Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Now the Real Innovation Begins

The Obama administration unleashed a tidal wave of innovation, and no where is that more apparent than in the web world. My former colleagues are finally emerging as heroes of innovation, freed from obscurity by fellow innovators in and outside of government. It’s been gratifying to watch people like famed web pioneer Craig Newmark discover and champion the web manager community…a community that has labored behind the scenes for so many years, trying to turn a federal government that considered itself “wholesale - not retail” into a citizen-centered services provider. The spirit of innovation has permeated camps and conferences and blogs and email discussions and social networking spaces for the past 6 months; and I don’t think there is a government web manager out there who isn’t floating in a sea of new ideas, stirred by the passion to serve. This is a very good thing.

But at some point, innovation in government always hits that brick wall of reality: the responsibility not only to serve citizens but also to respect and protect their rights and needs. Citizens count on government to do the right thing. Security and privacy and accessibility and open competition and fairness are important to citizens and the reality that government faces. These responsibilities can hobble innovation, and some innovators try to suppress or ignore these responsibilities - seldom a successful strategy. But I don’t think that’s going to happen this time.

I think these innovators will use their creativity and passion and “crowd-sourcing” to look at constraints and problems in the ways responsibilities have been managed in the past and find new ways to do the right thing for the American people. In most cases, it’s the processes that are the problem - not the principle involved. I think these innovators have what it takes to make the processes better. Heck, we all know it’s usually harder to fix what is than to do something entirely new. But I think these folks are up to that challenge. So let the real innovation begin!

Three interesting blog pieces caught my attention recently. The first is a very well done piece by Gwynne Kostin, who manages web operations at Homeland Security and is on the Federal Web Managers Council. It’s entitled, “What Is the Most Important Thing;“ and in it, Gwynne ponders how government can move forward with the promise of social media and other possibilities, while confronting the realities of existing legislation and policies. She likens it to an intersection, where innovation and responsibility to the public cross paths. How can we all get to our destinations?

The second, “Mixed Feelings About OGI Conference,“ by Jaime Maynard (portions repeated in Gwynne’s blog and posted originally on Govloop - a social networking site that is a wonderful innovation in itself) expressed the frustration that some (many?) government web managers are feeling as they go to camp after camp, conference after conference, and hear all the exciting things going on at other agencies - particularly in the area of social media - when they can’t break through the red tape or reticence of their own agencies to begin similar innovations.

The third piece is a reality check done by Tanya Gupta called, “Why Do Governments Keep Getting Technology Wrong?” Tanya reminds us that citizens still can’t find what they want on government websites and don’t understand why it’s so hard for government agencies to get that right.

Gwynne’s piece comes from an optimistic innovator who has experienced success and is frustrated by - but realistic about - the responsibilities that are hindering progress. She wants to address the issues at the intersection of innovation and responsibility and find some peaceful resolution so everyone can move forward. No doubt in my mind that Gwynne will be a leader in that effort.

Jaime is just plain frustrated. She probably represents a sizable portion of the web manager community who feels powerless to try new things. And then there’s Tanya, who reminds us of that elephant in the room - the one that some would rather circumvent than fix - those enormous government websites that need to be rewritten, reorganized, and reduced. Web managers know what Tanya wants. They’re just tired of trying to fix these out-of-control websites with no support. Hello - innovators?

We have skilled, passionate innovators in all the right places who can turn on their creative juices and find ground-breaking ways to carry out government’s responsibilities better. I think they’ll find ways to get rid of outdated processes and mandates and replace them with new, improved ways to achieve the same objectives. I think they’ll deal with the obstacles to making government websites really useful to citizens (don’t give up hope, Tanya!). They get it. And I think these energizer bunnies can do it!

As for you innovative web managers in agencies not yet caught up in the innovation cyclone... don't despair. You can still be innovative. Maybe you can’t move out on social media yet, but maybe you can come up with innovative approaches to fix those websites that so disappoint Tanya and other citizens. You can be ready with ideas for that time when your agencies do get onboard this change train. You can seek out innovators in and outside of your agencies and build alliances - start your own crowd-sourcing. You can get involved in the web manager community’s efforts to develop new initiatives. To paraphrase that old serenity saying: change what you can, accept what you can‘t change, and be smart enough to know the difference. There are always opportunities to be innovative.

Exciting times. Lots of new energy. Lots of pent-up energy being released. Social media,, public-private collaboration - all the new stuff is good. But I’m just as pleased to see these innovators turn their collective energy and talents to fixing the old stuff - helping government carry out its responsibilities better. That’s a huge - and difficult - challenge. Now the real innovation begins!

Monday, July 13, 2009

A National “Communicating” Strategy

Periodically, I review my older blog posts to see if I’ve changed my mind on something or if I want to jaw on a pet issue again. Today, I went back to a post from January 2008 where I laid out my fantasy strategy for improving the way government communicates with its citizens. That post was a follow-up to a white paper I had written and sent to every member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which was evaluating the reauthorization of the E-Gov Act. Well, I never heard boo from a single member of that Committee – you win some, and you lose some. But as I went through the post, I thought, “this is still good stuff.” The only thing I’d change is the title. Instead of calling it, “What’s Missing From E-Gov? The Mandate to Communicate,” I’d call it, “What We Need Is a National Communicating Strategy.

Government’s communication problems aren’t limited to the way it provides services online. It’s more pervasive. Citizens often just can’t understand what government is saying…in publications, on the phone, on the internet. If the public can’t understand our services because we don’t explain them well or if the public can’t use our services because they’re too complicated or if the public doesn’t know about our services because we haven’t gone to them to tell them, then we aren’t serving effectively. If we don’t communicate effectively, we don’t serve effectively. Those concepts are inextricably linked.

Too often, government focuses on process – not results. We can tweak and tune our communication processes all we want; but if we aren’t communicating effectively with our audiences, it’s all for naught.

How to fix it? Government needs a comprehensive “communicating” strategy…a strategy that improves communication processes within the context of improving results. Are we getting the job done? Does the public understand what we say the first time we say it? Were they able to learn or do, based on what they read or heard? Are they able to use our services easily, without help? Are there citizens who walk away from, or avoid, our services because they just don’t understand them? Are we using the right delivery mechanisms (websites, print, phone, new media, etc.) to reach the intended audiences? Are we reaching out in the right ways to the right audiences?

I’d like to see Government work with Pew and/or other researchers to find out how we’re doing – are citizens able to understand what we say? - and how we could do better. Based on those outcomes, I’d like to see agencies consolidate and coordinate communication efforts within and across government, based on what the public wants and needs, cost effectiveness, and common sense. I’d like to see them prune and sharpen and restructure accordingly. Test the changes before implementing them permanently, and keep testing and re-testing to make sure they’re still achieving the results we want.

I’d like to see communications professionals and citizen service experts (web content managers and experts, new media directors, public affairs officers, experts in public engagement, plain language experts, writers, audience analysts), both inside and outside government, brought in/put in charge of getting this right. If that includes public/private ventures and/or partnerships with other levels of government (federal, state, local), that’s all the better.

I’d like to see government establish performance measures in terms of results:

  • How many more citizens did we serve because we are communicating better and because we improved our outreach?
  • Did we reduce the time it took them to get the service?
  • Were they able to understand/use it on the first try?
  • Could they get help quickly if they couldn’t use it on the first try?
  • Did we keep looking for breakdowns, and – when we found them – did we fix them quickly?

And, of course and absolutely – I’d like to see government involve the public in this strategic planning process. Heavily and routinely. Asking for both their experience and their ideas. And not just from your offices in Washington DC or through surveys. Get out of your offices and actually talk to the public, and listen to them. Communicating to improve communicating.

I think we need a national communicating strategy…a strategy that focuses on results. A strategy that shows that government cares that citizens can really use the services we provide. A strategy that addresses the question: are we really communicating?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Balancing Transparency With Volume and Accuracy

Transparency is a terrific concept. Heck, government web managers were trying to make our agencies “transparent” from the get-go. Oh, we didn’t call it that back in 1995. We muttered the mantra: if it can be public, then it should be public. But it was the same concept. We worked hard, scouring the nooks and crannies of our agencies to shine the light on everything that had been said, published, decided, or discussed. We built up huge websites, full of everything imaginable. We ended every meeting or conversation with, “and let’s put this on the website.” Now, we have wonderful new ways to inform and serve citizens through the web – new ways to make our agencies even more transparent…blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and videos on YouTube and wikis and more. But I’m worried.

I worry about the fact that we couldn’t keep up with the web content we had 5 years ago. I worry that, despite noble goals, web managers have not been able to trim their bloated websites or take down websites that no longer are needed. I’m guessing way more new content has gone up than has come down, in the past 5 years. Who is monitoring all this content to make sure it’s current and accurate? How are web teams and program managers dealing with all that volume?

And now, with new content going up on sites not even belonging to the agency (e.g., Facebook, YouTube), who is monitoring that content to make sure it’s current and accurate? Who is making sure that those blog posts done by officials who have left the building are pulled down or moved to some archive area? How are you making sure that important information contained in those posts is maintained?

I worry about this. Why? Because public trust suffers when you publish content that is outdated or no longer accurate. What if someone uses that content to make a decision or take an action that turns out to be bad or wrong? What if your outdated content contradicts other official government content that is current? What does that do to public trust? How does it make your agency look?

Isn’t part of doing the right thing making sure that everything is right?

So what’s the answer? Well, I guess one strategy is to just do nothing and let nature take its course. If you hear about something that’s wrong, fix it. No news is good news. Maybe that strategy will work…for awhile… But I’m optimistic…I think you want to get this right. So here are a few management actions that could help:

  • Certification: When we finally faced this problem at HUD, we started a quarterly content certification program. Every quarter, each top executive had to certify, in writing, to the Deputy Secretary that all his/her organization’s web content was current and accurate. The very first quarter we used this process, one sub-organization alone pulled down some 5,000 files that were obsolete. And every quarter thereafter, web managers scrambled to make hundreds of content corrections discovered in the review process. It’s not a perfect process, but it’s a good start. I’d like to see every agency adopt a similar review process.
  • Archives: Five years ago, Sam Gallagher (at HUD) had the great idea to create a separate “archives” site…a website that would contain all those reports and memos and initiatives from former administrations, information about programs that had been killed or expired, old funding decisions, and other content that was no longer current, but that the public – especially researchers and historians – might want to use in the future. Every page would be clearly labeled “archive,” and the public would be warned that the content was no longer being reviewed. Even the URL for the content would include the term “archive.” Great idea. Every agency should consider it.
  • Metadata: I’ve had mixed emotions about metadata. Is it really worth the effort? Well, I think it is IF you really use it to manage your content. If you do no more than use “creator” (listing the organization) and “date created,” you can sort out older content and know which organization to hold accountable for review. Put in a “last reviewed” date, and you can flag anything older than 3 months or 6 months and make sure it’s checked. The trick, of course, is to establish standard metadata across the agency and make sure all content contributors are entering it. Then you (the web manager) have to make the time to pull reports and use them to monitor and update content. It can be quite a process…but it also could really improve the quality of your content.
  • Tagging: I hope your agency has policies and procedures that specify what you post and, more important, who can post content on outside websites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. That will help control your content. In addition, some of these sites allow you to “tag” the content with generic terms that can help people who search on those terms find that content. Establish rules for tagging and use standard tags on any content your agency posts, and you should be able to search on those tags to find and review your content. Again, you need to do this regularly to make sure your content stays current and accurate.
  • Spring cleaning: Let’s not forget the most obvious action: reduce the amount of content you have to manage. An annual “spring cleaning” initiative can work wonders. Challenge your web managers and contributors to go through their content and see where they can consolidate or edit or delete. Use your stats to identify those pages that are never used (come on – we all have them). Either make them worth visiting or just get rid of them.

Transparency is great! But in your quest to be open with the public, don’t lose sight of the importance of making sure all that content is correct. Maintaining public trust is worth the effort.