In late March, the Federal Reserve took an educational gamble: It created a website for kids. But perhaps more significant than the site itselfwhich offers a brief tour of economic policy guided by a cartoon bald eaglewas the fact that a major paper wound up noticing it. In an adventurous foray into the world of government kids pages, The Washington Post praised the central banks colorful creation.
Unfortunately, by finding news in a single, sagging tree, the Post managed to miss a flourishing forest. For years, the government has run thousands of kids pagesalmost every agency has onemost of which are far better than the Feds. (And, really, the Fed site is pretty lame: There are no games or prizes, and the eagle is crudely animated). These sites can be traced back to a 1997 memorandum in which Bill Clinton directed agency heads to enrich the Internet as a tool for teaching and learning and suggested kids pages as a possible improvement. The memo was, as one agency web-honcho puts it, a call to action.
But ordering up a website is easy. Making one thatll have kids hooked is hard. Sure, NASAs website draws a crowd, but thats a special case: Space is inherently cool. Very little else in government is. What government can offer tends to be at best boring (press releases on animal ID systems, Treasury forecasts) and at worst terrifying (crime, natural disasters, war). How, then, do you dress all this up in a kid-friendly costume? To find out, we talked to dozens of government web-designerstunnel people, as one insider calls themand spent enough hours surfing childrens pages to earn an honorary place on the national sex-offenders registry.
The main thing we learned is that any self-respecting site for kids must feature a cartoon mascot, preferably one from the animal kingdom. The CIAs page, for instance, employs a blue bear named Ginger, a mascot-cum-tour guide at Langley. (Hi! My name is Ginger. Thats short for Virginia, where my home isI love walnuts, but I never thought you could hide a secret message in the empty shell. And so forth). But man-made objects can also fit the bill. Take the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) website, which created Stanley Stat, an animated graph who, along with his ambiguous love interest, Pie-Chart Pam, exhorts kids to learn more about, well, agricultural statistics. (Do you know your Agricultural Statistics History? inquires Stanley, staying admirably on-message). Indeed, the entire Department of Agriculture, which runs NASS, has a penchant for bringing the inanimate to life. My favorite is Thermy, says USDA Web Director Kim Taylor, referring to Thermy the Thermometer, a mercurial fellow who comes complete with a polka dot pot-holder, puffy chefs hat, and digital temperature display in lieu of a mouth. There are creative people, you know?
Nevertheless, animation, while popular, should never be used lightly. As Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Joanna Gonzalez explains, cartoon mascots set the tone for an entire kids page. In the case of the DHS, that mascot would be Rex the mountain lion, a Freddie Mercury-like fellow in a sleeveless shirt who has the head of a feline and the body of a human weightlifter. Its up to Rex to be a role model to children who are planning for emergencies such as an act of terrorism (Talk to your parents or teachers if you have questions about this type of emergency) and to interest them in preparedness exercises (This fun game will help you remember what your family should pack in your emergency supply kit!). And creating Rex took a lot of thought. It had to be someone that was strong, and we wanted it to be family friendly, says Gonzalez. We always describe Rex as being a strong family man who protects his wife, Purrcilla, and his daughter, Rory. Rex, in other words, is an animal version of Michael Chertoff, only competent.
By the same logic, names require close attention. They should fit the agency in question, and puns are a must. The Forest Service enjoys backing from one Woodsy Owl (a whimsical fellow, claims the site bio), and the National Research Conservation Services site offers S.K.Worm, the agencys official annelid. (The S.K. stands for scientific knowledge, but the name is pronounced Squirm). But not all puns are created equal: They must undergo extensive audience testing. A 25-page USDA slogan study reveals that Thermy the Thermometer came by his moniker only after focus groups rejected Tempy, Chef Thurmond, Hot Shot, Thermo, and Temperman.
As for exposing kids to the worlds realities, not every site shies away from calling it like it is. At first blush, the Department of Justice kids page, with its smiling Lady Justice and befuddled cartoon judge, looks like any other run-of-the-mill, feel-good site. But click on the 10 most wanted link and youre zapped through to characters like Robert William Fisher, wanted for allegedly killing his wife and two young children and then blowing up the house in which they all lived, and Diego Leon Montoya, who is being sought in connection with the manufacture and distribution of multiple tons of cocaine and who has a reputation for taking help from right-wing paramilitaries as well as leftist rebels. Harsh details, but kids cant believe in Santa forever.
Of course, morale may be a problem for webmasters who work within relatively obscure agencies. In truth, we wouldnt have thought the United States Patent and Trademark Office needed a kids page, either. Or the Census Bureau. Or, for that matter, the Mine Safety and Health Administration. But try telling that to the nine year-old who happens to be obsessed with just these things. After all, where else would boys and girls go to learn about toy patents, or the finer points of mineral extraction compliance? Answer: Nowhere. They would go nowhere.
And even if your site is small, you still have a chance to push democratic values to the fore. White House Internet Director David Almacy maintains a website called Barney.gov, which features almost nothing but pictures and clips of the presidents Scottish terrier, Barney, running around the White House (with the occasional cameo from a senior administration official). But where some see only a fluffy quadruped, Almacy sees much more. [Barney.gov] says, you know, this is the peoples house, he explains. The president says that often. This is not my house. This is the peoples house. So we thought, what better way to show that than to have a fun animal run around the house? Fair enough. Of course, a better way for the president to say This is not my house might be simply to leave the houseforever. But thats just a thought.
To be sure, all of this costs a fair amount of money. While its impossible to arrive at a total, theres no doubt that the federal government as a whole spends tens of millions of dollars each year on such websites. (NASA, which admittedly runs a fancier kids site than most, estimates that it spends $150,000 dollars a year developing childrens web content.) As for whether its well spent, cynics could observe that Kids.gov, the governments big childrens web portal, is currently the 312,144th most popular site on the Internet, just behind perennial favorites like virtualkiss.com and Jesus Dress Up. They might also ask whether being simple and direct (while keeping references to leftist rebels to a minimum) isnt preferable to having every harsh reality of the world filtered through a furry animal.
Then again, its also important to remember what we get in return for our tax dollars. Brilliance like Barney.gov doesnt come free. As Almacy recounts in harrowing detail, making his first movie with the dogsBarney and his canine cohort, Ms. Beazleytook a level of time and effort only possible with robust financial backing. I literally had a chat with them in the Rose Garden, he recalls. So I leaned over with my hands on my knees and said, Okay, guys, youre going to be participating in a movie, and we appreciate all your help. Grasping the depth of the moviemaking commitment, the dogs cooperated.