Thursday, August 20, 2009

Creating An Agency Web Strategy – How You Do It Is As Important As What You Do

About 10 years ago – toward the end of the Clinton administration – I got a memo from HUD’s Deputy Secretary directing me to lead an agency-wide Web Management Task Force to develop a comprehensive web strategy for HUD. I was totally surprised and deflated! Had he lost confidence in me as HUD’s Departmental Web Manager? Was he questioning my leadership and policy recommendations? But once I got over my initial shock, I realized that this was a brilliant idea! What better way to get agency-wide buy-in to a single web strategy than involving managers and key staff from across the agency? What better way to make the case for our budget needs than to have an agency-wide task force say, “This is what we need, as an agency?”

The Deputy Secretary gave me 4 weeks to complete our work and make our recommendations. I assembled key SES and GS 15 managers and high level staff from every program area, the CIO and other key support offices, and the field – in all 14 people. We involved 22 other staff, many of them organization web managers or web coordinators, to help us collect information and do our analysis. We split into teams, interviewing every one of HUD’s 100 existing web managers, a number of program managers, and web directors at 5 “best practice” federal agencies and 5 private “best practice” organizations (e.g., Washington Post online).

The task force identified 4 major issues impacting HUD’s ability to use the web efficiently and effectively, to implement the agency’s mission and the administration's goals:

  • Issue 1: Implementing "electronic government" at HUD will require a cultural change, from the top on down.
  • Issue 2: Staffing is inadequate to accomplish web management responsibilities.
  • Issue 3: Training for Web Managers is inadequate.
  • Issue 4: HUD lacks leadership in managing the technical web infrastructure to ensure that it is adequate to support the demands of electronic government.

Under each of those issues, we made 3 strategic recommendations. We briefed the Deputy Secretary, and he adopted every single one of our recommendations.

Further, even though administrations (and parties) changed within months, the plan survived. Why? Well, for one thing, it wasn’t a political effort. It was a task force entirely of career employees who were considered leaders in the agency. Second, the task force had developed sound strategic recommendations based on good research and analysis. And third (and most important), because career employees – who don’t change with administrations – were involved in creating the plan, they had a stake in advocating for it and making it work.

And what did I learn from all this? That how you do something can be as important as what you do. Getting key managers and staff across the agency together, doing good research, arguing out the pros and cons of our ideas, and presenting it (and getting credit for it) as a single unit bought HUD’s web team more good will, more support, and more agency pride than anything I could have done on my own.

OK – that’s nice. What’s that got to do with today?

Well, despite the fact that we’ve come a long, long way in creating cross-government web policies and strategies, despite the fact that we now have an active and effective federal Web Managers Council, despite the fact that web managers are enjoying much-deserved praise and support from high level administration executives and industry leaders, there remains a void at the agency level. The number one complaint I still hear from my web colleagues is: “I can’t get my bosses to support me. I can’t get my agency to listen and go along. I want to implement these improvements, I want to try social media, I want to feature our top tasks, but I can’t get my bosses to agree.” It’s the major stumbling block for real progress in web management across government: getting that agency-level support and buy-in for a good solid web management strategy.

So here’s a thought. What if the Director of OMB challenged every agency to establish an agency-wide task force, modeled on HUD’s? The goal would be to develop a long-term, agency-wide strategic plan for web management at that agency, incorporating both agency-specific needs and goals and governmentwide goals and directives.

Direct the agencies to comprise those Task Forces primarily of career managers and staff. Take politics out of it. Make sure the agency web managers are part of the effort – after all, they know most about the day-to-day challenges. But include program staff and field staff, CIOs, Public Affairs, key managers and top staff.

Provide an advisory council - with thought leaders like Vint Cerf and Craig Newmark and Micah Sifry and web content and plain language specialists like Gerry McGovern and Annetta Cheek and Thom Haller - to serve as a resource to these agency efforts.

Require each agency task force to review and consider documents like the Web Managers Council white papers, recommendations from the CIO council, and recommendations from Macon Phillips and Vivek Kundra and Beth Noveck and other key administration officials with a stake in how government uses the web.

Use the Web Managers Council to monitor progress and results and to publish best practices.

What better time than at the beginning of an administration - when every part of every agency is scurrying to develop plans and goals that will rely in some way on the web - to come up with a single agency-wide strategy for web management? And what better way for agency web managers to present their challenges and get that buy-in and support they so need to move forward?

Having a strategic plan is obvious. But remember: how you do it is as important as what you do, if you want to make sure that plan works.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Anticipate While You Innovate

Last week, two events reminded me how important it is to think ahead and anticipate issues, even as you’re being innovative with social media.

First, I posted a blog piece that mentioned the Department of Homeland Security’s Facebook page. Later that same day, my friend, Gwynne Kostin (who manages Homeland Security’s web presence) posted a comment on that blog piece, correcting me. She said that the Department does not have an official Facebook page. So I went back to the DHS Facebook page I had seen. Yes, it is called “Department of Homeland Security.” Yes, it has the DHS seal. Yes, it shows the Department’s website as the point of contact. Yes, it includes the Department’s mission statement. And the discussion items look like official announcements (one mentions the Secretary). At first glance, it appears to be an official website, even to this experienced former web manager. The only clues that it’s not official are these:

  1. The intro says: "This Group is dedicated to the Department of Homeland Security, and all of its supporters and affiliates." As I read it again, I realize this probably is not the kind of language a government agency would use to introduce its page – even on a social networking site.
  2. The page administrator is in Cheyenne Wyoming. Not Washington, DC. That’s probably the best clue that this isn’t an official government page. Normally, federal government web content is managed from Washington.

Why does should this concern us? There are more than 1,600 members of this Facebook page. I wonder how many of them joined, believing they were becoming part of an official government discussion group. I wonder how many of them think that the comments they post in the discussion room are going to government officials and being considered in official policy-making. Will it impact public trust if they find that they’re being ignored?

Look-alike government pages on social networks are tough to deal with because you don’t control the website. But maybe some agreement across government to use common branding (e.g., always use an official seal and always use the words: this is an official site of the U.S. government) would help. If it appears that fraud is involved (someone is purposefully trying to impersonate a government agency to deliver misleading information), you can and should notify your legal department. Probably the most effective thing to do, for now, is to monitor social media sites to keep track of any sites that look like government sites. At least know who’s out there. Watch the discussions and jump in to let folks know where they can find the official web page.

The second event that got me thinking about the perils of innovation occurred at the end of an audio course for federal, state, and local governments that I taught last week. A participant asked me if I had any recommendations on ways to port their web content to their social network page. I responded that, not only am I unaware of any porting software, I don’t think they should be reposting official government web content on a social networking site. We have so much duplication on government websites as it is…I’d hate to see more. The person who asked this question is just trying to do what her bosses want her to do. And there’s another aspect of this issue…bosses who decide they need to be part of the social media wave, without having a “why.”

As with all innovation, you can stumble into those pitfalls if you don’t think ahead.

Social networking sites could be a good supplement to official government websites…maybe a good way to recruit employees and raise awareness of important public issues. Maybe a good way to do Q&A with the public. Maybe a way to have discussions. Note that I used the word “maybe.” Because the only way you should take on any new work is if your agency has the staff to manage it (write it, post it, monitor it, follow up on comments/discussions, update it). Most government agencies don’t have the staff to manage the content they already have posted, so be sure to give ample thought to how you’re going to juggle all this new content. That’s true for words, videos, audio files…anything you post anywhere. It’s all official content that has to be managed.

Web managers are starting to craft policies for, and best practices in, using social media. They will serve as important guidance and are much needed. But you don’t need to wait to be told what to do. There is enough experience now – just look around. Take the time to identify and address those potential pitfalls. Anticipate while you innovate.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Confession: I Don’t Want to Be “Friends” With the Government

I’m a Facebook junkie. It’s the first thing I look at in the morning and the last thing I look at before I go to bed. I visit it several times during the day. Why? Because I love the day-to-day updates from my friends and family. It helps me keep in touch with them. It’s a place where I know I’m going to be with people I know (at least a little) and like. So last night, I finally admitted to myself that – though I support government’s foray into social media - I just don’t want government agency updates mixed in with all my friends' and family's. I don’t want them in my “social network.” And I turned them all off. I don’t want to be “friends” with government agencies.

Early on, I was eager to see what government agencies were doing on social networking sites, and I “friended” or “fanned” (new verbs?) several. A couple – specifically EPA and – have done a nice job with their Facebook presences. They get it that these are social networks – places where people are informal; and what they post and the words they use reflect that awareness. That is not true of some other agencies. In fact, some (and I won’t embarrass them here) just use Facebook to post their press releases. Not seeing too many “likes” on those announcements. Duh. Press releases are not friendly. And most people I know don’t like to be bombarded by propaganda in their social settings (harsh, but true).

Unfortunately, over time, even the friendly agency status updates started to annoy me. They seemed intrusive in a place where my friends and family and I are hanging out. So I gonged them.

It looks to me as though interest is (and I’m being charitable) modest at this point for government presence in social networking sites. EPA’s Facebook page has 2,200 fans, as does Department of Homeland Security’s Facebook page has 1,600 members. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has 163 “fans.” Considering that Facebook has some 75 million users in the U.S. alone, not sure that government is doing a resounding business in that realm.

Would I search out government agencies on Facebook or My Space to find government information? Hmm – I don’t think so. I’d go to or the agency website. Or I’d just do a search on the web.

Do I still think government has a place in social media? You bet. Twitter (and other microblogs). Feeds (web, email, and mobile phone). Huge potential! In fact, a must. YouTube…at least for agencies with an education mission (Smithsonian, NASA, etc.). I’m not convinced yet that people go to YouTube to be informed. I do know they go because they’re curious. So that might be a reason to be there…if you have the right content. Again – forget that press stuff. Boring.

I follow my local government on Twitter, and I’m grateful for their helpful and responsible Tweets on weather alerts, traffic snarls, and community issues. I subscribe to both email and mobile phone feeds from my local/county governments’ “alerts” page. As long as they Tweet/feed useful, practical information that I want and need (and don’t over-do it!), I think this is a great way for government to use social media/web 2.0. If they start sending me press releases or bombarding me with Tweets every 10 minutes, I’ll gong them, too.

I think it’s fine to do some experimenting – see what sticks. But at some point, I think it’s best to put your investment where data shows a real payoff. I don’t think government has to be (or even should be) everywhere, to benefit from social media.

Are my opinions and actions an aberration or a trend? Time will tell. So what do you think?