Case Study: How We Fixed Energy.gov, and Why it Matters

From its first iteration in 1997, Energy.gov has come a long way.

Energy.gov is the U.S. Department of Energy’s primary public-facing website. Built on Drupal, it’s the result of a forward-thinking digital reform project that consolidated the agency’s dozens of disparate websites into one flexible, user-friendly platform.

Beyond that, Energy.gov represents a revolution in the way government agencies create and deliver digital content to taxpayers. By creating an agile startup within a hulking bureaucracy, we situated technical and editorial professionals on one flat team, maximizing the potential to humanize a gigantic and misunderstood public institution.

As the final Obama Administration appointee to manage daily operations for Energy.gov, I can tell you that it took a village of very smart people working overtime for eight years to make this happen. Many of them came before my time there. As such, this case study is meant as a high-level overview of the “before” and “after” — not an attempt to take credit for the entire enterprise.

What this also isn’t: An exhaustive analysis of missed opportunities. The road to perfection is endless, and surely we could have done more or better work with a bigger budget, more time, and less red tape. But I think we did a great job with what we had. I hope the new administration picks up where we left off.


THE PROBLEM: Silos, Sprawl, and Conway’s Law

ABOVE: How doe.gov appeared on January 23, 2009.

Over the years since its founding in 1977, the Energy Department’s siloed organizational culture — plus a lack of centralized web governance — led to each of the agency’s two-dozen staff and program offices building its own websites as needed.

Several program offices had more than one website. Some had dozens. All of these websites had their own designs, most of which were objectively poor or outdated. They ran on separate content management systems, creating dead-ends for users who had trouble finding information they needed. And these websites weren’t open-source, so they required costly, duplicative one-off contracts for licensing, hosting, and development.

Even if users ended up on an Energy Department website that contained what they needed, it was often hard to find, because the navigation reflected the office’s organizational chart instead of its mission areas and topics of expertise. This tracks with what’s known as Conway’s Law: Any organization that designs a system will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s structure. Government is certainly not the only sector where this proves true, but it is no exception.

The agency’s main website, the incomprehensible acronym “doe.gov,” was doing a bit better in terms of navigation buckets. But it was managed by the IT department. Communications staffers weren’t closely involved in decisions about the website’s functionality or look-and-feel. To update the homepage, a handful of government contractors would publish revisions via hard-coded HTML. Meanwhile, growing concern over cybersecurity and the ease with which many government websites could be hacked and exploited only compounded the problem. The fact that the whole thing was hosted on a box under someone’s desk in Germantown, Maryland, didn’t help.

The upshot: A lot of wasted money, countless missed opportunities, and a terrible user experience — both for visitors to Energy Department websites, but also for the agency’s communicators, who had to do the best they could with no standardized guidance or resources for web publishing.


THE SOLUTION: Centralize, Harmonize, and Humanize

In 2009, the incoming Obama Administration moved to rapidly reduce wasteful IT spending and improve delivery of digital services at government agencies. New Energy Department communications appointees were dismayed by the state of play. So they took control of the website’s operations, secured sustainable funding, and starting making some changes.

Building the Energy.gov Brand. The first order of business was to redesign the agency’s primary public-facing website. It had to be open-source, and after an initial RedDot iteration, Drupal was chosen for the long haul. The team worked with UX designers and content strategists to completely reinvent the site’s information architecture, moving away from sitemaps based on org charts and toward clean, topic-based navigation.

ABOVE: Energy.gov’s streamlined, topic-based navigation.

The team also created a suite of consistently branded icons and avatars for use across social media. Crucially, they did away with acronyms — including the ubiquitous “DOE.” (Bambi’s mom? The Department of Education?) “Energy.gov” told the story in a clear, honest, direct way. The right way.

Going Agile. Instead of building an expensive website and then walking away until it neared end-of-life, the team decided to engage a small full-time team of developers to constantly iterate Energy.gov. We had daily standups and deployed code to the website at least once every two weeks — everything from module updates, to security patches, to new features and functionality.

Getting Out of the Box. Energy.gov was the first public-facing Energy Department website to be hosted in the cloud — a huge win at a time when government IT departments were so wary of anything new, even if it promised vast benefits.

The Digital Reform Project. Once the new website was up and humming, the team began migrating standalone staff and program office websites to Energy.gov. As we went, we trained content managers from each office how to use the new Drupal content management system (CMS). The CMS became a powerful tool that democratized content production, allowing anyone with basic CMS training to publish content — avoiding the bottlenecks created by designating only one or two employees with special technical expertise to be content publishers.

Improving SEO and User Experience. The migrations also brought offices’ specialized, formerly siloed content together in one place, allowing for easier cross-posting and unified branding and navigation standards. Visitors to any part of Energy.gov could search the entire website for anything, greatly increasing the chances they would find what they needed. And Energy.gov’s powerful search engine optimization (SEO) led to consistently high search rankings. By 2014, Energy.gov content regularly appeared as “featured content” at the top of relevant Google search results for energy topics.

ABOVE: An example of Energy.gov content being featured at the top of Google search results.

The Energy Department’s Web Council. As the physical structure of the agency’s web presence changed, there was a need to bring the agency’s communicators and web managers together to weigh in on the overall direction of their now-shared website. In a partnership with the agency’s IT infrastructure managers, we created the Energy Department Web Council. Each office with a presence on Energy.gov had a seat and a vote on the Council, which meets once a month to discuss the Energy.gov development roadmap. It also hosts brown bag events and facilitates working groups to share best practices on content management, social media, plain language, SEO, analytics, and other issues that matter to content managers.

Going Mobile-First. In 2013, Energy.gov became the first federal government website to go 100 percent mobile-first. At the same time, we improved the functionality of several popular tools, including a searchable database of energy-related rebates and tax credits and Energy Saver, a guide to consumer energy efficiency.

Building a Best-in-Class Digital Content Team. Once the Energy Department had a fresh, accessible brand, it was time to bring that brand to life. We did that by building out a team of gifted content creators—writers, graphic designers, video producers, and interactive data visualization specialists — to build the agency’s social media presence and connect taxpayers with compelling narrative stories about how we spend their money. The team functions like a multimedia newsroom, developing subject matter expertise around assigned “beats.” They use that expertise to create consumer-friendly content that demystifies energy technology and the Energy Department’s programs.

Using Social Media to Connect the Public with Experts. First with Google+ and then with Periscope and Facebook Live, we used free, easy-to-use digital communications tools to connect taxpayers with the Energy Department’s scientists and subject matter experts. My favorite was our June 2015 Google+ Hangout all about the energy technologies from the “Star Wars” movies — and whether they could really exist.

Energy.gov’s “Energy of Star Wars” Google+ Hangout featured scientists from a few of the Energy Department’s National Labs. How much energy *does* it take to blow up the Death Star, anyway?

Investing in Narrative Storytelling. As the content team expanded, we began investing in high-value multimedia content that told compelling stories. From our Energy 101 infographics to our #WomenInSTEM video series, we found and told stories that were engaging, personal, and just damn cool.

One of Energy.gov’s #WomenInSTEM videos, designed to inspire women and girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

On the Job: A Few Individual Contributions

The Energy.gov content team observes National Coffee Day in October 2016.

I meant what I said about it taking a village to manage a website that gets 4–6 million pageviews a month. There were lots of good people in that village, and lots of hats to wear. Mine were primarily the product owner/manager/strategic planning hats. But I wrote a lot, too, and the beauty of a flat, collaborative team like this is that there’s always something to do. I often rolled up my sleeves and got my hands gloriously dirty in the making of things. Here are a few of my contributions:

Energy.gov’s Digital Content Strategy. The bells and whistles are just tactics, and they’re nothing without a solid strategic foundation. When I joined the Energy.gov team in 2013, I worked with the veteran content team to formalize the agency’s first data-driven digital content strategy. “Data-driven” meant just that: We used analytics to define our priority content areas, made sure our navigation reflected that, and then broke down tactics for how to most successfully reach our intended audience.

Building an online presence for Ernest Moniz. Before his time as Energy Secretary, Dr. Ernest Moniz was an accomplished lecturer and nuclear physicist who had served in multiple roles within the Clinton Administration. But he had never used social media. Working with others on the team, I helped shape the voice, tone, and strategy for Ernest Moniz’s Twitter, Facebook, and Medium accounts. I spent a year as the voice behind the man online. All told, we took him from zero to more than 120,000 followers in a couple of years.

It was a lot of fun. Sometimes I had to use Photoshop.

Mic drop.

An Interactive Timeline About the History of Space Batteries. Custom interactive timelines were a way the Energy.gov team made wonky science content more accessible to regular people. A staffer hard-coded the first one as a pilot; when it became our most successful piece of content to date, we developed a custom TimelineJS module for Energy.gov and started making more. I reported, wrote, and produced a timeline all about the history of using nuclear power to make deep-space exploration possible. You’re welcome, NASA.

The Top 11 Things You Didn’t Know About Nikola Tesla. That’s right. We did an entire week of themed content about the epic rivalry between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, highlighting how it drove clean energy innovation for centuries to come. My Tesla listicle blog post was one of the most popular pieces of content that week — but don’t stop there. Read about the War of the Currents, learn the history of the light bulb, and watch a recap of our fascinating Google+ Hangout with Tesla and Edison experts.

“Direct Current: An Energy.gov Podcast.” At the urging of my team, I helped pave the way for Energy.gov to produce the Energy Department’s first-ever podcast (listen and subscribe here). It is really, really amazing — like “Planet Money” meets “Radiolab”, but about all about energy. I contributed to episode planning, edited and approved all scripts, and was featured in the first episode. I am really proud of the storytelling craft on display across the project. It made me resolve to make more podcasts.

Recording the final episode of season one of “Direct Current: An Energy.gov Podcast” with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in January 2017.

2016 Website Redesign. Content is only part of the story. How we deliver it is just as — if not more — important. As Energy.gov’s product owner, I collaborated with a team of UX designers and content strategists to conduct stakeholder research, analyze SEO trends, develop new information architecture, and create annotated wireframes for Energy.gov version 5.0. The new design, which is objectively amazing, will launch any day now.


The Takeaway

The real point, of course, is why we did this. At first, we did it because there was low-hanging fruit that reaped big benefits — cost savings, better SEO, improved user experience, and democratization of content creation. But that was just the beginning.

We kept going because we believed in making government more transparent and accessible to regular people, and because we thought the best way to do that was to talk to them in plain, friendly language — meeting them on social media, on the platforms where they already were, to deliver really interesting and well-produced narratives that got them excited about energy.

After all, energy affects everything around us. It’s inextricably connected to climate change, food and water security, and quality of life. Why shouldn’t the government be on the forefront of communicating that to the American people?

At the end of the day, we were doing it for the people.


A 2017 video from the Energy.gov team envisioned a movie trailer for the Energy Department’s 17 National Labs.

Marissa Newhall is the former Director of Digital Strategy and Communications at the U.S. Department of Energy. When not enjoying naps, cats, tacos, beer, and bikes, she runs her own digital marketing consulting shop. If you’re not a troll, consider following her on Twitter.