Thursday, June 04, 2009

If We Engage, Will You Listen?

Citizen engagement is a big ticket item in all parts of government these days. That’s wonderful – long overdue. But I wonder – will government leaders really listen?

Here’s something you may not know. Web managers have been “engaging” citizens since 1995 and – more important – listening to, and using, what we learned from the public. How?

  • We got thousands and thousands of emails from the public, telling us what we were doing right and – more often – what we were doing wrong. We made changes based on what they said and asked.
  • We did usability testing, where we literally watched the public use our websites and sort content into piles that made sense to them, and we made improvements based on their experience.
  • We went out and talked to the public in focus groups and at public demonstrations of our websites, asking them what is most important to them. We adjusted our sites (both design and words) accordingly.
  • We looked at the words they use when they search and then tried to incorporate those terms in our websites (OK – maybe that’s stretching “engagement” – but it is using their input to improve government).
  • We analyzed our metrics – what pages do the public use most? What pages do the public use least? How can we clear the clutter so we can get them to what they want most?
  • We posted customer satisfaction surveys and used “comments” forms to get feedback…and we changed our websites – both design and content - based on that feedback.
  • We shared our best practices for listening to our audiences and encouraged our peers to use the same techniques, so all government websites would be what the public wants them to be.

For years, government web managers have operated from this basic truth: if you listen to your audience, they will tell you what to put on your website – and where to put it. Most government web managers know what their audiences want. The problem is this: too many times, agency leaders don’t listen to the public or don’t share the goal to feature what the public wants; and web managers are over-ruled.

Go to any of the Cabinet-level agency websites today. Look at the front (home) page. Can you tell what citizens want most from that agency? Imagine what you, as a citizen, might want from that agency – do you see it on the front page? If the public is the customer/partner, shouldn’t what we want most (or what most of us want) be front and center on that home page, so we can find it easily?

Here’s a fact – the public doesn’t care much about press releases. Yet if you look at just about any of those Cabinet agency websites, you’ll see prime real estate (the top left and center of the screen – the way the eye scans) devoted to news from and about the agency. I fold into that category those ubiquitous photos of agency heads that are featured prominently on home pages (does Google post photos of its executives on the home page?). In many cases, you have to look pretty hard to find that information or those online services that citizens want most. Agency leaders – are you listening?

I remain optimistic that this is a new day and that the voices – both inside and outside government – who are calling for citizen engagement and involvement in their government will cause agency leaders to really listen to the public – and act on what they hear. I’d like to think that if the public tells you that they care more about how to get a loan or how to apply for a passport or how to find a job than about your news announcements or speeches, you’ll listen to us and organize your websites accordingly.

Please – don’t ask us to engage if you won’t listen.

Related Post

Related Links
Best Practices for Home Pages (from the Federal Web Managers Council)
Press Releases Are Awful Web Content (Gerry McGovern)

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