Tag Archives: opengov

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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Insulate Open Government Efforts From Budget Cuts

April 24, 2011

10 Comments

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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Reviewing the Year in Social Media Strategery

December 21, 2010

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Social Media Strategery has been around for more than two years now – much much longer than I ever thought I would be able to keep this blogging thing up. As one of my colleagues mentioned to me the other day, two years is an eternity in Internet time, and I’m grateful that I’m still somehow able to come up with posts that people enjoy and/or find useful in their everyday lives.  I’m even more grateful for all of you out there.  This year, you’ve continued to support me in my writing – subscribing, commenting, and sharing my experiences and thoughts with your communities and for that, I can’t thank you enough.

So for everyone who reads this blog regularly – whether you’re a subscriber, reader, commenter, critic, colleague, or friend – thank you, thank you, thank you.  Here are your top five most popular posts on Social Media Strategery from the past year:

  1. Identify the Right People to Manage Your Social Media Initiatives – this has been one of my most popular posts ever, receiving more than 3,500 page views, 26 comments, 400 retweets, and 71 Facebook shares, but more than that, it became a rallying cry for those of us who have grown tired of seeing the wrong people in our organizations get tasked with social media initiatives because of their position, regardless of their skills, experience, or personality.  Hopefully, this post also resulted in at least one or two leaders rethinking their staffing decisions.
  2. Six Villains of Gov 2.0 – One of the most light-hearted posts that I’ve done – this one generated a lot of interest not just because it was fun, but because I think many of us recognized and dealt with these villains before.
  3. I Started a Blog But No One Cared – A post from the very beginning of the year that has remained fairly popular throughout 2010. This post represented another example of people applying old rules to new media. Just because you’ve got a fancy title doesn’t mean anyone cares about what you have to say. Before, we just deleted your emails and you were none the wiser. In the world of social media though, content beats titles any day of the week.
  4. The “Getting Started with Gov 2.0” Guide – this post was borne entirely out of frustration. I grew tired of sending the same email out over and over again, so I created this post to serve as a resource to direct people to for the fundamentals on Gov 2.0. I can’t tell you how much time this post has saved me (and hopefully some of you) over the last year. Unfortunately, it’s now horribly out of date – looks like I need to create a “Getting Started with Gov 2.0” Guide – Redux post soon!
  5. Twenty Theses for Gov 2.0, Cluetrain Style – Amazingly, this post is now almost two years old (originally published in February 2009), yet it still gets fairly regular traffic. Enough traffic that it comes in as the fifth most popular post of 2010.  My favorite part of this post is that it yielded many of the key messages that guide my team’s work to this day – from “Social media is not about the technology but what the technology enables” to “Social media is not driven by the position, the title, or the department, it’s driven by the person.”

This blog was a lot of fun for me this year – I was able to write about some pretty important stuff, meet a lot of new people, and most importantly, help make some positive change in the world of social media and our government.  I’m looking forward to writing more, commenting more, and connecting more in 2011 – I hope you’ll all continue to be a part of that for at least 365 more days :).

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