Why international organisations seem to be falling apart

Worldwide bodies such as the United Nations can be surprisingly quick to react effectively on the web when controversy calls them to account. But beyond the immediate issue, many collapse into near incoherence.

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The United Nations may be a massive beast, but it has shown great agility in using its website to defend its reputation. This should not be a surprise. International organisations have long used to the web to solve another problem – how to give the outside world access to a sprawling mass of constantly changing information. So they are more used than most to putting it at the centre of their communication efforts. Unfortunately, this familiarity has also bred carelessness – there is more disorder in this group of sites than in any other I have looked at.

Efficient application of oil on troubled waters

Paul Volcker, chairman of the Independent Inquiry Committee, delivered his second interim report on the oil-for-food programme – covering possible conflicts of interest involving UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan – on 29 March. The UN used its site to respond on the same day. Journalists going into the News Centre found the lead story was a piece summarising Mr Annan’s reaction. A link from this led to a full transcript of the press conference he gave, with another leading to the reaction by his chef de cabinet and a third to a dedicated oil-for-food inquiry (OFFI) area. Anyone clicking the Secretary-General link on the home page would get to the same area via Mr Annan’s own section.
The UN is giving a very good impression of being open. Its OFFI section links to a Facts page headed “The UN is extremely concerned about the serious allegations surrounding the oil-for-food programme”; to many statements and articles; and to Setting the Record straight. This consists mainly of letters written to newspaper editors. There are also links to the enquiry’s site (iic-offp.org), where you can read the full report.
The amount of material loaded onto the site within hours of the report being published is impressive. The UN understands that the web is the only possible place to explain itself in the detail it needs, and that journalists will naturally look to it for the organisation’s side of the story. I have never seen a private company use its site to respond to controversy as rapidly or comprehensively.

Disorder on the grand scale

That’s the good news. The bad news is that as I clicked my way from the home page I was passing through pages that changed their design and layout with gay abandon. The Secretary-General’s section has a handful of internal links, one to the UN home page but none to any other parts of the site. The News Centre has a mass of different links, some of which lead to the Spokesman for Secretary-General section. This has its own links, none of which, bizarrely, lead to the boss’s own pages. And that is just on one relatively short trip through the site.
All of this is made more confusing by the insistence on using only one browser window. As you click on a link, the current page disappears to be replaced by a new one. If, as is often the case, the look and navigation changes completely, the only hope of retracing your steps is by using the ‘back’ button. So when you visit a page examine it fondly, for you may never be able to find it again.

Incoherence goes hand-in-hand with size

The problem is that giant organisations such as the UN act like a multitude of different organisations, each of which is allowed to do its own thing. This dilemma is of course shared by many corporations, but the sheer scale of international bodies – and the amount of information they need to get into the public eye – means the potential for creeping incoherence is much greater. As a site gets bigger, it will inevitably make less and less sense unless there is a conscious effort to impose order from the centre.
The World Bank has made such an effort, using its home page to pull together threads from across the site in an intelligent way. But it is struggling against a legacy that has created several independent ‘silos’ of information. For example, an Environment section can be found in at least four areas of the site: each is quite different from and has no links to the others.
The IMF has given up on coherence – or maybe it has never had any. Start clicking here, and you quickly find that there is no hierarchy at all. As an example, the sitemap, which is supposed to lay out the structure, lists Current Issues as part of About the IMF. But there is no Current Issues section, and the sub-sections named in the sitemap are scattered all over the site. Were it not for a halfway decent search engine, this site would be close to unusable.

Sense is a practical option

Maybe the task is just too great. Perhaps a vast rambling organisation must have a vast rambling website? Well, the Asian Development Bank may not be on quite the scale of these others, but its site shows that coherence is perfectly possible. It is particularly good at using links to draw together scattered content, categorized by both topic and country, and makes excellent use of ‘colour coding’. Each main section has its own colour (peach for About ADB, light blue for Projects and so on), which means that when visitors click on a link that takes them to another section, they will immediately see that something has changed. It may sound subtle, but it is detail like this that makes a big difference to usability. It looks nice too.
So, when Mr Annan has got past his current local difficulties, perhaps he could ask his people to have a look at the UN website. It is so good and so bad at the same time; and it could quite easily be just good.

First published 06 April, 2005
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