Online chats: Talk of the town

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the White House may be among the few places in the federal government where officials hold online chats with the public on a regular basis, utilizing a form of communication that is cheap and handy.

Each agency has a different focus and objective for online chats. But officials at both agencies said they have found chats to be a worthwhile, if unusual, way of communicating with citizens.

"We did the first one in April, and we're very pleased with the response," said Richard Maulsby, director of public affairs at USPTO.

White House Internet news director Jimmy Orr said online chats have worked so well for the Bush administration that he thinks members of Congress, governors and foreign leaders should hold online chats. "They owe it to their constituents," he said.

So why is it that few federal agencies have started online chat forums? A chat session gives citizens an opportunity to type questions and submit them via the Web to government officials who, in turn, reply and post the answers on the Web. Off-the-shelf chat software is easily available.

New research suggests that citizens are open to using the Internet to get their questions answered or to handle their government business. But the role of tools such as online chats for e-government is still unexplored territory, said John Horrigan, senior research specialist at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit research group that studies the impact of the Internet on society.

"The government needs to study not only how people contact government but also how different means of contact may complement one another," Horrigan said. One example, he said, might be to use an online chat to help citizens navigate a Web site interface. One of the most valuable types of online chat — round-the-clock, one-on-one citizen assistance — is also the most difficult for government to deliver, said Darrell West, professor of political science and public policy at Brown University.

Governments have been slow to incorporate interactive technologies into their Web sites because it involves a different orientation, West said. "Government officials are really trained to answer the phone and deal with people who walk in the office," he said. "Essentially, you have to retrain people for electronic life."

At least five states, however, have adjusted to the change. Utah, Virginia, Arkansas, Maine and Ohio offer online chats with state customer service representatives. Citizens gain access to the chat services from those states' Web sites. Utah's service is the only one available around the clock. The other states offer online chat service during business hours.

But they are the exceptions. For most government agencies, West said, a perpetually live chat service is a tall order. "People don't want to work nights and weekends," he said, adding that "sometimes there are labor contracts that prevent or make it difficult."

After experimenting with different audiences, USPTO officials use online chats mainly to reach independent inventors, whose patents are not already assigned to a corporation, university or government agency. "It's using e-government in a very targeted kind of way," Maulsby said.

Independent inventors, who represent about 18 percent of U.S. inventors, have special needs, he said. Many of them have not yet signed contracts with a licensed patent agent or patent attorney. They often are the target of scams by companies that promise to help them get patents for their inventions, when in fact all the companies offer is "a bunch of hooey," Maulsby said.

White House officials seek a broader audience for their online chats. "Here's a real opportunity for people to interact with the administration in a way that's never been done before," Orr said. Online chats, he added, "are a big part of our communications strategy right now."

In the late 1990s, USPTO officials held a few experimental online chats. Some were internal chats that gave employees a chance to ask agency officials questions on topics such as working from home. The agency also tried online chats for a public audience, but patent agents and attorneys tended to dominate the question-and-answer forums.

After a hiatus of several years, USPTO officials resumed online chats in April. They had observed how many people at the agency's annual independent inventors' conference attended sessions where they could pose questions to USPTO trademark experts and supervisory patent examiners. The current online chats are an extension of those popular sessions, Maulsby said.

The Bush administration began its "Ask the White House" chats in April 2003 at the urging of White House chief of staff Andrew Card, who is known for typing his own responses and for staying online for up to an hour.

White House officials, who target a broader audience than USPTO, draw

experts for online chats from the policy side of the executive office. Treasury Secretary John Snow and Commerce Secretary Don Evans have answered questions online from the public, as have many other senior

executives.

Orr said he encourages senior policy officials to answer negative questions along with the rest, for good reason. "If they don't, and people see [the chat] as propaganda, they're not going to come to it," he said.

But policy chats are not the biggest draw. "There is a heck of a lot of traffic when the White House chef — Walter Scheib — goes on, when the White House photo director goes on or when the White House curator goes on," Orr said. "There is an enormous amount of interest in the personal side of the White House."

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