Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What's Missing from E-Gov? A Mandate to Communicate!

Early this week, I mailed a copy of my assessment, "What's Missing From E-Gov? A Mandate to Communicate!" to each member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. That's Senator Joe Lieberman's committee, and they're working on reauthorization of the E-Gov Act of 2002 (E-Government Authorization Act of 2007, S. 2321, if you want to look it up). I made a plea to the Senators to consider adding some provisions to encourage (force?) government to communicate more effectively with citizens. Will I be heard? Who knows. Maybe one of the staffers will read it and ask some questions. I'd consider that to be a victory.

If you'd like to read the entire report, you can download it (in Word). If you'd just like a summary of what I recommended, here goes:

1. Issue a “Citizens Bill of Rights” to serve as the guiding principles – and government’s promise – for communicating with the public.

When citizens interact with their government, they should be able to:

  • Get the information or service they want without knowing which agency supplies it.
  • Get answers to their questions promptly, completely, and in words they understand.
  • Complete government transactions – including applying for programs and filling out forms – online, and those processes should be easy to find and easy to use.
  • Talk to a human being when they want to.
  • Get the same answers to their questions, no matter who they ask or how they ask them (online, in writing, on the phone).
  • Get clear and accurate instructions on where to start and what happens next.

2. Appoint a Director of Communications at OMB, comparable to the Director of E-Gov and responsible for governmentwide communications policies.

3. Designate GSA to be the operations center for government communications. Charge GSA to develop and implement a plan to coordinate the agencies and to consolidate content and communications across government. GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communication already has many of the right pieces, including the USA.gov staff and USA Services. They just need the authority to bring it all together, across government. As part of the strategy, they could:

  • Establish a common design for most government websites. We’d save money across government (do you know how much it costs every time you design a website?), make it easier for citizens to use all government websites, and probably eliminate a lot of vanity websites.
  • Establish a common dictionary of terms, so agencies use the same words to mean the same things. Develop these terms based on words that the public uses and would recognize – not based on terms the government commonly uses. Train government writers to use them.
  • Create 3-5 “supersites” to serve as one-stops (but not just “portals” or link lists) for citizens. For example,
    o USAServices, where citizens would find brief, well-written narrative to lead them through the top tasks that they seek most often
    o USANews, where the public could find news and information about the administration’s initiatives and accomplishments
    o USAInfo, to serve as the library for important, but less requested information. Give it a great search engine.

4. Establish a senior level Chief Communications Officer at each Cabinet level agency and at other agencies that carry out programs of interest to citizens. Charge the CCO with overseeing and coordinating content operations (including web, print, telephone) so agencies create content once and deliver it in many ways. Create a staff with strong communication skills – writing, editing, and communicating with the public. While Public Affairs could be part of this operation, it has a distinct function and audience (press), not to be confused with the broader audience of “citizens.”

5. Issue a mandate to all agencies to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of current government communications (web, print, telephone) and to develop plans for streamlining and improvements, to include:

  • Identifying and improving the efficiency of those “top tasks” that many citizens seek.
  • Developing an inventory of all information delivery devices (including all websites) and justifying each.

6. Commission a study to assess how the public wants to interact with government in the future. Work with the Pew Research Center or another entity focused on how the public interacts with government to learn:

  • What critical information and functions the public would like to be able to get from the federal government that they can’t get now,
  • Which critical information and functions currently available to the public could be delivered better if it were streamlined or improved, and
  • Which critical information and functions the public think are most important to get from the federal government (“top tasks”).

    Use the results to direct improvements.

Agree? Disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts.