Did OPM forget USAJobs was about jobs?

It is unusual to see a federal IT story that generates the kind of strong emotions that the USAJobs 3.0 launch has done in the past several weeks.

“We are frustrated as all get out,” posted a user on the USAJobs Facebook page on Oct. 13. “Can we please, pretty please, get the old system back!” a user added on Oct. 19. “Whoever thought this was a good idea should be fired!” was another post. “Instead of ‘Like’ it should be ‘Hate,’” wrote another on Oct. 20.

Bewilderment, frustration, anger and desperation — all have been expressed in user comments on Facebook and other websites since the Oct. 11 debut of the newly insourced system operating on Office of Personnel Management servers.

Message to OPM: This is about jobs, the No. 1 issue in the country right now. Did you forget that this IT project affects millions of Americans seeking jobs?

The problems have hurt job seekers. I am sure it has also been a stressful time for OPM executives and staffers, who have fielded thousands of requests for help and worked to identify and address the problems. Building and operating a job search website that serves millions of people is incredibly complex, and resources at federal agencies are limited.

But few IT programs can be deployed without some glitches, and one of the keys to managing a major launch is frequent, transparent, and responsive communication with users and the public. That is especially important when social media plays a prominent role.

As of this writing, the issues with the website were not fully resolved. And yet there are already some lessons to be learned in terms of what was communicated to the public when it became clear that OPM officials had a high-profile incident on their hands.

In the initial days after the launch, when hundreds of users were posting complaints on Facebook, OPM’s response was limited, and some expressed anger at the agency's lack of communication. Early news coverage indicated a troubling situation.

The situation reflected the power and public nature of social media, said Kevin Lane Skarritt, CEO of Flock Marketing.

“Individuals can now have as large a voice (or even larger) in the world than the brand/organization because of social media,” he said. “It is a flipping of the megaphone.”

A limited response to angry user comments can contribute to even more outrage.

“An agency needs to acknowledge and respond to negative posts and comments right away rather than dismiss or address and acknowledge [them] at a later time,” said Mirza Baig, social media strategist at IT World Canada. Otherwise, "the pent-up frustration simply amplifies and spreads [because] this is the very nature of Facebook as a social network."

These days, effective crisis response ideally means updating the public every two hours rather than the 12- or 24-hour updates that were acceptable in the years before social media existed, said Sandy Levine, a communications consultant in Olney, Md.

Although she had not analyzed OPM’s response specifically, Levine said it is advisable to “get out in front of the issue quickly” and be “very proactive in reaching out to the audience.”

OPM’s USAJobs Twitter account was also silent for long stretches during the first few days of the crisis, which some viewed as a lost opportunity to build support for the agency’s position.

“An organization needs to also build a strong network of supportive influencers who can spread your response in a positive light to their network to counter the negative comments and complaints that can hijack a crisis such as this,” Baig said.

Once OPM began responding consistently to a large share of the comments on Facebook, a number of users posted favorable remarks. “Thank you, you all have been so helpful,” wrote a user on Oct. 23.

“The responses are timely,” said Colleen Gareau, a public relations specialist in Toronto. “The responders identify themselves so it makes the process more human. The tone of the responses is friendly, and the responders avoid being pulled into political discussions. Only time will tell whether the pace of the responses can keep up.”

Let's hope the website can serve the job hunters’ needs. Those frustrated job seekers deserve our full attention.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Thu, Nov 10, 2011 Jerry Mississippi

People these days want smaller less expensive Government. Then when they get it(eg: USA Jobs) they complain. Careful what you wish for.

Thu, Nov 10, 2011 akcita DC

OPM cannot escape the fact that this was bad management from start to finish. An outsourced service that was very effective was replaced by someone who obviously thought keeping an in -House IT staff to support this would be cheaper. Sorry this is a HUGE user-base, and a major technical effort. I wonder what the real cost of this debacle is? Leaving it with Monster.com, or finding a competitor to reduce prices makes more sense than in-sourcing. I am betting we paid much more for this than continueing with Monster and are getting less. AlthoughN based on some press releases OPM is learning one of the tactics of technology companies, "Always, blame you failures on the customer...."

Wed, Nov 9, 2011 DON

I'm trying to be a frquent user of USAJOBS website, the older version,in laymen terms sucked as well as this one 3.0 USA Jobs, Here goes the Goverment tring to approach a fix all aproach to job applications, I was a frquent user of DONHR which was user friendly and I had more success in applying for jobs. I've been in the Goverment over 35yrs and I have seen things improve over time but not this time,it's a shame it's hindering good honest people the chance to secure a job Somebody in OPM needs to fix the mess that they have on their hands

Wed, Nov 9, 2011 Erica E Street

OPM was "surprised" because OPM doesn't have the experience in developing, deploying and operating enterprise-strength technology. Look how well we did with retirement systems! Three major multi-million dollar failures and many other false starts over 20 YEARS! The reason why Usajobs was contracted out to begin with was because OPM was a failure in operating it the first time! The reason why investigations is NOW successful is because OPM contracted it out. Are we going to turn around in 5 years and bring THAT back into government because we discover that performing security investigations is "inherently governmental?"

Wed, Nov 9, 2011 Larry DC

First of all, USAJOBS is about TAXPAYERS! They OWN the government, they PAY the salaries of the jobs, they are ENTITLED to an intuitive and easy-to-use site that can be navigated WITHOUT YouTube videos, FAQs, training, and thousands of help desk calls and emails. Show me the "training" for Google and point me to THEIR 24x7x365 helpdesk? I rest my case!

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