Monday, May 17, 2010

Does Your Website Show Your Commitment to Customer Service, Government Executive?

Great customer service starts right at the top of any organization – private or public. Top executives set the tone and the standards for customer service. When those top executives pay close attention and make customer service a priority, they create happy customers. Happy customers – better business.

Nothing new about that.

But have you thought about this, Government Executives? Do you realize that more of your customers (citizens) seek services and interact with your agency through the web than any other way? Do you know what services those web customers want and use most? Do you know if they can find what they want, understand what they find, and act accordingly? Does your website(s) reflect your commitment to great customer service?

It’s no secret in the government web manager community that the most successful web teams (and, therefore, websites) are those that have strong support from top executives. At HUD, we sailed forward in those early years, establishing a website that provided really good customer service. Why? Largely because the web team was part of the Secretary’s office. The Secretary and his team knew us and trusted us, and we had their complete support. The Secretaries (Cisneros and Cuomo) had a strong commitment to customer service, and it showed on our website.  We got the first Digital Government Award for good citizen service. Citizens started seeing HUD favorably (we were still recovering from scandals) because they could see we cared about serving them.  We learned first-hand that providing great customer service is the best marketing you can do. 

The web team at EPA is enjoying this same kind of bounce right now. Savvy top executives met with EPA web leaders early and often, asking the web leaders for their ideas to improve customer service, listening to them, and supporting them. EPA’s web customer service strategy is leaping ahead of the pack, as a result. When top executives take a personal interest in providing great customer service, everybody wins. And the biggest winners are the customers.

OK - I know you’re extremely busy and you have a lot on your platters, Government Executives. But let me suggest just a few things you can do that could really promote great customer service in your agency:
  • Meet with your agency web communication director and new media director regularly. Tell them your customer service standards and your priorities. Ask for their suggestions to help you achieve your priorities, enhance mission achievement, and improve customer service. Ask them to brief you on the goals and priorities of the government web management community, and talk with them about what your agency can do to improve customer service across government.
  • Invite your web leaders to your executive staff meetings – let them brief your team on how the web is improving customer service and what they can do to help.
  • Make sure your web leaders have the resources and support they need to improve customer service. Be available to break through organizational bottlenecks when your web leaders need support.
  • Let your whole agency know that quality customer service through the web is a real priority. Effective service depends on effective communication, so encourage all of your managers and staff to learn and use plain writing for anything that is posted on the web (or delivered to the public in any way).
  • Work with your web leaders to evaluate your customers’ satisfaction, through usability testing and surveys. Hold your organization accountable for improvement.
Make sure your website(s) reflects your commitment to great customer service, Government Executive. Everyone knows - great customer service begins at the top.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Bring On the Plain Writing Act!

It’s looking more and more promising that Congress will pass the Plain Writing Act (S574), the law that so many have championed for so long. The Act passed the House in March by a vote of 386 to 33; and it’s being considered in the Senate now. If it is enacted, get ready, web communicators. The pressure will be on to “fix” all that bad content. Woot! It’s about time!

What’s not to like? The goals of plain language advocates are simple. When people read a government document, form, website - anything in writing - they should be able to:
  • Find what they want,
  • Understand what they find, and
  • Act accordingly.
Aren’t those the goals of every communicator? But government communications fail more often than not.

Better writing, better service.

The Clearmark and Wondermark Awards were presented at the end of April. In case you missed them, the Clearmark Awards recognized really good examples of plain writing. The Wondermark Awards recognized – well, good examples of bad writing. The co-winners of Clearmark Awards in the government web category were the Department of Health and Human Service’s Healthfinder Quick Guide and Gresham, Oregon’s city website. What made them winners? In both cases, the teams did a lot of testing with potential readers. They kept re-working the words until they got it right. Take a look at both sites – I think you’ll see they achieved those 3 important objectives of plain writing.

Sadly, for every well-written web page, there are millions and millions of government web pages written in gobbly-gook. You can reorganize them, reformat them, make them pretty – but if the words aren’t right, it’s still gobbly-gook. You’ve got to get the words right.

The Federal Web Managers Council say it in their recent report, 2010 Progress Report – Putting Citizens First: Transforming Online Government: “Our top goal is to improve online government by writing, editing, and delivering content that is clear, understandable, and engaging. Plain language writing – even more than technology – is critical to help the public easily complete their online tasks.” And last fall, when GSA did a survey asking respondents to choose 3 things that would improve government websites, the number one response (chosen by 62%) was: write in plain language. I know you government communicators get it. You want to do the right thing.  What you lack is the mandate.

S574 says: “The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” If the Plain Writing Act passes, you've got your mandate. You can say “no” to gobbly-gook. You’ll have powerful justification for more funding to train your writers and to do usability testing to make sure citizens can find, understand, and act on what they read on government websites.

Will it be tough to fix all the problems? Sure. Will there be a cost? Yep. There’s a lot to fix. It will require a thoughtful, long-term, cross-government strategy and careful management. But this is really important. Government has to communicate with its citizens effectively to serve effectively, and we don’t. Desire and good intentions haven’t done the trick. Maybe a law will. Bring it on!

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

So Now What Are You Gonna Do?

I hope you either attended or tuned into the Government Web and New Media Conference in Washington DC, last week. What a line-up! I sat in my Tucson family room, watching the proceedings streaming live, listening to the fine line-up of speakers; and I marveled that so many terrific people are engaged in improving the way government communicates with and serves its citizens. Major kudos to Sheila Campbell, Rachel Flagg, the Web Manager University team, GSA, and the Federal Web Managers Council for organizing this fine gathering.

And you, web communicator - I hope you came away energized, vindicated, loaded with new ideas, and ready to take on the challenges you face! So…now what are you gonna do?

The biggest challenge of any conference-planner is figuring out how to make sure the attendees take home something they really can use. I know for a fact that the folks planning this conference worried about that. But you know what? The real responsibility for making that leap is yours. I don’t care if you were there in person or if you watched the live stream or just read or watched the sessions afterward. The bottom line is this: what are YOU going to do to improve government service? Every single one of you has to step up and DO SOMETHING to make change happen.

Maybe you had this discussion with your colleagues at the conference and came home with a plan. But just in case you didn’t, here are 5 suggestions:
  1. Tell other web communicators in your agency what you learned. Use email. Use your intranet. Call a meeting with all the web managers and web reporters in your organization. Tell them what you learned. Tell them they can watch the tapes online. Tell them about the speakers and what they said. Tell them what you heard in your discussions. Distribute copies of the FWMC’s new paper, “Putting Citizens First – Transforming Online Government, 2010 Progress Report" – and get together to discuss it. Share what you learned. Get others excited.
  2. Talk to your bosses. You heard Lisa Welchman. You and your bosses may see things differently, and you’re never going to get on the same page if you don’t talk. Don’t wait to be invited to that meeting. Find a way to create it. Honestly, you might be surprised how open your bosses will be to hearing what you have to say. I never had a boss (or a boss’s boss) turn down my request to brief him/her. So send an email. Call a secretary. Make an appointment. Ask for a half hour. If you can’t get that, send a memo – no more than one page. Now don’t blow this opportunity. Prepare. Write a point paper. Boil down your points to the top 5. Pick things that your boss will care about – big picture stuff. Don't talk process -talk goals and results.  Tell your boss what the agency needs to do to provide better customer service to citizens. Show your boss how these ideas can help your agency achieve its mission better, faster, smarter.
  3. Pick 3 things you learned at the conference and do something to implement them at your agency, in the next 6 months. Make them things you can do yourself or with your team. Write them down on a piece of paper, and tape it to your desk. Look at that paper every day and ask yourself, “What did I do today to cause this change?” If you haven’t done anything, do something. Mark October 30, 2010 on your calendar, and make a note on that date to review what you’ve achieved…and then set 3 new goals.
  4. Do something to improve your web content. Pick one of your top tasks and see if you can edit that content to make it easier to use. Pick some of your worst-written pages and offer to help the owners re-write them to make them more useful. Bring in a plain language trainer to do a session for all your web contributors. Go to plain language training yourself.  Do some usability testing to help you spot the worst content problems; then fix them. Go through your site and see if you can find 25 or 50 or 100 pages that are obsolete and pull them down (clutter makes it harder for people to find what they want!). Read through your top pages and see if each of them uses key words and is organized to make it easy for search engines to find that content. You’ve got to start somewhere. Start now.
  5. Do something to help the web manager community. If you learned nothing else from the conference, I hope you learned that when web communicators join forces, they can cause change. So join a sub-council or working group. Recruit a new member of the Web Managers Forum. Send an email to the Forum listserv, telling them about something that works well in your agency or an idea you have or an issue you’d like to discuss. We serve best when we serve together.
Now that’s not so hard, is it? Come on. You can do this. I don’t care where you are in the organization. Don’t sit back and wait to benefit from the change others are causing. Be part of the effort. Use what you learned at this conference as your springboard.

So what’s it gonna be? What are you gonna do?

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