Sunday, February 18, 2007

Serving the Public – What Lies Ahead?

Well, the Presidential election looms near. Actually, it’s 18 months away…but heck, all the candidates are already out there campaigning. I guess we should be thinking ahead, too! So, let me rub my hands together, pull out my crystal ball, and offer some ideas about the way things might look in 2012, at the end of the first term of the next President...with the right leadership and a little bit of political will.

1. Agencies manage content – not websites

  • Agencies have consolidated all operations or “channels” for delivering content to citizens into one “Citizen Services” organization, headed by a manager and staff who are expert writers, editors, and communicators. Content is created once and delivered in a variety of ways – websites, call centers, publications, video, audio, podcasts, cell phones, Dick Tracy wristwatches, etc.
  • Citizens can get content through multiple channels. So, for example, if they start by calling a call center number, they may be led through using a website, watching a podcast, participating in an online live discussion, or using some other content delivery mechanism. Content is seamless from one channel to another.
  • The term "web manager" has been replaced by "content manager."
  • Content for the public uses a standard taxonomy that is developed by a cross-agency group of content managers.
  • Lead content managers in each agency must be certified by Content Manager University, having completed courses - or proven proficiency - in plain language, writing for the public, editing for effectiveness, management analysis, usability, audience analysis, and other skills needed to create and manage excellent content.
  • Content managers work across agencies to identify and create content “continuums,” to add value to the audiences’ experience. These continuums help the audience know where to begin, next steps, and related options, across government.
  • Agencies get content development and management assistance through central contracts managed by GSA’s Office of Citizen Services, in such areas as audience analytics, technical support, and other common commercial functions.

Why? Well, it just makes good sense to consolidate content creation so you do it once and use it many ways. Why have one staff creating content for a website and another staff creating content for a call center and yet another staff writing publications? Shouldn’t everyone be saying the same thing? Why reinvent the wheel just because you’re serving content through a different technology? Isn’t it logical that it’s more efficient – and certainly more prudent - to have one great group of writers and editors, who truly understand and know how to communicate with the public, developing content rather than multiple and separate staffs?

2. The federal government appears as one, on the web.

  • GSA's Office of Citizen Services coordinates the Citizen Services operations across government, ensuring that content on common topics is consolidated, that duplication is eliminated or at least mitigated, and that the public gets consistent content no matter how they receive it.
  • 5 cross-agency websites serve as the entry points for all government information served on the web. These 5 websites – and only these 5 websites - are marketed to the public. The public no longer has to figure out which agency to ask, and they don’t have to remember a multitude of URLs…just 5:
  1. is the entry point for the general public to access the most requested information and services. Its scope remains limited and focused on the content (tasks) that most citizens and visitors to this country want and need.
  2. is the entry point for business partners and state and local governments to access key information and services. It links to additional information on agency sites, grouping those links by topic so businesses and governments are sure to find all the information they need.
  3. is the site for information about the initiatives and achievements of the current administration. It is managed by the White House communications office and the council of Public Affairs Officers.
  4. is the entry point for all military information and services. It is managed by the Department of Defense.
  5. serves as the library of government information from the Executive Branch. It is managed by NARA and the council of records management officers and is staffed with web librarians who help categorize its content. contains content that is esoteric (sought by a limited audience) or obsolete and/or is considered official records, including content from prior administrations.
  • Agencies are limited to a single website, and those websites follow a standard design that has been developed by an interagency content council working with GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and usability experts. Agency websites exist to feed the 5 USA websites. Agency websites are not marketed as separate entities.
  • Cross agency portals have been taken down. Instead, information and services are organized by topic and displayed through the 5 USA sites, harvested through use of metadata, XML schemas, content management systems, and other technologies.
  • GSA’s Office of Citizen Services has the authority to pull domain names and use other sanctions to ensure that these operating rules are followed.

Why? Let’s face it – most citizens think they have one government. Sure, they know that there are many different agencies. But they think of the government as a single entity. That’s why they get so frustrated when they try to enter “the government” through an agency and hit a dead end. “Don’t you people talk to one another? Can’t you just get me to the right place? What do you mean, ‘no?’ Why are you telling me something different from what that other agency told me?”

Citizens don’t know – and don’t want to know - how the government is organized. Why do we force them to search through more than 24,000 federal websites to find what they want? There is ample data to show that people make better decisions when there are fewer choices.

Let’s stop competing and start cooperating. Let’s stop spending millions of dollars to design and maintain more websites than we can count and, instead, go with a standard design that meets all usability criteria and that the public will recognize.

3. Citizens can talk to a human being, when they believe they need to.

  • USAServices, as the central call center for the US Government, can respond to questions on any government topic. Staff are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; and strict protocols ensure that the public isn’t kept waiting more than 5 minutes to speak to a human being.
  • The 5 USA websites offer real-time online Q&A chats, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These chats are staffed by program experts trained in cross-agency content.

Why? Shoot – you know why. You’ve made phone calls and ended up in one of those awful, never-ending phone trees…”press 3 for English…press 5 for an appointment…all our operators are busy now…bye-bye.” Or you’ve done that Google search that turned up 5,285 results on “what is a gallbladder.” Excuse me - could someone please tell me where to start?

Sometimes you just want to talk to a person. And since you’ve paid your taxes, shouldn’t you be able to do just that?

Fantasy or prophecy? That depends. Turning visions into reality will require courage, stamina, innovation, organization, cooperation, and – in some cases – sacrifice. Sure, some of it depends on political will. But a whole lot of this can be achieved through good grassroots leadership and coordination. It will mean sticking out our hands and reaching across agencies and functions. Can we do that? I think so.

In the end, it comes down to this: what is the right thing to do? If it’s the right thing, then we have to find a way to do it. And to guild the lily, here are some other words of encouragement:

"Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do." --John Wooden"

"Don't be afraid to take a big step when one is indicated. You can't cross a chasm in two small steps." -- David Lloyd George

“The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become” – Charles Dubois

"There are three kinds of people: Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who ask, 'What happened?'" --Casey Stengel