Sunday, January 24, 2010

Participation and Collaboration – Let’s Make It Work

Open government. Public participation and collaboration. Awesome! So let’s make it work.

Let’s learn from the mistakes a bunch of us made back in the 90’s when we put up online “discussion” rooms and held online “town halls.” If you want the pay-off - if you want good ideas and positive outcomes - you have to invest the resources and plan strategically. Think of it as running a meeting.
  • Invite participants – You’re holding a meeting. You don’t just open the door and shout, “We’re having a meeting – come one, come all!” You do a little work to make sure the right people join the discussion. You look for the people who are most likely to have an interest in and/or experience with the subject. You advertise the meeting in places where your target audience can find out about it. You seek out people with a wide array of opinions, so you’ll come out with the best result. So if you want input on a new homebuying policy, put out the call through new home guides and housing counselors and homebuying conferences and on websites (public and private) that deliver homebuying information. Open the discussion to all. But get out there and find people who have an interest in the subject.
  • Share background information – When you have a meeting, you send out background materials – right? So spend a little time educating the participants on the issue, and you’ll have a much better discussion. Publish a short (1-2 page) paper laying out the issue, the objectives, and the parameters. Not voluminous government-speak. Not links to laws and regulations. Just short, plain, and unbiased. Or do a short video…something they can view in 2 minutes and get a feel for the problem on the table. Take the time to prepare the participants, and their input and satisfaction will be so much better. So will yours.
  • Publish an agenda. People want to know what to expect – what the process will be. When will the process start? When will it end? Who are the key players? What are the key milestones? Publish an agenda at the beginning and stick to it.
  • Designate someone to preside. Someone (a real person – not an agency) has to run the meeting. That means someone has to kick it off, pay attention to what’s going on (every day), channel the discussion, answer questions, head off the “dominators” and encourage others to chime in, and summarize the points. Assign someone with appropriate authority and the right skills to run this meeting. Grant him/her enough time and support (read: resources) to do a good job. And hold him/her accountable for the process. This is where so many efforts failed in the past. If you want good results, you have to make the investment.
  • Conclude the meeting. Let everyone know the meeting is over and what’s next. Don’t just disappear and make people wonder what happened. Publish a summary and describe the next steps. Make sure everyone knows who’s doing what. Let participants know when and where they will see or hear about results.
  • Follow up. Someone has to make sure that promises are kept and report back to the participants what’s happened and what hasn’t. Reconvene the group if more discussion is needed. Let everyone know when everything is finished. Then – and only then - declare victory!
One more tip. Advocates and lobbyists will be all over opportunities for public participation and collaboration. But will average citizens come to the table…citizens across the political spectrum, across generations, across the country? You need to prime the pump. Create some quick success.

I’d love to see the federal government, as a whole, start with a handful of topics for public discussion. Throw the best resources at the efforts. Establish models for public participation and collaboration, before the agencies start doing this willy-nilly. Pick issues that don’t need legislation and can be resolved in less than 6 months. Pick issues that have broad public interest, don’t require extensive research or prior knowledge, and won’t be especially contentious. Pick problems that have a good shot at being solved.

Then go out to the public. Sure – use websites and online tools and social media. But try other methods, too. See what works best. Team up with state and local governments. Hold in-person meetings and broadcast town halls on local public access stations. Ask for ideas on other ways to engage. Show in your actions that you sincerely want the public to be involved in their government.

Build some success. Success will beget more success. Get it right in the beginning, and satisfied citizens will spread the word and bring in others.

Participation and collaboration. Exciting times! Let’s make it work.

Related Links:
How Do We Measure Success?
Are We Ready for E-Democracy?
A Next Big Step for Grassroots Democracy (Craig Newmark)
Can We Categorize Participation and Collaboration? (Andrea DiMiao)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Apply for Plain Language Awards

The Center for Plain Language is sponsoring the first Plain Language Awards for the best and the worst writing in both the public and private sectors. You can submit hard copy documents or websites. 

And even if you don’t apply for the awards, check out the criteria for judging. It’s one of the best lists of writing “do’s” I’ve seen.  Print it out, and share it with your web contributors.

Deadline for applications is February 15, 2010. Go for it!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Customer Service Standards Worth Living Up To

A little more than a year ago, the Federal Web Managers Council issued a ground-breaking white paper entitled, “Putting Citizens First: Transforming Online Government.” Yes, I’ve referenced it many times. But as we begin a new calendar year, it’s a great time to take a fresh look at those 6 terrific Customer Service Standards that the Council established:

When citizens want to find government information and services online, they should be able to:
  1. Easily find relevant, accurate, and up-to-date information;
  2. Understand information the first time they read it;
  3. Complete common tasks efficiently;
  4. Get the same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, live chat, read a brochure, or visit in-person;
  5. Provide feedback and ideas and hear what the government will do with them;
  6. Access critical information if they have a disability or aren’t proficient in English.
Those 6 standards show a real commitment to, and respect for, the citizen's point of view.

On its website - – the Council has identified best practices (and tools to use to implement them) to help agencies meet those standards, including:
  • Identify, improve, and feature top tasks
  • Create and manage content effectively and efficiently
  • Create content once and deliver it many ways
  • Collaborate within your agency and across government to manage content and eliminate duplication
  • Follow usability best practices and do usability testing continuously
  • Make sure the public can find your content
  • Create opportunities for the public to interact with their government
But that's not all.  There's more support available.  Web Manager University offers courses every semester to help web managers gain the knowledge and skills to implement these best practices and meet those terrific standards.  And the Web Managers Forum has monthly conference calls to provide even more tips and tricks and an opportunity for web managers to share their successes and lessons learned.

The pieces are all in place. Everything is focused on the right vision. The best practices are right on. The tools and support are available. The Council is leading in the right direction to meet government’s responsibility to serve citizens.

So it comes down to this, web managers.
  • Does your website live up to these Customer Service Standards?
  • Have you measured them?
  • Have you incorporated them in your strategic planning? 
If not, then maybe - as we start a new year and a new decade – you should take a good look at your communication practices and see how you can improve them. If you need more training, get it. The next WMU course is a free webinar on Wednesday, starring my personal favorite web guru, Gerry McGovern. Sign up!

These are Customer Service Standards worth living up to. And there’s no time like the present to “put citizens first!”