Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Plain Language Is Good Business

(This is a repost of my guest blog for New Zealand's WriteMark plain language advocates)

I worked on U.S. Government websites for 10 years; and I learned there’s one principle that trumps all others:  if you don’t communicate effectively, you can’t serve effectively.  If customers come to your website and cannot understand what you offer and how to get it, they leave and never come back.  They tell their friends what a rotten website you have and, by extension, how bad you must be.

How you communicate – the words you use and the ways you organize them – brands your organization as much as that little logo you use or those razzle dazzle graphics or those expensive ad campaigns.  That’s why getting the words right – making them “plain” – is good business.

So how do you get the words right?  You get to know your customers – how they think and how they talk.  You train everyone in your organization how to write right, and you reward staff members who improve your products.  You look for examples of good writing and emulate them.  You watch your customers use what you’ve written, see where they stumble, and fix it.   You find professionals to help you.  You invest the time because it makes your product better and your customers happy.

There’s lots of help.  The folks at WriteMark in New Zealand and the Center for Plain Language in the U.S. offer great resources.  Right now, WriteMark is offering a “free sample” of their services.  Just send them a document or web page, and they’ll give you a mini-review.  That gives you a place to start. 

Check out the winners of WriteMark’s Plain Writing Awards and the U.S. Clearmark Awards, and use them as examples.  Get your staff together to look at the winners.  Talk about what works and why.  Then see how you can apply those lessons to your own products. 

Businesses, non-profits, and governments all over the world are getting on the plain language band wagon.  Why?  Because it just makes sense.  When your customers can find and use what they want, easily and effectively, they’re happy.  Happy customers come back.  They tell their friends.  Plain language is good business.

Center for Plain Language 
WriteMark award winners 
Clearmark award winners

Monday, November 19, 2012

Groom Your Successors

I’m often asked, “Do you know someone we could hire for our web team?”  Of course, they want the full package – someone skilled in plain writing, customer analysis, strategic planning, usability, search engine optimization, design, social media, mobile apps, marketing…oh, and can they code?  Do these super beings exist?  Yes – they are you!  But what happens when you move on?  Will there be someone ready to pick up the reins?  There will be if you groom your successors.

I know – you’re busy; and it takes time to train and nurture up-and-comers.  Digital Government University is a huge help.  But classroom training is only part of the development process.  Prospective digital leaders need more.  They need routine access to role models so they can watch and learn and ask questions.  They need opportunities to try new skills and challenges to cause them to think bigger.

So…a few tips:
  • Think about people in your agency who are potential digital leaders.  Maybe they’re on your team.  Maybe they’ve shown interest, but aren’t in a digital government job series.  Maybe they’re people in unrelated jobs who show energy and passion and leadership potential.  Maybe they’re Presidential Management Fellows or interns.  Make a list.  Then seek them out.
  • Look for potential leaders at other agencies.  Look at all levels of government - the more we intermingle among federal, state, and local, the better for citizens.  Pay attention to people who share ideas on Web Content Manager Forum conference calls or who volunteer for Sub-Councils.  Reach out to them, and draw them into your network.
  • Invite your prospects to meetings.  Let them see you in action.  Ask them to take notes (give them a role), and then take time afterward to discuss what happened. 
  • Work with your agency training officer to create opportunities for people who are not in digital government job series to gain those skills.  Let them shadow you; or offer them short details to your team, if they can work it into their training plans.
  • Encourage promising leaders to find mentors.  You may not be able to mentor everyone with potential, but there are other mentors around.  Look in your own agency.  Ask the Federal Web Managers Council.  Govloop sponsors a mentoring program – check it out.  Don’t forget retirees – there are a number of us who welcome the opportunity to coach emerging leaders.
  • Encourage reading. has a great blog.  So does GovLoop.  Gerry McGovern has a free weekly newsletter, and other digital experts offer similar writings.  When you spot something good, let your prospects know about it.
  • Sponsor brown bag lunches open to anyone – you may be surprised who shows an interest in digital government issues.  Invite your prospects personally.  When appropriate, let them do presentations or lead discussions to get leadership experience.
  • Get them involved in the Government Web Content Managers Forum.  Encourage them to volunteer for Sub-Council work.  That’s a great way to get exposure and practical experience.
  • Suggest training options – DGU, conferences, GovLoop, and others.  Follow up and talk with them about what they learned.  A half hour over lunch with you can extend their learning.
  • Encourage them regularly.   A quick email saying, “Well done!” or “Great question today” or “I’d like to talk to you more about that idea” can be great motivation. 
One day, you will move on.  You owe it to your customers, your agency, and your community to make sure there are qualified digital leaders to carry on. 
It’s the right thing to do. 

Monday, November 05, 2012

“Plain Language” Is More Than Words

Plain language is critical to great customer service.  You may think that “plain language” is all about getting the words right.  Well, words are a big part of it.  But there’s more to it than that.  “Plain” means information you can find, understand, and use quickly and easily.  So, in addition to choosing the right words, how the information is organized and presented is critical to making content “plain.”

For the past 3 years, I’ve served as a website judge for the U.S. Clearmark Plain Language Awards and New Zealand’s WritemarkPlain Writing Awards.  Here are the factors we discuss when we assess nominations and websites:

1.       Purpose – Is the purpose of the site clear on the home page so visitors know quickly whether or not this site is for them?  Is the purpose of each page you review clear, without relying on the reader having visited other pages on the site?  Based on the pages you review, does the site stay focused on its purpose (doesn’t stray into tangents, get off subject)?

2.       Organization – Is content organized in categories that would make sense to typical customers?  Is navigation obvious?  Is navigation consistent from page to page?  Are the words used for navigation clear and unambiguous so the readers know exactly what they will find?  Are navigation categories organized in logical sequences, helping the customer know where to begin and what to do next?  Is content layered appropriately so customers can find what they want quickly?  Does content anticipate audience wants and needs?  Can customers find top tasks from the home page?

3.       Writing – Are sentences and paragraphs short and to the point?  Are they written conversationally, using “you,” “we,” and “us” and avoiding impersonal third person narrative?  Do they use active verbs?  Do they use words that the typical audience will know and understand the first time they read them?  Has the writing been edited to avoid redundancy and extraneous information that isn’t essential to make the points?  Does the site avoid jargon?  Does the site spell out acronyms on every page they appear?  Are words spelled correctly?

4.       Design – Is the site designed to make skimming easy?  Is the most important information placed where readers look first (the “F”)?  Does the site use headers and sub-headers, bullets and numbers, color to highlight important information, and other design devices to make skimming easy?  Are pages relatively short?  Are fonts consistent, and are they easy to see on a computer? Is there ample use of white space?

5.       Graphics and links – Do graphics add value to the site by adding or clarifying important information – no gratuitous graphics?  Are graphics designed and placed to support the content and not distract the reader (no “eye-stoppers”)?  Do links add value to the content?  Are links labeled or described so readers know what they will find? 

6.       Accessibility – Does the site use best practices to help people who are visually impaired (for example, dark fonts on light backgrounds, links describe target content)?  Does the site use best practices to help people who are hearing impaired (videos and audio files have captions)?  Does the site use best practices to make the site accessible to people with slow internet connections – this is especially important for government websites that should be accessible to all citizens (text alternative to large graphics, readers are warned about download time when linking to graphic files, home page and top navigation pages limit graphic load?

7.       Performance measures – Has the organization done usability testing?  Is the organization tracking measures to make sure customers can find and use what they want as fast and effectively as possible?

8.       Overall assessment – Is this site easy to use?  Would this site be a good example for others who want to make their sites easier to understand and use? 

So, give it a shot.  Score your website using a scale of 1-5 (5 is practically perfect, 3 is average, 1 has a lot of problems and needs an overhaul) on each factor. 

How did you fare?  Would you be a winner?  If so, watch for the announcements for the 2013 Clearmark Awards and 2013 Writemark Awards  and nominate your site.  If not, get to work.  For great customer service, keep it plain!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Transition is An Opportunity – Be Ready

No matter who wins the election in two weeks, change will come.  If the President is re-elected, we’ll see some new political appointees coming onboard and certainly new initiatives.  If Governor Romney is elected, we’ll see wholesale changes in political personnel and plans; and transition teams will move into agencies quickly.  In either case, new political appointees and new goals will ramp up throughout 2013.
Transition brings change, and change can be a great opportunity – if you’re prepared.

Here we go – three tips for making the most out of transition:

1.        Finish what you’ve started
Government communicators have made great strides in the past 4 years.  The Digital Government Strategy and Customer Service plans go a long way to recognizing the importance of a customer-centered government.  Of course, that work will be unending.  But now is the time to dot the I’s and cross the t’s on those distinct initiatives that are underway.  Get your digital governance models finished.  Roll out those signature mobile apps.   If they aren’t perfect, you can improve them incrementally over time.  What you don’t want is to be caught by the winds of change and lose the good work you’ve started.

2.       Document what you’ve finished
Write it down.  Make it real.  Document your successes, explaining why they were successful.  Talk in terms that new executives and special assistants will understand and value…how did this project improve the way your agency serves citizens or performs more efficiently?  Don’t get down in the weeds, but give enough detail so that the problem(s) and solution(s) are clear and the benefits convincing.  You never know when new appointees or transition teams will ask for your achievements.  Be ready to hand them a 2-pager that informs and convinces.

3.       Document what you want and need
One of the smartest things the Federal Web Managers Council ever did was write a White Paper on improving online services and having it ready for the Obama transition team in November 2008.  That paper was widely circulated and served as the genesis for both top level attention and many of the exciting initiatives that followed.  This is a great time to assess where you’ve been in the past 4 years and where you want to go.  Think long term.  Think big picture (again, in terms that will grab the attention of top political executives and special assistants).  Talk about obstacles and options to overcome them, and say exactly what you need from top executives to make change happen and what the outcomes should be. 

In two weeks, no matter who wins, the federal government will begin to change.  It may be subtle or it may be dramatic.  Either way, be prepared.  Think this through.  Transition is a great opportunity.
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Monday, October 01, 2012

It's Customer Service Week...What Have You Done for Your Customers Lately?

This is National Customer Service Week, and I hope you (yes, you!) take a few minutes to think about what you’ve done to help your customers lately.  Did you do a great job answering that email? Super!  Did you suggest an improvement to the website that made it easier for customers to find a top task?  Great!  Did you go out of your way to direct that phone caller to someone who could give her a real answer?  Spot on! 

What’s that you say?  You really haven’t done anything for your customers lately?  Well, then..start now.  Here are 3 things you can do, this week, to celebrate our dedication to giving our customers the best possible service.

Read and think. 

A lot of us have been thinking hard about customer service.  Do some reading, see where you agree and disagree, and think about how you could apply some of these ideas.  Here are 5 of my blog pieces that might spark some thoughts:
More places to look:

Gather your team or some of your colleagues and talk about what makes great customer service.  Then brainstorm ways you could improve service at your agency.  Or join an online discussion on GovLoop (Wendi has one there, too).    

Be a customer. 

Go to a government website (not your own!) and try to complete a task.  See how they’re doing it, and look for ideas you could replicate.  If you have a bad experience, why?  Are you doing similar things at your agency?  Maybe you should fix them.  There’s nothing like being a customer to understand what customers want.    

You don’t have to be a manager to create change.  Every single person at every single agency has opportunities – and responsibilities – to improve the way we serve our customers. 

So, what about it?  What have you done for your customers lately?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Trust Your Common Sense

How many times have you sat through a training session or read a study and thought, “Well, duh – I already knew that.  It’s just common sense?”  How many times have you been assigned to do something that you know is doomed to failure because it just doesn’t make sense…yet no one speaks up.  Too often, we ignore one of our greatest assets – the ability to apply plain ol’ common sense to solving a problem or implementing a new idea or averting a disaster.  And that’s just a shame.

About the middle of my federal career, I was in line for a promotion.  I had one competitor.  I was with my boss in a top management meeting; and when I leaned over to him to suggest that something just didn’t make sense, he said, “speak up!”  I didn’t because I didn’t trust my instincts.  My competitor did - and he said exactly what I’d thought.  Everyone lauded his brilliance because he’d pointed out something that would have led to failure.  And he got the promotion.  Lesson learned. 
When I was HUD’s web manager, my web team often got involved in vigorous discussions about what we were doing and how we were doing it.  But at some point, I’d stop them and ask, “OK – what’s the right thing to do for the American people?”  Nine times out of ten, the answer was right there; and we all knew it.  We just had to use our common sense to get through the weeds.
These are very busy times, aren’t they?  You’ve got the Digital Government Strategy to implement.  You have the Plain Writing Act to implement.  You have Customer Service legislation winding its way through Congress (it passed in the House last week - woot!).  And no matter who wins the election in November, you’ll have new initiatives and probably some new leaders, requiring even more actions.  With so many demands, you can’t help feeling overwhelmed. 
Call on your common sense.  Sit back, take a breath, look at the big picture, and ask yourself, “Which of these tasks can make the most difference for my customers?  Which of these tasks can do the most for my agency?  What can I do well, realistically?  What is the best use of my time and resources?  What is the right thing to do?”  Instead of trying to do 20 things at once (and probably not doing any of them well), use your common sense to pick 5 of the most important things; and do those well.  Then move on to others.   If something you’re being asked to do just doesn’t make sense, point it out.  Give alternatives that would make sense. 
Trust your common sense.   Use it.  Your customers will thank you.  Your agency will thank you.  You’ll feel better.
“Common sense is instinct…enough of it is genius” – George Bernard Shaw
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Monday, August 27, 2012

The Oppportunity to Exceed

I’ve been quiet on the Digital Government Strategy because – well, OK, I’ll be honest…while I think there’s a whole lot of good in it, I also have some problems.  First, it didn’t look anything like I expected it to look, after all the issues we discussed in the National Dialog on Improving Government Websites.  While some of those issues were mentioned in the discussion, few made the action items (the closest are the 3 milestones under section 6).  It is much more weighted toward technology than communications and customer service (and for the record, I believe customer service and being “customer-centric” is our reason for being…not the 3rd of four guiding principles). 

I also was surprised that it didn’t connect better with other administration initiatives, particularly the OMB guidance on Streamlining Delivery and Improving Customer Service Executive Order which required – among other things – designation of a customer service lead at each agency and a customer service task force.  The connection to digital government seems obvious, but the Strategy didn’t even mention including the customer service lead on the agency strategy teams.  Also, I’d love to see all OMB documents be models for plain writing – this one isn’t (I’m sure the folks with PLAIN and the Center for Plain Language would be happy to help).

Still, the Strategy is a clear step forward for cross-government coordination and improvement; and that’s a very good thing.  And the people working on it are among the most passionate and creative in the federal government.  I know they'll work hard to make right things happen. 

The biggest positive in the Strategy, in my view, is the emphasis on having an effective governance structure.  That has been a huge problem in web management from the very beginning, and I have written about it many times.  So I was really looking forward to seeing OMB’s guidance on digital governance.  They didn’t disappoint.

Guidance was issued last week, and it’s both thoughtful and thorough.  Kudos to OMB and the Digital Services advisory group!  It even touched on that gap between other administration initiatives by suggesting that the open government, plain language, and customer service officials be part of the agency governance teams.   It gives clear step-by-step directions, without being overly prescriptive.  Well done!  If agencies follow this guidance, I think government communications will improve vastly.  At least those that involve digital interfaces.

But I wonder:  why stop there?  Since you’re going through the process anyway, why not be more visionary, more bold?  Why not use this as an opportunity to exceed OMB’s expectations and create a governance structure that will ensure great communications – and better customer service – through all delivery channels, not just digital? 

It’s not much of a stretch.  Digital government already includes websites, social media, mobile apps, and open data.  Plug in publications, telephones, correspondence, and personal contacts through walk-in traffic and meetings/professional conferences and you’ll have the whole shebang.  The processes may be different, but the goals are the same.  A single governance structure will let you ensure consistency through all delivery channels.  As important, the people who manage those delivery channels bring to the table more information about your customers – who they are, what they want, how they ask for it; and we all know that the number one ingredient for great customer service is knowing and understanding your customers.   

OMB and the Digital Services team have done a great job laying out a path.  You have many options, as you figure out how you will manage the delivery of customer services through technology.  Why not exercise the option to exceed expectations - and make all communications and customer interactions more successful - by creating a governance structure that embraces all delivery channels?  Wouldn't that be the right thing to do?
Exciting times!  Can't wait to see what happens next.
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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In Our Quest to Use Technology, Let’s Not Forget Human Beings

The internet is an amazing advancement in our do-it-yourself world.  We all love being able to go to Amazon or Google or a government website and get it done ourselves, without human intervention.  When we go into a store, we don’t like that salesperson who asks, “Can I help you?”  We don’t want anyone to slow us down. 

But then we hit a snag – we can’t find what we want…we don’t see what we’re looking for…we have a problem that isn’t addressed.  What do we want to do?  We want to talk to someone…we want a human being.  Now.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time because it fits so well with my passion for great customer service.  Oh, yes – we want those websites that understand what we want – our top tasks – and help us get it done quickly.  We want government to develop those efficient apps so we can buy, sell, ask, find, apply, and query when and where we want.  But please – don’t forget that, when we’re in trouble, we want a human being. 

One of my friends sent me one of those mass email messages this week with this prophetic quote from Albert Einstein:  "It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."  Once again, that wise owl had it right.  We can love new technology and the opportunities it gives us; but we always, always must retain our humanity. 

That brings me to the recent Report Card issued by the Center for Plain Language.  At the very root of plain writing is communicating like a human being.  You have to know how your audience thinks and talks, and you have to write to them so they understand what you’re saying, the first time they read it.  It’s all about being human.  The Center not only looked at whether federal agencies met the requirements of the Plain Writing Act of 2010…but – more important - they looked at whether agencies are implementing the spirit of the law.  In other words – are government agencies really trying to communicate like human beings?  They looked at how agencies are measuring their re-written documents and websites.  They looked at the actual documents and web pages and assessed whether or not they achieved their goals (and some didn’t!).  They applied that human touch – are we writing to communicate clearly with those people who read our documents and websites? 

As we strive for open government, transparency, addressing the needs of a mobile society who uses social media, please – let’s not forget that we are human beings.  Government is – at its essence - human beings serving human beings.  So let’s retain that personal touch, even as we expand the opportunities for do-it-yourself apps and social outreach. 

Let’s make sure we have online help that lets people talk to people – in real time – to resolve problems.  Let’s make sure that that our customers can get to a person when they dial those phone numbers and work their way through those decision trees.  And let’s make sure that this customer representative can answer our questions or send us on the right path – not just say, “Sorry, I can’t help you” or “We don’t do that.”  Let’s remember that people still walk into field offices and expect to talk to someone who can help them solve their problems (I visited a field office recently and saw that happen first hand). 

Let’s maximize the use of online chats and make sure emails get a human response within 48 hours.  Let’s use Skype or similar technology to have face-to-face talks with customers who need us.  Let’s not use technology to distance ourselves from the people we serve, but – instead – use it to enable our customers to get that personal contact they want.

Yes – people want to get it done fast and wherever they are.  But don’t forget that we also expect our government to be human…and to be ready to talk to us, one-on-one, when we need you.  In our quest to use technology, let’s not forget human beings.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Get Out Your Pitchforks and Clean Up That Content

The recently-released federal Digital Government Strategy lays out many promising initiatives that will, no doubt, improve the technology and infrastructure behind online services and, thus, enhance customer experience.  Many talented people worked hard to develop this Strategy, and they will continue to work hard on its implementation.  But we still don’t have a clear plan for cleaning up the mess that is the existing content of government websites…those pages and pages of words, many that are outdated, redundant, poorly written (and, thus, unusable) or just plain unnecessary.   It’s the haystack customers have to sort through to find what they really want.

It’s time to get out the pitchforks and do the dirty work.  Here’s what I would do. 

1.  Establish archive sites.  Require every agency to establish archives.(agency name).gov as a separate website for obsolete, redundant, and little-used content that is still important for researchers, students, historians, and interested citizens.  You don’t need an archives site for every website – one  (or just a few) for the agency should do the trick.  Examples of content for archives sites are documentation about obsolete programs; speeches, press releases, reports, management plans, testimony, and other materials from past administrations; past budget materials; and other content required by the National Archives and Records Administration or agency records policies.  Set up the archives site so that customers can find it from the live site, but its content will not turn up in searches of the live site (and confuse customers).  Brand every page on the archives site so customers know this content is no longer maintained and is available only for reference purposes.  Use as a prototype.

2.  Review statistics.  Require every agency to review the statistics for every page on every one of their websites, for the past 6 months.  Create 3 lists:
  • List 1:  Pages that are viewed an average of 100 times or more every month
  • List 2:  Pages that are viewed an average of 11-99 times every month
  • List 3:  Pages that have been viewed an average of 10 times or less, every month
If you don’t have a statistics package that gives you views per page, get one now!

3:  Review content on List 3 (because it should be the easiest).  Task content owners (subject matter experts) to decide and act accordingly:
  • Still needed – work with web managers to update and rewrite to make more usable.  Improve navigation and optimize for searches.
  • Not needed, but still useful as reference or to maintain transparency – move to the archives site.
  • Not needed at all.  Remove it from the server.  Be sure to meet NARA and agency records retention plans. 
4:  Do the same things for List 2.

5:  Improve pages on List 1.  This is your top content – that which your customers want and use most.  Can this content be improved through plain writing, search optimization, or navigation?  If so, do it.
Establish the goal to reduce the amount of content on the active website by half.  Don’t analyze this stuff to death.  If in doubt, move it to archives.  You always can move it back if you made a mistake.  Set deadlines and get it done.  Make it a 6-month project, and declare victory at the end of the year.
I know it’s not fun to clean up our messes.  But those behemoth websites are still there, and millions of customers are still trying to use them every month.  Having all that content wastes time (both yours and your customers') and money.  So if we really care about our customers – if we want to make their experience positive and helpful – we’ve got to get out the pitchforks and clear out some of that hay to make it easy for them to find those great services we offer. 
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Sunday, June 03, 2012

3 Lessons from the Clearmark Plain Language Awards

The 2012 Clearmark Plain Language Awards have been announced.  As a 3-time judge for the government web and media entries, I have to tell you - this is a stellar group.  The quality of entries in this awards program has improved by leaps and bounds, over the past 3 years.  The winners give government agencies some wonderful models for plain writing.

As I judged this year’s entries, I noted three important lessons:
1.       Calling something an “e-newsletter” does not mean you can ignore the rules for plain writing.  Some agencies are publishing “e-newsletters” as summaries of current issues or news.  They’re typically 1-pagers of 2-3 blurbs.  Remember this:  no matter what you’re publishing on the web, you have to make content scanable and easy for web readers to use.  No “walls of words.”  Use shorter paragraphs than you’d use in print publications.  Use bullets and sub-headers to break content into pieces that the web reader can see and understand quickly.  Strip out unnecessary lead-ins and wordiness.   No matter what you call it, if you publish it on the web, it needs to be easy to scan.
2.       Write and design informational videos as carefully as you would a website.  Video can be a very good way to convey information, but remember that web visitors are impatient.  If you want to get a point across in a video (just like in writing), get rid of anything that isn’t essential to communicating the point.  No need for those intros by agency heads (viewers see them as “commercials”).  Break up long videos into shorter segments if you’re trying to cover several subjects or points.  Give viewers time to absorb one topic at a time.  Edit, edit, edit.  Just like written content, if you use too many words – especially if those words are jargon or unfamiliar to the intended audience – viewers lose interest and leave. 
And one more thing about web videos – make sure you really need them.  Yes, a picture can be worth a thousand words if it shows people how to do something or adds new information.  But posting a video that simply replicates what you’ve already said on the page is not only redundant, it actually can make your audience mad at you for wasting their time. 
Like all web content, test your videos.  Don’t be satisfied if your audience tells you they like your video.  Did they understand it?  Can they use what they got from it?
Which brings me to the most important lesson…
3.       Usability testing matters!  The winning entry in the government web/media category was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Outdoor Air Quality site.  They did so many things right, from words to format.  And they got it right because they did extensive usability testing.  The CDC understands that you must test, rewrite, redesign, and retest continuously, to have a great website (including web video). 
The Clearmark Plain Language Awards showcase the best, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to look through this year’s award winners.  Encourage your agency web writers to look at them, too.  Talk about what makes them good and how you might use those examples to make your own site better.  The real value in these awards is to stimulate others to improve.
Thank you to the Center for Plain Language for presenting the Clearmark Awards.  And congratulations to the winners!  You did a great job.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Conference Postponed? Find Other Ways to Collaborate

Like many of you, I was so disappointed to learn that GSA’s Annual Government Web and New Media Conference has been postponed, likely a victim of the management issues at GSA.  While I can understand GSA’s dilemma, it’s really a shame to shelve this meeting.  THIS conference has always been well-run; and – more important – it serves as the one time a year that a large number of government web managers (particularly, but not exclusively, federal government web managers) get together in person to collaborate. 

Well, it is what it is.  I hope the conference will be rescheduled.  But in the meantime, don’t sit around and wait for GSA to create opportunities to collaborate - do it yourself!  How?  Well, here are a few ideas.

1.  Call some other web managers in your geographic area and set up a meeting.  You can choose agencies whose missions are related to yours or a variety of agencies.  You can (should) include state and local government web managers.  Agenda ideas?  
  • Invite speakers – there are savvy web experts everywhere or you can do it as a group webinar
  • Create a seminar series or brown bag lunches on specific topics.  Share expertise and figure out ways to work together.
  • Do “show and tell,” allowing web managers to showcase things that are working well or things they have in the works.  But don’t just talk at each other.  Work together.  Could you adopt common methods for organizing content or helping customers who get stuck on a task that crosses agencies?  The more we do things alike, the easier it is for customers to use all our sites.  Could you work together to come up with better sequences of related content, so customers can move between agencies seamlessly? 
  • Do usability testing – pick two or three sites from your meeting group, come up with some typical (top task) problems, and use 3 members of your group as guinea pigs (Steve Krug says you can use just about anyone to test your site, and you’ll still get worthy results). Work together to fix the problems.  Or watch a First Fridays session together.  Learn how GSA does usability testing and then do some yourselves.  
  • Include managers of other delivery channels – call centers, correspondence units, publications, in-person customer support.  Figure out how you can work together to make customer service seamless and effective, no matter how customers interact with the agencies.
And folks – I’m not just talking about doing this in Washington DC.  If you’re in a regional city or a state capitol, it's likely there are several agencies working on multiple websites, within commuting distance.  In 2005, members of the Federal Web Managers Council hit the road, holding regional meetings in Denver and Chicago to go over federal web policies.  The house was packed in both cities!  So I know there is an audience out there – find them.

2.       Set up local or regional conference calls to supplement or follow-up on the Government Web Managers Forum calls.  Focus on opportunities for collaboration.  How can you work across agencies to share resources or conduct training or measure customer behavior when a task cuts across agency boundaries?

3.       Use the Government Web Managers Forum listserv to kick around ideas.  Don’t just look for best practices – look for ways to collaborate together to solve problems and improve customer service.  Think big.

4.       Get involved in one of the Sub-Councils of the Federal Web Managers Council.  Collaborate with your peers to come up with tools and resources everyone can use. 

5.       Use Ning or GovLoop or LinkedIn or Go to Meeting or any number of technology tools to set up task groups around particular issues or initiatives.    

Be creative.  And whatever you do, share the experiences and outcomes of your collaborations with your colleagues, through the Government Web Managers Forum.  Success begets success, so let others know how you’re working together to improve customer service. 

Collaboration is so important.  Why?  Customers judge all of us by their experience with any of us, so we need to work together to make sure all government websites (and other delivery channels) are as good as they can be.  GSA has done an outstanding job providing leadership and support for collaboration among the government web management community, and they’ll continue to fill that role.  But you (yes, YOU) must step it up, too.  Show some spunk.  Be a leader.  Find ways you can cause collaboration that will improve government customer service. 
Remember:  we serve best when we serve together.
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Monday, April 30, 2012

Customer Service Act Is Good News for Citizens and Employees

Good news!  The Federal Customer Service Enhancement Act, H.R. 538 has passed out of a House committee and is moving forward.  What?  You’ve never heard of the Federal Customer Service Enhancement Act?  Oh, my.  Well, let me tell you about it because this law would be great news for public servants and citizens alike. 

The Act would add support and permanence to President Obama's Executive Order on customer service.  What I like most is that it calls for agencies to credit and reward employees for great customer service.  Bingo!  The Act legitimizes “customer service” as an organizational value; and it recognizes that great customer service depends on government employees who know their customers, care about what they want and need, and go the extra mile to make sure they get it. 

So let me back up and summarize the Customer Service Act for you.  It requires:  
  • The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to establish performance measures and standards to make sure government is providing high-quality customer service;
  • Agency heads to measure customer satisfaction through "surveys, focus groups, or other appropriate methods” (like usability testing, I hope!);  
  • Agencies to report customer service data annually and OMB to issue a report;
  • Agency heads to designate a Customer Relations Representative; and
  • Agencies to publish customer service contact information.  Great customer service includes providing help to customers who get stuck, don’t understand, or just need extra support.
And here's what shows that the drafters of this legislation “get it” about what it takes to create a culture of customer service.   It says:
  • Agency heads may pay cash awards to employees who demonstrate excellence in customer service; and 
  • “Compliance with customer service standards developed under this Act shall, to the extent practicable, be an element of a performance appraisal system.” 
Yay!  Employees who already go above and beyond the call of duty to serve their customers will get credit for it in their annual performance appraisals.  And employees who need to do a bit more…well, they’ll know it because their bosses will document those expectations in their performance standards.  Agencies can celebrate their successes in customer service by shining the light on employees who really do it right.  It’s a win for government employees, and it’s a win for customers who depend on those employees to provide great service. 

This Act has a long way to go.  But it’s off to a good start.  It sends an important message:  citizens want and deserve great customer service from their government, and government needs to value those employees who deliver.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Rightdoing at GSA

Today, I want to throw some kudos to one of my favorite agencies, the General Services Administration (GSA).  GSA does great things for the federal government and the American people – including save taxpayer dollars.  They provide services to federal agencies.  But as important, they coordinate important management efforts across agencies, helping eliminate expensive duplication of effort.  How do I know?  I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

Take web management in the federal government, for example.  In 2004, at the request of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), GSA stepped into a leadership role to help implement the E-Gov Act of 2002.  Bev Godwin and Sheila Campbell and others reached out across agencies to form working groups that researched and proposed web policies to OMB, to comply with the Act.  From that hugely successful effort came the Federal Web Managers Council, Digital Government University (originally Web Manager University), and (originally the Government Webmanagers’ Toolkit).  As a result, agencies no longer have to reinvent the wheel, when it comes to web operations – they can use to find requirements, best practices, resources, and examples.  They can go to DGU classes and learn from experts, with their peers. 

GSA has continued to fill a void by coordinating the governmentwide mobile strategy and by spearheading new efforts to reduce waste and duplication in the number of government domains and websites.  GSA’s First Fridays program gives government agencies an opportunity for FREE usability testing and hands on training so agencies can continue to test and improve their websites on their own.  Believe me – you can pay big bucks to hire contractors to do usability testing. 

And that’s not all.  The team at GSA is working to consolidate web content from across agencies by topic – making it easier for customers to find and use the services they want.  GSA is leading efforts to bridge service delivery channels (web, social media, call centers, publications), helping agencies make sure services and information are coordinated and seamless, no matter how customers look for them.  GSA is the hub of customer service improvements, across government.

One of the biggest money wasters in government is duplication of effort.  You have no idea.  The more we can share strategies and policies and operating procedures and job descriptions and statements of work and knowledge and resources, the less it costs the taxpayers.  The more we consolidate and eliminate duplication, the more efficient (and effective) government is.  GSA provides coordination and leadership to make that happen.  They’ve got a great bunch of people there, working hard, and making a difference.

Well done, GSA.  Keep up the good work.  We notice.  And it matters.