Bev Godwin: Serving on the front line of e-gov

Her job is to make government accessible by adopting the latest Web multimedia technologies

Bev Godwin asks her kids for help with her homework. As director of operations at FirstGov, the federal government’s official home page and search portal, her homework is to keep up with the latest new media technologies. Her two children and two stepchildren, ages 18 to 21, communicate almost exclusively using new media, such as instant messaging programs.

“If you want to talk to us, you’ve got to be on IM,” they tell her. “E-mail is for old people.”

Godwin listens to her children, which is one reason why next year FirstGov plans to offer a trial program of live chats to answer people’s questions. That’s just a hint of what is coming on FirstGov, Godwin said.

“We are looking into what it would take to go mobile from a technical standpoint,” she said. The Web site already offers a podcast library, RSS feeds and e-mail alerts that inform people when their favorite government Web pages are updated. FirstGov will soon add Spanish RSS feeds — information in Spanish that is formatted for specialized distribution on the Web.

By the end of the year, anyone will be able to use FirstGov to search NASA’s and the National Park Service’s photo libraries. In a later project, FirstGov plans to create a video library.

No wonder her kids ask, “Do you get paid to play on the Internet all day?”

A significant portion of her job involves checking the content on the government’s 40 million Web pages to ensure that all of it is accurate and up to date. FirstGov is an around-the-clock operation in which hyperlinks are reported broken daily and the public’s questions never stop.

Another portion of Godwin’s job is strategic planning. She arranges focus groups, examines the results of usability tests and identifies gaps in FirstGov’s coverage to ensure that the site meets diverse needs.

“Our primary audience is the American public,” Godwin said. “But what does that mean? How many are kids? How many are teenagers? Teens don’t think they need anything.” But, she added, they do need information about government services if they want to get a driver’s license, register to vote or apply for a college loan.

To gain as complete a picture as possible of what FirstGov should offer, Godwin consults with federal Web managers. She is on the Executive Steering Committee of the Interagency Committee on Government Information, and she leads the interagency Web Managers Advisory Council. She learns from those groups more about what the public wants from FirstGov, and she shares market research with them.

In response to feedback from teachers and librarians, for example, FirstGov is developing online tutorials to help students and patrons use the portal. When e-mail inquiries to FirstGov show a spike in questions about differences between a state and a territory, it almost certainly means a social studies class is studying the topic, Godwin said. “We’ll get 30 of those in a day, and we know that a teacher has given the assignment and given FirstGov as a resource.”

A colleague who worked with Godwin on an interagency Web project in the mid-1990s remembers her as a visionary. “Everything we were doing in the Web world was new,” said Candi Harrison, a former Web manager at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We were and still are running against executives — career and political — who still just don’t get it.”

Godwin’s boss, Teresa Nasif, director of the General Services Administration’s Federal Citizen Information Center, said Godwin is well-suited for her e-government role. “She’s the citizens’ advocate,” Nasif said.

Godwin also possesses valuable management skills, Nasif said. “She can see a project in its entirety and then break it down into manageable chunks and delegate it to the right people.”

The Bev Godwin fileCurrent position: Director of operations for FirstGov.

Career highlights: Joined the Department of Health and Human Services in 1982. She later served as deputy director at the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. When Inktomi co-founder Eric Brewer donated a search engine to the federal government in 2000, Godwin was asked to organize topical categories for a governmentwide portal. Shortly afterward, she transferred to the General Services Administration to help develop FirstGov.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University and a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Michigan. Recognition and awards: Vice President’s Hammer Award for Reinventing Government in 2000. GSA Smooth Operator Award for public service following the Department of Veterans Affairs data security incident in May.

Career highlight: When FirstGov won Harvard University’s 2003 Innovations in American Government Award. “When we won that, I really did have tears in my eyes,” Godwin said. Proudest personal achievement: Bringing up two children as a single mother. Godwin’s first husband died of cancer when their sons were 3 and 4 years old. “That puts your life in perspective,” she said. “Being widowed young, [you learn] that not everything is a life-or-death situation.”

Activities: Travel, kayaking, jet skiing, spending time with family and friends and “figuring out what the best college care package is.”

Favorite Web sites at the moment: Technorati (www.technorati.com) and Google Blog Search (blogsearch.google.com) for her research on blogs, which might become a new feature of FirstGov.

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