships and distributing the responsibility among the partners, the resources and level of effort to centrally maintain the service can be kept to a minimum.

Develop Shared Systems to Reduce Duplication of Effort: A lot of new information delivery initiatives in government have resulted in multiple versions of the same piece of content existing in several different places. Moving forward, government should instead look at creating shared systems that can be tapped by more than one organization/structure/system. For example, a database that includes content from multiple government departments could be published to several Web sites including the departmental site as well as cross-departmental portals, rather than keeping duplicate copies of the same content.

Develop content in a Dynamic Format: Ensuring that the shared systems can be tapped from multiple Web sites requires that the content be stored in a dynamic format. By saving content in a dynamic format, partners can publish the information with their own look and feel and can also specifically define which fields they require and the order in which they wish to display them. This allows for customization of the information based on the specific needs of each partner.

Evaluate demand: Before developing a new service, it is important to evaluate the extent of user demand and to ensure that the service would be meeting a client need that is not met elsewhere.


Currently, the cost/benefit equations that are being used to evaluate various strategic options for implementing GOL projects reward quick wins rather than long-term planning. In order to develop sustainable Web services, a shift in thinking is required that will reward sustainability strategies, rather than awarding funds to projects that respond positively to the question “can you get something up by March 31?”

Annie Crombie ([email protected]) is Director of Real dot Strategies with Intoinfo Inc. of Ottawa.

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