Author Archives | sradick

About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

The Federal Government Can Learn a Few Things from a New State Government Website

June 3, 2011

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Have you checked out the new Utah.gov yet?  According to the press release, the site gets 1.2 million unique visitors a month and last year “processed more than 25.1 million secure electronic transactions through the official state website, mobile-optimized services, automated phone system, and point-of-purchase systems at retail outlets statewide.” Here’s a quick 2 minute video highlighting the new site and some of its features.

UTG2011 from Utah Interactive on Vimeo.

I know I’m a little late in writing about this so I’ll try not to repeat all the stuff that Alex, Andy, Luke, Abhi, and Kristy have already said. Take a look at their posts below – lots of good stuff in these links.

Instead of providing another review of Utah.gov, I’ll instead give you the five things that I hope federal government sites learn from this newest state government site.

  1. Topics not org charts. After eight years of working with federal government clients, one of the things that always drove me nuts has been the prevalence of the “don’t forget about my team” attitude. You know what I’m talking about – you’re working on a new website and everyone on the org chart wants to make sure there’s a link to a his team’s site on the front page. They want their logo added; they want the name of their program/team/initiative/effort front and center. It becomes a very public ego battle instead of a website focused on the user, the members of the general public.
  2. Fast and Accessible. Go ahead and perform a search on Utah.gov. Notice the real-time search like you see on Google? Now try the site from your mobile or tablet device. As I mentioned in a previous post, technology has to be fast, accessible, and reliable before any of your users will care about the cool new features.
  3. Integration. Active participation (and actual engagement!) in social media isn’t an experimental pilot program or one-off effort by the innovation group here. It’s been fully integrated into the website. In some government agencies, the team that controls the website is totally separate from the team that controls the social media accounts. On Utah.gov however, this has all been integrated into one digital presence.
  4. Technology can’t solve all your problems. Let’s go back to that search box. Try a search for the word, “Hunting.” See those first results that come up? Those aren’t generated by Google. Those were generated by the Utah.gov web team after hours of analyzing web metrics and user search trends. While Google’s famed link-based search algorithm may be the ideal solution for crawling the web, it doesn’t always produce the best results when incoming and outgoing links aren’t used as much, like on individual websites and Intranets. Realizing this, the Utah.gov team supplemented the technology with some old-fashioned common sense, and ensured the website users were able to find exactly what they were looking for, even if they didn’t use the precise terms the technology required.
  5. Hits don’t equal success. Utah’s Chief Technology Officer, Dave Fletcher, said that five years ago, Utah.gov had 700,000 unique views a month.  Last month, they had 1.4 million unique views. However, when asked how many unique views they were aiming for with this new site, Fletcher said, “our goal isn’t necessarily to get 2 million or 3 million unique views. I’m not nearly as concerned about traffic numbers as I am about creating an “experience that our citizens will be responsive to, and will enjoy. We are focused on supporting the business objectives of the governor – we want it to be easier for citizens to interact with their government.” Success is being measured by dozens of different metrics including the adoption rate of individual services, e.g., the % of people who are registering their vehicles online vs. offline, etc.

We’re less than 48 hours into the launch of the new site and I’ve already seen Hillary Hartley and other members of the Utah.gov team out there addressing some of the feedback they’ve been getting so I know there will be some changes taking place over the next week or so. That’s why I’ll be keeping tabs on Utah.gov from 2,000 miles away – I’ll be interested to see how their users have reacted to the new site and how they are (or aren’t) using it.

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Why Implementing the Plain Writing Act Will Take Decades

May 23, 2011

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“In just a few more years, the current homogenized voice of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.” The Cluetrain Manifesto

“In just a few more years” – if only that were true. Unfortunately, this quote was written more than ten years ago, and we’re still plagued with bureaucratic jargon, in both the public and private sectors. I got to thinking about this book, and this quote in particular, when I saw that the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs finalized guidance for the use of plain language in government communication. This memo comes six months after the Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed into law, 13 years after President Clinton issued his “Plain Language in Government Writing” memorandum, and more than 40 years since President Nixon ordered that the “Federal Register” be written in “layman’s terms.”

As Joel Siegel at ABC News first reported late last year after the law went into effect, the challenge of changing “government-speak” to “human-speak” isn’t a new one, and there’s no guarantee that we won’t be hailing a new, similar law in another ten years. After all, agencies will not receive any additional funding for this, nor will they be penalized for ignoring the guidance or rewarded for improving the clarity of their writing. While Siegel highlighted some of the changes he’s already seen, my guess is that we’ll see an initial surge of revisions that get a lot of media coverage, followed by a majority of agencies falling back into the way things have always been done. Unfortunately, getting the government to write in plain language isn’t something that can be solved by law or by technology. It’s not as simple as creating an app or telling people “do it because I said so.” Here’s why:

  • Change is HARD. From my previous post, “in the government, leadership and, consequently, leadership priorities are constantly changing as administrations change. Because of this, employees suffer from change fatigue (if you don’t like how your department was reorganized, wait a year and it’ll change again), middle managers don’t invest in the change themselves, and leaders all too often push forward with their own agendas and goals, current organizational culture be damned.”
  • No Reward, No Punishment. Government employees aren’t just going to start writing in plain English because you told them to. Think of the alcoholic who takes Antabuse to punish himself if he takes a drink or the dog who gets a treat for sitting on command. Positive behaviors need to be positively reinforced and negative ones negatively reinforced. This is behavior modification 101.
  • History Repeats Itself. The government employee or contractor knows this isn’t their first plain language rodeo. They know that we’ve been down this road before. What makes this time different? They’re asking, “why should I invest myself into this effort when I know it’s going to fail just like all of the other times?”
  • Too Much Training Before, Not Enough Training After. I think most government employees aren’t even aware that they’re writing in bureaucratic gobbledygook. For years and years, they’ve had this writing style drilled into them by their bosses. I work for a government contractor and can tell you that on more than one occasion, I’ve received feedback like, “we can’t use contractions in this document – that’s not professional” and “try the word ‘leverage’ instead of ‘use’ – it makes us sound smarter.” After years of feedback like this, you actually lose the ability to speak and write like a human being. It’s not that the government is being malicious and purposely writing this way – it’s that many government employees literally do not have the ability to write for the average person anymore. The Plain Writing Act should make Plain Language training a mandatory requirement where these employees (and their managers) have to re-learn what good writing is.
  • Legal Hurdles. Would the world end if the lawyers were the ones writing the first drafts of these policies and regulations and then let the communications professionals edit their work, instead of the other way around? For too long, communications professionals like me have had to painstakingly translate highly technical content into readable English, only to see it get edited by the lawyers into the very thing I was trying to avoid. Again, this goes back to the reward/punishment argument earlier though. Put out a new document in plain English and get sued? That lawyer is in a heap of trouble. Put out a new document in bureaucratic and legal jargon so no one understands? Nothing happens. I don’t blame the lawyers in the Office of General Counsel – I’d try my hardest to cover all my legal bases too!
  • Good Writing is Still Considered a Nice-to-have. When budgets get cut, who goes – the communications/public affairs guy in the front office or the engineer in Operations? Say what you will about the government, but they’re almost always focused on the accomplishing the mission of their organization. Things like communications, strategic planning, and change management are often viewed as extraneous, “nice-to-have” things – not core components of the mission. Until the agencies view plain writing as integral to their ability to achieve their mission, I’m afraid it will never get any long-term traction.

President Obama took a step in the right direction with the Plain Writing Act of 2010, but so did President Nixon and President Clinton. That first step is the easiest. The really difficult part comes now. Can this Administration succeed where past administrations failed? Can they integrate plain writing into the culture and mission of the government and lay the foundation of change? Actually, this doesn’t sound all that different than what we’re trying to accomplish with Gov 2.0, does it?

Here’s the Final Guidance on Implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010

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The Two Things You Need to be Successful When Using Social Media

May 13, 2011

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People ask me how all the time, “what’s the best way to use social media successfully?” I’m going to tell them (and you) a little secret – you need to have two things, and they won’t cost you a thing.

No, I’m not going to tell you that you have to create a Facebook fan page or that you just totally have to use WordPress for your blog. I’m not saying that you need to get celebrities and other “influentials” to retweet you or to hire some social media gurus to get you thousands of fans. No, the two things you need to be successful in using social media are inexpensive and available to everyone, yet are very difficult to attain: loads of self-confidence and extreme self-awareness.

big finish

Are you confident in your abilities? Are are acutely aware of your strengths and weaknesses? You better be!

Seems pretty simple right? Be confident. Know your strengths and weaknesses. OK, that’s do-able. No expensive training to take, no conferences to attend, no certifications to go and get, no books to read – what’s so difficult about this again?

Well, here’s the thing – a lot of people SAY they have self-confidence and that they’re pretty self-aware, but you’re probably not one of them. Oh, you might be totally sure of yourself when you’re talking to the people in your office but what about when your audience isn’t your Luddite boss, but a conference room full of other social media “experts?” Hearing negative feedback from your boss is one thing, hearing “you suck!” from another blogger is another.

Self-confidence and self-awareness can’t be achieved just by reading, attending conferences, or subscribing to blogs – it actually takes some honest introspection and humility. For example, are you confident and self-aware enough to handle these situations?

  • You might be used to seeing your boss mark up that report you’ve been working on, but what are you going to do when hundreds of people pick apart your blog post? Can you listen to that feedback, internalize it, and adapt?
  • At the same time, are you confident enough in your writing and opinions to stand up for what you believe and defend it?
  • Are you comfortable having an argument with someone in front of thousands of people? Can you remain calm, cool, and collected in the face of immaturity and uninformed opinions?
  • What are you going to do when your first 2, 6, 8, or 10 blog posts get a total of 30 visits? Keep plugging away? Adapt your writing style? Quit?
  • It’s easy to be confident when you’re the expert in the room, but what happens when you’re in a room full of other social media experts? Are you confident enough in what you know and aware of what you don’t know to have actual conversations with the authors of the books and blogs you’ve been reading?
  • Remember that the brand on your business card may give you some instant credibility when you first start out, but are you ready to deal with both the good and the bad? What are you going to do when people start attacking you on your blog, Facebook, and Twitter because they have an issue not with you personally, but with your company?
  • I know your officemates loved that blog post you wrote on your intranet a few weeks ago, but you and I both know you just paraphrased a chapter out of Chris Brogan’s latest book and called it a blog post. Are you comfortable enough in your own skin to attribute that or would you let your colleagues think you’re the “thought leader” behind it?
  • Are you comfortable asking for help or do you view it as a sign of weakness?
  • You’ll meet people much much smarter than you, people with more experience than you. Are you humble enough to admit that and learn from them?
  • You’ll be wrong…a lot…and everyone will know it. How do you feel about that?
  • Do you have visions of being the next social media A-lister? If you do, tell me what you absolutely suck at. Is it video blogging? Is it recording podcasts? Is it editing your own posts? Managing your time? Regularly commenting on other people’s blogs? What areas of social media do you struggle with and why? If you can’t easily answer this question, go back to the top and start over. You’re not awesome at everything, trust me.

The answers to these questions can’t be found in a book or blog post. Even the so-called experts’ advice for how to deal with these situations will be all over the map.  The answers will be different for everyone, depending on their own strengths and weaknesses, and that’s kind of the point. Are you confident in what you know? Are you willing to admit what you don’t? Until you’re able to develop that self-confidence and self-awareness, you’ll always find yourself struggling with how to best use social media.

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Insulate Open Government Efforts From Budget Cuts

April 24, 2011

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Numbers And Finance

To be successful over the long-term, Open Government efforts can't be a separate line item on the balance sheet

With the recent news that several major Open Government efforts including USASpending.gov, Data.gov, and FedSpace may be shut down due to budget cuts and that the Pentagon has disbanded their social media office, many people in the #gov20 community started wondering if their social media, Gov 2.0 and Open Government programs might be next. People rushed to their dashboards to develop PowerPoint slides that illustrated the impact that their social media and open government efforts.

  • “We have 5,000 Facebook fans – an increase of 143% over last year!!”
  • “Our retweet % has increased by 45% since last month!”
  • “Half of our web traffic results from click-throughs on our Twitter posts!”
  • “Our Open Government site is one of the Top 5 most popular open government sites!”
  • “Our datasets have been downloaded more than 1,000 times this month!”

Here’s the thing – if you’re only using metrics like these, you’re probably next on the chopping block. While they may be impressive to you and to others in the #gov20 community, this approach only marginalizes the impact of open government, making it something that’s a nice-to-have instead of a must-have. Guess which one gets the money when budgets are tight? Social media and open government will only be successful over the long-term if and when it becomes integrated with larger organizational efforts.

The problem is that most open government initiatives have been stood up and led by separate teams – the social media office, the New Media Director, the Open Government Team – rather than by existing functions within the enterprise. This makes open government and/or social media a separate line item in the budget – something that can literally be crossed off on the balance sheet when budgets are tight.

Instead of bragging about having the best blog, open dataset, Facebook page, or Twitter account, try pointing to the impact you’ve had on other people’s ability to do their job. Five thousand Twitter followers don’t mean a whole lot to senior leadership, especially when they don’t even know what Twitter is. However, if the customer service department can point to a 20% increase in customer satisfaction because they’ve integrated Twitter into their processes, simply cutting “social media” becomes less of an option. Instead of pointing to how many times your open datasets have been downloaded, try showing how the number of FOIA requests your organization has received has declined because the data are now freely available.

If you want to ensure the long-term viability of your open government and social media efforts, you have to demonstrate the impact you’ve had on other areas of the organization and how you’ve saved them money and/or improved their performance. Cutting an “Open Government Team” is pretty easy if that’s the only reason for its existence. However, what if:

  • the FOIA team stepped up and said that if the the Open Government Team were cut, their budget would have to increase to handle the corresponding increase in FOIA requests;
  • the customer service team says that customer satisfaction has increased because they’re using the social media channels established by the Open Government Team;
  • the public affairs department can point to a 20% decrease in negative press because they’re using Twitter to engage proactively with the media;
  • that recruiting says that the number of recruits has increased by 22% since they started using Facebook;

To insulate your Open Government efforts, stop talking about Open Government and start talking about how your efforts have positively impacted other areas of your organization. Integrate your open government efforts into other parts of your organization instead of building your open government empire. It’s a lot easier to cut something that’s contained within one team than something that’s pervasive throughout the organization.

*Image courtesy of Flickr User KenTeegardin

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