Thin and anti-social: the state of world leaders' websites

Disappearing social channels, shrinking background information, crumbling navigation and an unhealthy focus on press releases... Scott Payton finds evidence of decline on five G7 leaders' websites.
 

Back in March 2015 we toured the official websites of each of the G7 leaders in search of ideas for corporate digital managers. We found much variety and some useful lessons

There’s been a change at the political top in five G7 countries since then. Has this brought fresh approaches to their online communications? We revisited to find out – and spotted four trends:

  • A marked drop in social media activity on most country leaders’ official websites. Use of social channels by political leaders might have become more prevalent – and has certainly become more contentious – in the last few years. But this has become much less visible on their web presences.

  • A deterioration in navigation: it’s generally harder to find key information and easier to get lost on all five of the sites we revisited.

  • A paring back of ‘About us’ information: students and others researching the roles of political leaders and their offices are more poorly served by these sites today than three years ago. The White House site has the richest policy and process material of the five sites we looked at – with the UK prime minister’s office providing the thinnest. [European readers are invited to insert their own Brexit joke here.]

  • A tightened focus on news: all five of the G7 leaders’ sites we revisited are more fixated than ever on bypassing the traditional media to convey the latest speeches and press releases to the general public. Expanding this role of the site has, however, come at a cost to others.

For corporate web managers, the sites discussed below are worth visiting to gather ideas on conveying news to generalist audiences. But in many respects, the best corporate websites now dramatically outclass these public sector counterparts. 

The White House

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During the Obama administration, the White House website was awash with tools and materials designed to get citizens ‘involved’ – from signing petitions to sharing videos and infographics carefully designed to ‘go viral’. We wrote approvingly about all this in January 2013.

Revisiting in September 2018, it’s a very different site. Attempts to encourage citizens to engage have been substantially scaled back. There is no longer a ‘Social Hub’, ‘Engage’ page or ‘Participate’ main menu link.

There is a link labelled ‘Get Involved’, hidden behind a hamburger menu (poor practice in desktop mode of a site), and in the footer. This leads to a page offering just three options to engage – sign up to email updates, write to the President or apply for an internship or fellowship.

Social media integration is limited to a panel showing a recent @whitehouse tweet on the home page, links to the President’s and other officials’ Twitter feeds on biography pages, plus standard footer icons linking to the official White House Facebook page, Twitter feed and Instagram account. 

The primary navigation menu consists of five policy topics – Economy, National Security, Budget, Immigration and The Opioid Crisis. On click, each leads to brief introductory material on the topic, followed by a list of links to related statements, fact sheets and other information. It is a simple approach – but clear, intuitive and far more informative (if uncompromisingly partisan) than equivalent material on the four other sites we revisited. 

Information about the White House itself has been stripped back, too: an elaborate multimedia tour has been removed, for example. 

Site layout is clean and clear, and users who take the time to dig into the site will find some useful information on various executive offices and the people who run them.

Navigation and orientation provisions are very poor, however: it is hard to work out what each section contains, and to keep track of where you are within them. 

Office of the Canadian prime minister

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Justin Trudeau may share little common political ground with Donald Trump, but his official website is also less ‘social’ than his predecessor’s. 

There is no longer any signs of ‘24 Seven’, an ‘online magazine that publishes shareable content’, which used to be a key part of the Canadian prime minister’s site. 

Like the Trump-era White House site, the official Trudeau web presence has been simplified and decluttered – though an embedded @CanadianPM Twitter feed features prominently in all key sections.

While policy topics dominate the White House site’s primary navigation menu, there are few signs of them at all on Justin Trudeau’s site. The focus, instead, is on news and photos. Visitors looking for information about the role of the Canadian prime minister and his offices will be disappointed, too: there is good biography information but little else. 

The Élysée Palace

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The online home of the French Presidency is far more ‘social’ than its US and Canadian counterparts. Indeed, before users can reach the site’s home page they are urged to ‘Like’ the official Facebook page. 

The home page itself is dominated by a grid of videos, images and other materials designed to be shared on Twitter and Facebook. ‘Social Networks’ is a primary menu link. ‘Share’ icons are festooned across the News landing page and elsewhere. 

Policy topics get far less prominence than on the White House site. And although the home page was full of fresh material during our September 2018 visits, there were signs elsewhere of serious neglect: the ‘Social Networks’ landing page contained just four tweets – all from May last year.  

And like the White House site, navigation is weak. For example, a substantial but poorly presented section providing information on the role of the French Presidency appears to sit entirely outside the primary section structure of the site. 

Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street

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As in our previous visits three and a half years ago, the UK Prime Minister’s office does not have its own website. Instead, it occupies a tertiary-level section of Gov.uk, the UK government’s comprehensively consolidated website. 

This remains a serious drawback. Gov.uk is designed to make it easy to find and fill out government forms, pay bills and complete other linear tasks. It does this very well. But the site is not designed to house editorially or visually rich information, or to make it easy for users to jump between different categories of material deeper in the site. Moreover, some parts of the Prime Minister’s office section are astonishingly thin: the ‘About us’ area consists of just one paragraph, for example.

Office of the President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic

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The online presence of the Italian presidency has improved since early 2015 – though problems remain. An extremely dated site has been replaced with a modern offering that takes its visual cues from online magazines. 

Like the other sites discussed above, it suffers, however, from confusing navigation: key links are buried behind a hamburger menu even in desktop mode, and the news-focused home page is full of baffling icons that are anything but self-explanatory.

And like most of the other G7 leaders’ sites, social media integration is minimal. The priority, once again, seems to be to broadcast news directly to citizens, without journalists or social media users getting in the way. 

- Scott Payton

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