Sunday, November 13, 2011

Governance Is Infrastructure for Great Customer Service

Federal agencies have posted their Customer Service Plans, to comply with President Obama’s Executive Order, “Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service.  Agencies specifically were to create a signature initiative that improves online service.  Many of them are pretty good.  Check out all the General Services Administration has on its radar, for example.

But when you put the Customer Service Plans next to the interim Web Improvement Plans, they seem inconsistent.  In many cases, you wonder:  did the person who wrote one talk to the person who wrote the other?  No, they probably didn’t.  Why not?  Because they weren't under one governance structure. 

If we’re going to improve customer service in government, we’ve got to have strong governance.  Governance brings consistency, and consistency is essential for great customer service.

I think of “management” as a hierarchical structure with official delegated authorities.  “Governance,” on the other hand, usually is a group of management officials or hierarchies who must collaborate and cooperate across the agency to be successful.  A governance structure doesn’t have to be hierarchical – it can be collaborative.  But everyone in the structure (and everyone in the Agency) has to understand it clearly.  Good governance often is hard to pin down and harder to achieve.  But it is absolutely critical to improving and maintaining great customer service. 

So here we go again…governance.  What is it?  It’s the infrastructure that enables efficient, effective, collaborative cross-agency (or cross-government) progress.   I use 5 “R’s:”
  1. Roles – who, by title, must be involved? 
  2. Responsibilities – what must they do?
  3. Relationships – how/when must they interact?
  4. Rules – how will they operate (policies, publication rules, and operating rules)?
  5. Review – how will they make sure that the first four “R’s” are followed (management controls) and opportunities for improvement are spotted (evaluation)?
A couple of years ago, I tacked on two other critical “R’s:”

Reason – what are you trying to achieve?  What’s the purpose?  Yes – there may be multiple purposes (deliver services, provide information and data, involve the public, share the Agency’s plans and accomplishments).  But when push comes to shove, what comes first (and second and third and…)?  Everyone needs to know so when it comes to decisions about strategies, priorities, and resources, you're on the same page.

Roadmap – a plan.  If you don’t have one, your customer service efforts can go awry really fast, and you can waste precious resources (not to mention making your agency look bad).  Everyone needs to be going in the same direction, toward the same goals. 

My friend Nicole Burton, who runs GSA’s First Fridays program (they do FREE website usability reviews for agencies) tells me that governance issues are at the root of many of the problems they identify.  Right hand doesn’t talk to left hand, even though they’re working on the same customer tasks.  Fiefdoms compete or duplicate efforts.  No central oversight to make sure the site represents the best of the entire agency and that it works seamlessly, even though content comes from different parts of the agency.  Bad governance shows.

Where to start?  Begin by assembling the right people:
  • A high ranking management official who has authority to trump all others in the governance structure, if there are issues.  It could be the agency head or deputy agency head or some other program-neutral official.  It must be someone who is clear on the agency’s customer service objectives and keeps abreast of the actions.
  • The designated Customer Service Official
  • The Chief Communications Officer (because we cannot serve effectively if we don’t communicate effectively)
  • The designated Plain Language Official (because we don’t communicate effectively if we talk gobbly gook)
  • The designated Open Government Official (because being transparent and participatory and collaborative is a big part of great customer service)
  • The Chief Information Officer
  • The Chief Web Manager
  • The New Media Director
  • The head of publications
  • The head of call centers
  • The head of the agency correspondence unit(s)
  • The manager responsible for field operations (because a whole lot of customer service happens out there in field offices)
  • The Chief Procurement Officer (because contractors often are a critical part of our customer service efforts)
  • Top content owners – the executives in charge of program areas or bureaus or other major organization components
Yep – that’s a lot of people.  Each of these people has a stake in the goal.  These players must be involved in your customer service strategy and operations – working together, going in the same direction - or your customers will suffer. 

Next, figure out what each must do and how (and when) they must interact.  Write that down, so everyone knows.  Start with what you have and then fill in the holes or make fixes.  I’ve got a little governance self-assessment worksheet that can help.  Don’t forget to figure out those “review” processes to make sure it all works.  And figure out consequences – don’t wait for things to break down. 

We could be witnessing the beginning of culture change that will make customer service a permanent driving force in government.  But it takes a good infrastructure - good governance – to make it work. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Web Improvement Plans Must Start With Commitment to Customer Service

The initial drafts of federal agency plans to improve online customer service have been posted.  Agencies were asked to report on what’s happening currently, as the first step toward developing their plans; and I must say, the results are – well – disappointing.  If you want to know what’s wrong with government websites, just scan a few of these draft plans.  They’re all over the place.

In case you aren’t up to speed, the White House announced the .Gov Reform effort in early summer.  It emanates from the President’s Executive Order, “Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service” and the Campaign to Cut Waste.  Specifically, the .Gov Reform task force is inventorying government websites, assessing the status of web operations, and developing a governmentwide web strategy.  As part of this effort, agencies are to develop a “Web Improvement Plan that communicates their strategy for managing web resources more efficiently, improving online content, and enhancing the customer experience of Agency websites.”  These draft plans are the first step. 

OK, take a look at these “plans” and see what you think.

I reviewed 14 Cabinet level agency reports and the White House web team report.  For the most part, these are very process-oriented.  Few mentioned overarching goals or a vision for online customer service.  The lack of consistency across government is quite apparent.  Look at their descriptions of “governance,” for example.  Several talked about budget procedures and technical requirements, without mentioning the who, what, and why of their governance structures.  Do they know what “governance” is?

Only a few (I counted 4) said they factor in usability testing to help them make sure they’re meeting customers’ needs.  While customer satisfaction surveys, statistics, email, and focus groups can help – and certainly should be part of the metrics agencies use to improve their sites – the number one way to make sure your website works is watching people use it. 

And the biggest omission?  Customers.  Knowing them.  Listening to them.  Focusing strategies on their needs. 

There are some bright spots.  
  • Health and Human Services admits to having no strategy, but their thoughtful analysis of the problems makes me hopeful they’ll develop a strategy that really will improve customer service. 
  • EPA is a winner, with its “One EPA” strategy to make web content consistent across the agency (and consistency is fundamental to great customer service). 
  • Labor talked about using GSA’s “First Fridays”program to help them assess the usability of their website and make improvements.  Way to go!
  • Some of the large agencies, with many sub-agencies, are beginning to pull policies and procedures and people together to work toward – there it is again - consistency.
But on the whole, these “plans” tell me there’s much to do to improve the way the federal government is serving customers online.

So…a few suggestions.

First – to those of you outside government who value transparency and who care about making government customer service better: read these plans and then speak up about what you see.  Let the .Gov Task Force know what you think (Alycia Piazza is listed as the contact for more information about the effort).  Blog, Tweet, stir up discussion.  Let’s help the govies make online customer service better by pointing out where they can improve.

Second – to the .Gov Task Force:  These reports are a reality check.  I think the notion of “improving customer service” has not sunk in.  Maybe you should back up and help agencies get up to speed.  I’d bring in Gerry McGovern, who has worked with governments and top companies all over the world to improve online customer service, for a half day.  Put him in front of all the agency Directors of Communication, Directors of Public Affairs, CIOs, designated customer service officials, and top agency web managers.  Help them understand the principles of online customer service so they can set priorities and create strategies that really will change the way government serves its customers.  While the governmentwide web strategy you’re crafting should help get agencies on the same path, I think it’s important they’re doing it with a good understanding of the vision.

Third – to the Federal Web Managers Council:  I think you need to jump into this effort in a public way.  Soon.  This would be a great time for you folks to issue another white paper, laying out what these strategic plans could/should look like, or - at least - reintroduce your previous white papers.  The CIO Council is out there pushing.  You should be, too.  You’ve been talking about it for years.   You have a wonderful opportunity here.  Step up to the plate.

The recent National Dialog on Government Websites produced some terrific ideas and got a lot of people – inside and outside of government – excited about the possibilities of the .Gov Reform initiative.  But change starts with a commitment to improving customer service.  These plans do not reflect that commitment.  Fix that, and you’ll be on your way.

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Courage to Do What We Know We Need to Do
Get Organized for Great Customer Service
Governance Blues? Build the Blocks
Metrics That Matter

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

National Dialog on Government Websites Is Over – What’s Next?

So the 2+ week National Dialog on Government Websites is over.  It ended last night with 436 ideas, 1,663 comments, and 8,259 votes submitted by 992 contributors.  If you didn’t get a chance to participate, the whole thing is archived for reference.  Take a look – I think you’ll be impressed by the quality of the discussion.

Now, the obvious question is:  what’s next?  Well, the .Gov Reform Task Force will be reviewing the results and using it to help shape government web policy.  Here are 3 outcomes I’d like to see.
  1. Require agencies to create an annual content review process, and require the agency head to certify to OMB that all web content is current and accurate.  One of the big reasons we’re in this mess with too many government websites is that agencies aren’t held accountable for their content.  Ask just about any government web manager, and they’ll tell you there are huge sections of their websites that are seldom (maybe never) used or reviewed.  Agency managers have to be held responsible for the content they publish.  And there have to be consequences for content neglect (lose posting rights or set a trigger to remove any content not used/reviewed in 1 year or some other appropriate action).  We’ve got to get a handle on government web content, and accountability is part of the answer.
  2. Require agencies to archive important – but obsolete – content for future reference.  Lots of discussion on various ideas in this Dialog about separating “evergreen” content from content with a short shelf life and archiving content.  We have to balance content management demands with the principles of transparency and open government.  I think the website that my friend, Sam Gallagher, created is a terrific solution to this problem.  He moved important historical content from the "live" site to the archive site - content like speeches and initiatives from previous administrations; dated content like funding announcements and grant applications; press releases; statistical reports older than 1 year; and information about obsolete programs.  You can get to the archives site from HUD’s home page, and you can search the archives.  Content on the archives site is clearly marked “archived” in the header, and the date archived is at the bottom of the page.  It keeps important content available to the public, but it separates it from content that needs to be reviewed and managed.  It’s one great solution to the problem of clutter and bloated websites.
  3. Establish a customer service strategy that addresses both the front end – creating/improving services so they’re easy to find and easy to use – and the back end, customer support.  Lots of ideas fit into this great hope: rewrite websites using plain language, organize around topics and customer groups instead of agencies, simplify online services, require usability testing before launch, and more.  One idea that captured my attention is to establish an ombudsman to help customers who get stuck or confused.  Gerry McGovern published a spot-on article this week that predicts “the future is about service,” and he talks about the value of customer support.  We’ve also got to humanize our services; and several ideas – have a human on the other end, use real-time chats, and others – got at this notion.  But overall, we’ve got to stop thinking in terms of delivery channels and start thinking in terms of service.  We need to focus on "what," instead of "how."  We must understand how customers consume our services.  We need to make sure they get the same answers and seamless service, whether they use the web, the phone, a letter, a publication or – as often happens – a combination.  I’d like to see the White House and OMB and the Federal Web Managers Council and the CIO Council and GSA get behind a clear strategy that looks at the big picture of service, which includes – but is not limited to – websites.
The .Gov Task Force has a huge challenge.  I’m both excited and optimistic about the results.  So what can we do to help?  Keep talking.  Keep thinking.  Keep contributing.  If you’re a webbie inside government, get involved in the government Web Managers Forum.  For those of us outside government, let’s keep blogging and Tweeting and seizing opportunities for participation.  The National Dialog on Government Websites shows that – together – we can figure this out.

PS – Huge congrats to GSA’s Sheila Campbell, Lisa Nelson, and Alycia Piazza and others who managed the Dialog.  Well done!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Great Ideas! What Do You Think?

The National Dialog on Government Websites has been a resounding success.  In fact, it’s gone so well that the .Gov Reform Task Force and GSA have extended the discussion to midnight Tuesday night, October 4. 

There’s still time for you to get in there to comment and vote on the ideas others have proposed and submit your own. 

So many great ideas!  How do you feel about these?
  • Create content around topics and customer groups – not organizations.  Start working across government to combine, consolidate, and trim content around themes.  Stop making customers hop from agency to agency, to gather all the information government has to offer.  Yes, there are barriers.  But isn’t this the right thing to do for our customers?
  • Require accessibility AND usability testing prior to launching a website (or a redesign or any significant content additions).  We’ve come a long way since 1995 – we have a body of research that tells us what makes a positive customer experience.  Should we be required to use that research to make our websites easier for customers to use before we post them?
  • Simplify online services.  Well, duh – yeah!  If you agree, vote.  If you don’t agree, tell us why. 
  • Differentiate between short-term and long-term content (my terms here).  Some content is timeless and needs to be easy to find.  Some content has a short shelf-life, but we keep piling it up (leaving it there), making it harder and harder to find those evergreen gems.  Should we set up archive websites, moving that important – but quickly obsolete – content off the active website so it’s easier for customers to use?  How can we deal with this problem?
  • Create a federal website content strategy.  Do we need to stop managing on an ad hoc basis and start developing and implementing a thoughtful, comprehensive strategy for our websites?
  • Standardize CMS and templates across government.  Oh boy – here’s a hot one!  Strong opinions on both sides (I say, “yes!”).  Many pros and cons, and lots of hurdles.  What's the right answer for our customers?
  • Establish a “customer bill of rights” as a set of core principles for customer service.  I’ve been talking about this for years.  But what do you think?
  • Customers should be able to find government information by location.  We addressed this 10 years ago at HUD – our customers told us they want to know how to buy a home or find rental housing where they live or want to live.  They want that local connection.  So we hired local web managers and built sections of the website for every state.  It was a huge hit.  Should we be doing this across government?  I think so.  How about you?
  • Less content – more services.  Should we be focusing more on creating/improving great online services and less on writing more “content?”
  • Require a content review process.  Should every agency have some sort of process to make sure content is current and accurate?
  • Should all federal government websites use’s search engine?  Why reinvent the wheel?
  • Agencies should make sure they have processes to act on customer feedback, questions, and input.  Customers hate it when they lob in a comment or question and never hear or see government’s response.  It’s a huge part of “open government.”  What can/should we do to make sure we interact with customers?
I’m telling you…this discussion is a cornucopia of great ideas and even better discussion. 

409 ideas.  1,476 comments.  939 participants.  As of today.  Have you weighed in?  There’s still time.  This is important, folks.  Don’t keep your ideas and opinions to yourself – share them.  Let’s figure this out.  We serve best when we serve together. You’ve got until midnight Tuesday night.  Join the National Dialog on Government Websites!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Get On the Customer Service Bandwagon

I hope you’ve already been participating in the National Dialog on Government Websites, sponsored by the .Gov Reform Task Force and GSA.  If not, it's not too late.  Tons of great ideas and comments and the opportunity to make your feelings known by voting (and you can do that anonymously).  This is important, folks.  Policy decisions are going to be made based on these comments, so jump right in.  It’s open until Friday, September 30.  Follow along on Twitter at #dotgov.

Then today, Govloop and RightNow Technologies published the Govloop Guide to Customer Service Excellence.  It’s a compendium of ideas based on a symposium Govloop sponsored in August.  Good stuff here, from colleagues and experts.  The Govloop community is trying to make a difference.

We’re all getting on the customer service bandwagon, and that’s a good thing for citizens and government’s business partners.  Check out these great opportunities to improve customer service for Americans. 

Related Posts
Join Us for a National Discussion On Government Websites
Communities of Like-Minded People Can Cause Real Change In Government

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Join Us for a National Discussion on Government Websites!

Come one – come all!  This is your chance to help the U.S. government figure out how to serve better, online.  I told you a few weeks ago about the ground-breaking .Gov Reform initiative the White House and the General Services Administration have underway.  In a nutshell, they’re taking a hard look at U.S. government websites and looking for ways to make them easier to use and more efficient and effective.  And here’s the thing:  they want you to be part of this discussion! 

On Monday, September 19, at 2 p.m. ET, the .Gov Reform Task Force will open The National Dialogue on Improving Federal Websites.  It will last two weeks, until Friday, Sept. 30.  You'll be able to access it at: 

You can toss in your ideas in 7 categories:  content, search, usability, accessibility, social media, multilingual content, and online services.  Each category has one or more “discussion catalysts” to stir the pot and keep things going; and Craig Newmark (yes – the Craig of Craigslist) and I are serving as “discussion catalysts” for the online services thread.  We can’t wait to see what you have to say.   

But let me warn you – whiners aren’t allowed to play.  This isn’t a gripe session.  This is a chance to float your ideas and join citizens, colleagues, advocates, authorities, and others in thrashing out ways the government can improve customer service through the web.  If you don’t have any ideas to throw in, then just come and join the conversation. 

At the end of the 2 weeks, the .Gov Reform Task Force will review all the ideas and comments and use it to draft new policies and strategies for federal government websites.

This is a huge opportunity to participate in reshaping the way the U.S. government works for you.  I am so excited to debate my own ideas and learn from the rest of you.  Please – don’t miss out.  Remember:  Monday, Sept 19 at 2 pm ET to Friday September 30.  And follow the discussion on Twitter using hashtag  #dotgov.

See you there!   And spread the word.

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Let’s Start a Customer Service Revolution!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Courage to Do What We Know We Need to Do

We know what our customers want.  We've known for years.  We don’t need to keep asking them because the answer is the same.  

We know what to do to make customer service better.  We’ve known that for years, too, because we’ve listened to and watched our customers. 

So why do 79% of the respondents to RightNow’s recent customer service survey say government could provide better customer service?  Because better customer service means challenging the ways we’ve been doing business in government for decades, the culture of distance, and the people who haven’t acquired the vision of great customer service.  It means working together to bulldoze old processes and organizations and build sleeker, better, customer-centered services. 

It means showing the courage to do what we know we need to do.

Let’s recap what we know. 

What do customers want?  To complete a task.  Solve a problem.  Get an answer.  Do something.

What do customers hate?  Waiting, wasting time.  Feeling stupid.  Can’t understand what they read.  Don’t know what questions to ask.  Feeling like they’re being treated unfairly or singled out.  Feeling like they don’t matter, that you don’t care.  Getting half an answer or a wrong answer.  Feeling like you don’t understand them and what they want.  Being treated impersonally - can’t talk to a real person.

What do we need to do to improve customer service on the web?  Help our customers complete their tasks, solve their problems, get their answers, and do what they want to do. 
  1. Make it easy to find what they want.  Through good design.  Put most important content where people look first (that top left quadrant of the screen).  Keep it simple.  Cut the gratuitous eye-stopping graphics, and eliminate clutter.  Good marketing.  Good writing.  Optimize content for search engines, and market with social media and links.  Work across agencies to offer one source, rather than twenty.  Example: uses plain language to help customers recognize what they want.
  2. Make it easy to use.  Minimize time/steps to complete a task.  Write so customers understand the words the FIRST time they read them.  Do usability testing – often.  Get customer feedback.  Use stats to see how many complete the tasks.  If they’re dropping out before they complete the task, fix the problems.  Work across agencies to consolidate tasks and like-tasks.  Example:  TSA puts one of its top tasks right on the home page.  “Can I bring (fill in the blank) through the security checkpoint?”
  3. Make it easy to get help if they’re stuck.  Customers want help quickly, while they’re trying to complete the task - not 2 weeks later.   Put “contact us” on every page.  Put FAQs on the task pages (make sure they’re really frequently asked questions…pick 10 – not 100).  Make it personal - real-time chat, 24-hour phone numbers.  What about Skype (or something similar)?  Face-to-face with a real human being…wouldn’t that be something?  Use mobile apps to help customers get help on the go.    Example: suggests:  “chat online with one of our food safety experts.”  And “Ask Karen,” on the go.
  4. Anticipate what they want/need to do next.  Offer “next steps” or “more information.”  Work across silos (within and among agencies) to connect the dots.  Example:  National Archives offers suggestions to researchers who don’t know where to start.  And then there’s, the king of anticipation.
  5. Give them confidence they got the right/full answer.  Conclude the task with “Success!” or “Finished!”  Do usability testing – Gerry McGovern reported as many as 10% think they finished/have the answer, when they don’t.   Follow up with email.  Tailor Domino’s fantastic pizza tracker to your own processes.  Example:  State Department emails passport customers, “We’ve finished processing your passport…you should receive your passport on or about (date).”
RightNow’s report is well worth a read.  More evidence of what we already know: we need to put services customers care about online so they can find them and use them quickly, easily, and effectively.

We know what customers want.  Let’s band together, tackle those challenges, and show customers we have the courage to do what we know we need to do.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Let's Start A Customer Service Revolution!

No – that’s not the leftovers from Hurricane Irene.  Those are the Winds of Change you’re feeling.  The pieces for building an exciting new vision of government customer service are swirling around us - do you see them?  Everything’s starting to converge…ideas, leadership, support from the top. We’re on the verge of a customer service revolution!

Look around: 
  • We have a President who “gets it” that it’s hard for customers to use our services when they have to hop all over government because related programs/functions are distributed across agencies.  His Customer Service initiative shows this Administration’s commitment to improving the way government serves citizens.
  • The .Gov Reform Task Force is focusing high level attention on roping in the renegades of U.S. government websites.  Government web managers and CIOs and new media specialists and OMB leaders and White House staff, with terrific support from GSA, are working together to chart a new course for web-based customer service. 
  • What's more, everyone's welcome to join this conversation (revolutions must be inclusive!)  The .Gov Reform Task Force is open to ideas from anyone, anywhere.  Good customer service strategies start with the customers, and that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.
  • Even the .Gov Reform surveys (that agencies are completing now) show “big think.”  The Task Force is collecting data not only about the URLs and topics and audiences of the way-too-many government websites, but also about web governance…data that can help us understand where it’s working and where it isn’t, so we can make service  better across government.
  • Great ideas are reaching critical mass.  Thought leaders and visionaries, like John Kamensky and Wendi Brick, are blogging about “virtual government” and forming communities of interest around customer service.   People inside and outside government are coming together – like GovLoop’s Symposium on Customer Service – to talk about serving better, faster, smarter. 
  • is leading by example by becoming a place where customers can get answers, rather than just referrals through links.  The team is creating content, based on information from multiple agencies, around important topics (check out “Consumer Protection,” for example), giving customers a single starting point.
  • Newly-created reflects prevailing thought that we need to blend customer service channels, to make sure customers get the same answers no matter how they ask:  web, phone, in person, publication.
  • The Plain Writing Act is forcing agencies to change the way they communicate with customers, using their words and organizing content in ways that make sense to them. 
In the next few months, we have a window of opportunity.  Through the .Gov Reform effort and the Customer Service Initiative, we can create a clear, bold strategic vision for customer service in government. This is how customer service should look and work:  customer-centered, rather than agency-centered; multi-channel, rather than a channel-by-channel; one stop, instead of a scavenger hunt; responsive and personal, instead of detached; a priority for government employees, rather than an after-thought.  And we can build standards and governance that will help us achieve this vision.

The pieces are all there.  If not now, when?  Let’s start a customer service revolution. 

Related Article
Directgov 2010 And Beyond: Revolution Not Evolution

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Communities of Like-Minded People Can Cause Real Change in Government

GovLoop is sponsoring a symposium on Customer Service, August 23.  It promises to be a great event – bringing together customer service experts and passionistas from within and outside of government, and it hopes to culminate in some real actions to improve customer service in government.  Hurrah!  Wish I could be there (I was invited, but I couldn’t make it this time).

But this symposium isn’t the point of my blog today.  I want to talk about GovLoop.  And I’m not just talking about the social networking website by that name.  I’m talking about the grassroots community that has emerged and is shaking things up.  And I’m talking about a guy, Steve Ressler (a former Fed), and his band of colleagues who are showing us that real leaders don’t require legal authority and a job title to cause change in government.   Coalitions of like-minded people, working with principles and passion, can make a difference in the way government works.

Steve Ressler, who founded GovLoop, is a great example of government employee who has an idea and the courage to give it a go.  Three years ago, he threw up a social networking site with the idea that people in all levels of government, people who had retired from government, people who want to be in government, people who wanted to sell something to government, people who are advocates for others who interact with the government, and people just interested in government might want to come together to talk about common problems and ideas.  Bingo!  He was right.  GovLoop now boasts more than 45,000 members, and it’s growing every day. 

Plus 1:  GovLoop gives everyone a place at the table. Ideas can come from anywhere, and it’s better to risk a few bad eggs than exclude one really great idea-maker.
But this isn’t just a big leaderless blob.  Steve assumed leadership, and he surrounded himself with some equally-passionate co-workers (Andy, Megan), affiliated with GovDelivery, sought other sponsors and partners, and built an organization that supports the GovLoop community.  They started holding training sessions and symposia and conferences and other meet-ups.  They target the new and the next generations of public servants; but they also reach out to old-timers like me, brokering knowledge transfer and mentoring.

And here’s what I love most.  Steve and company dare to ask those “what’s next?” questions.  What should the next government CIO do?  How should we implement the new Customer Service Initiative in the federal government?  The GovLoop team gin up conversations on the website and do their best to get folks to participate.  And they encourage others to do the same.

Plus 2:  GovLoop provides leadership for an amorphous community, moving it toward connections and outcomes.  Grassroots efforts don’t succeed only by bringing people together.  Leadership is essential.

One more thing...

Plus 3:  the GovLoop gang communicates with the entire community, regularly.  If you’re already a member of GovLoop, you know that Steve sends a daily email alert to point out blog posts, interesting discussions, and new job listings.  He Tweets numerous times every day, making sure we know the latest.  They stir the pot and keep the community excited about ideas. 

Bet you think this is just a big ol’ plug for GovLoop, huh?  Well, it is.  I truly admire this effort.  If you aren’t a member already, I hope you’ll join the fun.  But that’s not my bottom line. 

My bottom line is this:  groups of like-minded government employees (and others!) can cause real, positive change in government, with good, consistent, visionary leadership.  The federal web manager community is proof.  GovLoop is proof.   You don’t have to wait for a charter or a designation or a sign from the universe to get the ball rolling.  It doesn’t take an appropriation or budget to bring people together.  It’s amazing how much we can accomplish if we’re brave enough to step into the void, be open to new ideas, and put the time and energy and ingenuity into making change happen.

Now let me circle back around to customer service.   So many of you have great ideas about ways to improve customer service.  Don’t sit in silence.  Don’t say it can never be done.  Find a group of like-minded colleagues, and create a grassroots community.  If you aren’t a natural born leader, find someone who is.  Be inclusive – good ideas and willing hands are everywhere.  Be gutsy, like Steve Ressler and the GovLoop gang.  And follow through.

Communities of like-minded people can do great things!

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Make Time to Lead

I first wrote a blog post called Make Time to Lead, more than 5 years ago; and I've written several variations on that theme since then.  It’s a lesson I learned first-hand, as I managed HUD’s web program and co-chaired the Federal Web Managers Council.  It’s easy to get so inundated in process that you lose your direction - and so do those who are following you. 

As I look at all that’s on your plate today, web colleagues – website consolidation, plain language re-writes, social media, mobile apps, customer service initiatives – it seems to be a good time to trot this chestnut out again. 

Whatever else you do, you have to make time to lead.

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a very good web friend.  At one point, I looked at her and said, “We’ve been together for 45 minutes, and all you’ve talked about is process.  What new ideas are you thinking about?  What’s next on your agenda?”  She looked at me and froze.  I could tell that nothing came to mind.  She laughed and said, “Candi, you always make me think.”

See, that’s the thing, web leaders.  You have to make time to think.  You never know when your boss may call you in or you might run into your agency head in the elevator or you see a prominent colleague at a meeting and they ask, “what’s next?”  You need to be ready with an answer because you may not get that opening again.  When your team is drowning in process, they need you to inspire them with what's on the horizon.  Put it all into perspective and keep those juices flowing.  You've got to find some time to think.

Equally important, you've got to make time to listen.  We've all heard people say, “my (boss, team leader, project leader, community leader) is so busy I can’t even get 5 minutes with him.”  I understand how busy leaders can be.  You go crazy running from one meeting to another, one phone call to another, one demand to another.

But you cannot succeed if the people who look to you for leadership lose their way, don’t know what to do next, can’t solve a problem, don’t know what the priorities are, or just need some good ol’ encouragement.  You’ve got to make time to listen to them and help them.

So here are a few questions you should ask yourself each week, web leaders:
  1. What’s next?  What problems do we need to solve?  What are others doing that we should try?  What’s the next big thing, and how can we get ready for it?  What is it that nobody is doing that we could pioneer?  What priorities do I need to shift?  Who might help me?  Who do I need to involve?
  2. What do my followers need from me?   What do I need to do this week to keep my (team, group, colleagues) on track?  What do my key lieutenants need from me?  Who needs some individual time?  When was the last time I asked them to tell me what they need?  When was the last time I sat down with them and asked how things are going and took the time to really listen? 
Don’t look at your calendar and sigh and say you don’t have time.  Don't decide that it's OK to just feel guilty because you aren't doing these things.  This is important stuff.  You can’t put it off.  Leading is charting the course…and guiding the troops.   

Make time to think.  Make time to listen.  Make time to lead.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Webbies: You Identified the Problem - Now Create the Solution

The federal web manager community has been hollering – rightly - about the uncontrolled proliferation of federal government websites for at least 7 years.  We’ve known we can’t possibly manage all that content effectively.  We’ve known there’s duplication and redundancy.  We’ve known that a huge percentage of our web content is written poorly, making it hard for our customers to get the fast, efficient service they deserve. 

And now, you’ve got a chance to fix it.  The White House, OMB, and the Chief CIO have heard you. You've triggered the .gov Reform Effort.  Woot!  But now, you've got to finish this thing.  You've got to help find the solution.

The Reform Effort starts with developing and analyzing an inventory of government websites on the .gov domain.  A 17-person task force has been appointed to lead this effort; and since I personally know several of them, I can tell you these are some of the best, smartest people in government. But I also can tell you they are very busy people, with many responsibilities. These 17 people will not have the time to do the analysis to decide "what's next?"  They're looking at others to help.

There’s hope that agencies will weed out this mess...acknowledge unneeded sites and eliminate them.  But I doubt they’ll be calling other agencies, saying, “hey, we duplicate what you have; so let’s join forces.”

There’s hope the public will jump in.  Some of the advocates and lobbying groups surely will see this as an opening to weigh in.  

But you know this problem the best.  And the good news? Your representatives - the Federal Web Managers Council - has been named as a partner in this effort. So you're at the table. You have the floor.  Now show them what you've got!

Will this be easy?  Heck no!  Egos are involved.  Hours and hours of work are involved.  Compromise is involved.  Credibility is involved.  Doing the analysis, forming the recommendations, and – gulp –making those hard calls (I guarantee you – some agencies are NOT going to like being told they have to abandon or merge the websites they control) will not come easy.  But doing the right thing is the essence of "public service." 

More is not better – it’s simply more. Citizen customers deserve better.  They deserve concise, well-written, easy to find, easy-to-use government services.  You’ve identified the problem.  You’ve got the attention and support of people at the highest levels.  So don't stop now. 

Don't sit back and wait for others to solve the problem when you know the issues the best.  Crank up the Forum.  Work with the FWMC.  Commit the time, do the work, and finish this thing.  Find the solution.

This is your moment.  Courage!  Vision!  Passion!     

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Thursday, July 07, 2011

Thinking Mobile

I’ve been thinking about how citizens might use mobile devices to get government services for…well…years.  Sam Gallagher and I started talking about making web content usable on mobile devices way back in 2000, when we were teaching HUD’s partners how to create customer-friendly websites.  Mobile apps are here to stay, and it's a great time for governments to be planning their strategies. 

My friend Gwynne Kostin, at GSA, is leading a discussion – well, several discussions – about how the government could/should get on the mobile bandwagon.  She’s raising important issues, and I hope you’ll take time to weigh in – or at least eavesdrop.  At the top of the list is a discussion about strategy.  So, here are the 3 points I’d offer, as you think about your agency's mobile strategy:
  1. Mobile apps are just another way to deliver the services your customers want and need.  They’re a “how,” not a “what.”  So your mobile strategy should be a subset of your customer service strategy.  Don’t develop it in isolation.  Work with the web managers and call center managers and publications editors and the Customer Service Officer and anyone else who interfaces with the public to decide the best ways to deliver each service.  Don’t reinvent the wheel for each delivery channel.  If you can make one app that can be used on the web, on a mobile device, by call center operators, and by desk receptionists, that’s efficient for the agency and great for customers.
  2. As a rule, it’s a waste of time to try to make your entire website mobile-friendly or to create a separate mobile website.  Most people don’t want to wade through a website while they’re on the go.   They just want to complete a unique task.  So focus on tasks – not websites.
  3. As with everything we do, take your cues from your customers.  Start with top tasks (those tasks your customers want/use most).   Figure out what kinds of things your customers really want to do when they’re on the road, out to lunch, waiting for their kids at soccer practice; and create easy-to-use (and I mean as few words and steps as possible) apps.  Involve customers in the design.  Watch customers use your apps, and measure your success by their success.
A long time ago, I suggested we might one day organize all government web content into just a few sites, with a small “services” site (in other words, tasks or apps) as the centerpiece.  I wonder if we’re getting closer?

Go look at Gwynne’s discussions.  This is good stuff!

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Eliminate Websites, Consolidate Others = Better Customer Service

Last week, the White House announced a new initiative to get a handle on the rampant proliferation of government websites.   They put a 90-day freeze on granting any new top level domains (e.g.,, and they are requiring all agencies to review their websites and determine those that can be abolished, consolidated, and/or improved.  Agencies have to post their plans on their open government pages within 120 days, so the public can see them.  Macon Phillips, at the White House, wrote a terrific blog describing this initiative.  Well worth a read.

If you know me or have been following this blog for long, you’ll know I’ve been jumping up and down, waving my arms, stomping my feet, and screaming for this kind of action for years.  So hallelujah!  It’s about time.

While there will be some cost savings from fewer websites (and this initiative is part of the President’s Campaign to Cut Waste), the more direct benefit to citizens is better customer service.  Fewer, more concise government websites will make it easier for customers to find what they want. 

For years now (well before I retired), we’ve been saying there are an estimated 24,000 U.S. government websites.  The truth?  We have no idea how many there are.  In the years since we came up with that number, I’m absolutely certain more sites went up than came down.  Every time an executive had a new initiative, we had to do a new website - they understandably didn’t want to fold those initiatives into our big, bloated main agency websites because they’d be lost – hmm.   

There’s good stuff in those 24,000+ sites…but you have to sift through a whole lot of sand to find the nuggets.   Don’t search engines help?  Sure.  Well, some...if you guess the right search terms and if the agency has done a good job using plain language and optimizing the website for search engines.  But searches can’t tell you where to start and what to do next.   They can’t synthesize pages and pages of redundant content. 

Let me give you just one example of the problem.  I want to buy my first home.  I need to know how to do it, and I want to know if the federal government has programs to help me.  I do a search on on “buy a home.”  I get 191 million results.  Eek!  OK - I use the advanced search to narrow my focus to “federally-focused” websites (federally-focused?  What does that mean?).  Wow!  That brought it down to 22.7 million options.  OK...I start through the list.  I get through the 5th page of results and quit, even though I'm guessing I’ll miss something worthwhile buried farther down in that pile. 

In those first 5 pages, I find (among many other options and in no particular order): 
I’m busy.  I don’t have time to read through all of these websites and figure out what it means.  Help! 

Research has shown the more choices we have, the harder it is for us to decide.  So, often, we just don’t choose anything (read Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice).   Too many, too much is just bad customer service.

I’ve read some blogs expressing concern that if the government does away with websites, customers will lose important information.  I don’t think the President’s initiative is about taking away what customers need.  It’s about serving it to them better so they can use it easier and faster. 

This is a milestone in digital government.  If agencies take this initiative seriously and if OMB and its partners take the bull by the horns, I think we’ll look back on this housecleaning as a turning point in improving customer service in the government. 

Forgive me, but...yippee!

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