Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Serving Citizens Online

An interesting note from August 17, 2000...

We've been out doing a lot of little focus groups, and one thing we've learned is that you can't just put the services on the web site. You need to educate the audience - explain to them how to use them.

Here's a good example. We have Community Plans posted on our web site. The point is for citizens to take a look at the plans and then send an e-mail to their local government to tell them what they think. Well - we need to say that to them. It's not always obvious to them how to use the services we provide. We're working on a redesign of our web site now that will include a new section called "at your service." It's going to be a list - right on the front page - of things you can do with the information on our web site. So I think a site needs to find ways to help the audience know how to use all this info.

I think that there are three big issues facing us:

1. How much information is too much? How do we consolidate, remove duplication, streamline information so it's not so overwhelming - not only within federal web sites, but among them?
2. How do we get managers to value creating services for citizens? Right now, managers get rewarded for saving money. How can we reward them for improving service to citizens?
3. How do we get agencies to struggle with the issues surrounding eliminating the middlemen? More and more, I hear from citizens who want to know why they have to go through a real estate broker to put in a bid on their HUD home or why they have to go through a city to get a piece of the block grant money for an improvement to their neighborhood. As the internet gives citizens more and more direct access to the government, I think we're going to have to face the fact that citizens also want direct access to our services – not access via a middleman. These will be very tough issues to resolve.

I think that if we are to be relevant not only to citizens today, but to those Gen Xers coming on strong, we have to start defining our accomplishments in terms of improved service to citizens. So, for example, instead of saying "hey - FHA connection is processing 200,000 loan transactions a day," we need to say, "hey – citizens now get an FHA loan approved in 3 days instead of 20."


Anonymous said...

Candi, these are good questions that many of us are still wrestling with (as you well know). Did you find any part of the answers in the 5 years since you penned these questions? What are good strategies to convince managers to cooperate rather than compete in posting materials to the Web, or worse yet, in developing competing Web applications?

Candi Harrison said...

Response from Candi: I'd say we made some good progress. And the ICGI report helped.

On too much info...I think there's a growing awareness on this issue - Gerry McGovern helped us with that. We did some spring cleaning - getting rid of old/obsolete material - that helped. The quarterly certification process we initiated (see Bookshelf 15 on the HUD website) helped a great deal. On cooperating - not competing - I think the best strategy is to shine the light on the duplication of effort. If you spotlight the overlap, chances are good that some manager (or budget officer) is going to recognize the problem.

I wish I could tell you I had the answers on how to get managers to recognize citizens as their customers. We made some inroads by keeping up a drumbeat of good stories about how citizens used our site, by forwarding messages from citizens who either praised or complained about what they found (or not) on our site, and by sharing any other information or data (including stats or personal experiences) that we got from citizens. Anytime I briefed managers, I always pulled out my “it’s the right thing to do” speech. It’s pretty simple – government websites are paid for with appropriated dollars – dollars that come from the taxpayers. Our “customers” aren’t looking to buy services – they’re looking to get what they’ve already paid for. It is the right thing to do to tell them what it is they are getting for their tax dollars. So you put your taxpayer hat on and think, “what would I (or my mother, sister, brother, cousin, friends) want to know about USGS?” What kinds of questions do you get from the public routinely? You need to provide those answers. Even if all you do is tell them – in plain language – what you do and how that helps them, at least you’re giving citizens their money’s worth. We were able to make a lot of converts, over time, just by the steady drumbeat.

Eliminating the middlemen is a policy issue with political ramifications - it will take much longer to resolve. I think citizens are going to have to step up their demands to cause this change.