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.

Related Posts
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 archives.hud.gov 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 USA.gov’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!