Using the bad to do good

Government Printing Office looks to learn from its mistakes to improve its programs

Davita Vance-Cooks’ e-mail messages contain a line that asks, “What can we do better? As a valued GPO customer, your feedback is truly appreciated. We want to hear from you about how we can better serve you.” Anyone receiving the message can click a button and fire back a comment.

“We get a lot of comments back,” said Vance-Cooks, deputy managing director of customer services at the Government Printing Office. GPO makes changes based on those comments.

The message accompanies every e-mail message that GPO’s 400 customer service employees send to agencies. GPO officials aren’t afraid of negative feedback.

“We need the bad news to make changes,” Vance-Cooks said. She recently added a performance metric to the message by promising to respond within two business days.

“If you’ve got a customer with a problem, you want to know about it,” said Bruce James, who retired in January as public printer and GPO’s chief executive officer. “If you don’t know about it, you can’t fix it.”

GPO has not announced a successor to James. William Turri, deputy public printer, is acting public printer.

The agency’s “What can we do better?” campaign to improve service to its principal customers — other federal agencies — reflects the agency’s broad approach to constituency outreach: Be transparent, open and proactive.

GPO’s aggressive strategy for gaining visibility for its programs began under James, a political appointee who arrived from the private sector in November 2002 with a mandate to transform GPO from an aging, factory operation outfit into a 21st-century digital publishing and distribution organization. Under James, GPO implemented a corporate-style executive structure and began using commercial marketing techniques.

Those techniques included a campaign to transform the way GPO’s constituents perceived the agency. Its constituents include federal agencies, federal depository libraries, Congress, the public and the press.

“The technical and business aspects of [moving GPO into the Digital Age] were fairly simple,” James said. “It didn’t take a genius to figure out where the future was going to be in information dissemination. But we couldn’t just sit back and develop a new set of services and new way of doing business and not do a good job of communicating that.”

Communicating GPO’s benefits to the public was an initial priority. “The public really had no conception of GPO at all,” James said. “People thought of us as [an agency that] did stationery.” But the real GPO, he said, distributes government documents to more than 1,250 libraries nationwide and makes about a quarter of a million titles available via its Web site, www.gpoaccess.gov.

Congress created GPO to ensure that citizens had access to government information, James said. “In the initial days, we did this through printing and distributing publications to libraries throughout the country so that citizens could review them. But with the advent of the Internet, that’s all changed. The objective now is to get everything we can up on the Internet so people can review it at their leisure, from their homes, schools, offices, airports, wherever they may be. A lot of what we have done is to help people understand that information is available to them, they don’t have to go to the library, they don’t have to buy the publication. The information is free and available.”

Taking phone calls
But the reason James had difficulty spreading that message wasn’t that GPO had an ineffective public relations office. The agency had no public relations at all when James became CEO.

In 2003, he hired Veronica Meter, a veteran TV news journalist, to direct GPO’s public relations operations. Before joining GPO, she had been executive producer of a 24-hour cable news station in Las Vegas.

“I decided that we couldn’t hide under the desk when the press called,” James said. “We actually had to take the phone calls.”

As a former journalist, Meter said she knows what journalists need to do their jobs. “I understand the tremendous pressure that journalists are under with deadlines,” she said. “You need information and you need it quickly.”

Meter developed a media kit, created succinct press release templates and organized a team to overhaul GPO’s Web site and make it more useful to the media. The site now contains a news section, management profiles, a photo gallery, a list of frequently asked questions, contact information and other tools for journalists. Reporters can contact GPO around the clock, Meter said.

The site is not only designed to help the media. It is also tailored to serve customer agencies, depository libraries and members of Congress, Meter said. It includes sections about the library system GPO Access, and customer services information for agencies.

The Web has become a vital component in GPO’s marketing efforts to federal agencies, Vance-Cooks said. Agency acquisition officials can, for example, go online and get detailed information about the particular GPO customer-service team assigned to their agency.

Vance-Cooks launched a take-charge, team-style approach to customer services marketing about three years ago when she came to GPO with 20 years’ experience in industry and a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University.

“The job of these teams is to make sure that they understand exactly what the mission and needs are of each agency,” Vance-Cooks said. “Then we try to develop products and services to meet those client needs.”

GPO expanded its outreach to depository libraries, largely to meet a growing demand for electronic publications.

“Tangible distribution was the focus when the [depository library] program was created,” said Ted Priebe, director of library planning and development at GPO. Now more than 90 percent of the content that GPO distributes is available electronically. The library community has said it wants electronic access to that digital information, Priebe said.

That need sent GPO searching for new tools, such as videoconferencing, distance learning and RSS feeds, to communicate with the library community.
GPO’s relations with Congress, which oversees the agency through the Joint Committee on Printing, have undergone a similar transformation. When James arrived at GPO, relations were strained.

“There was a whole history of rocky relationships between GPO and JCP, and that wasn’t going to get us anywhere,” James said. “We had to have Congress on the same page with us, so from the beginning, we had to understand how the oversight and appropriations committees wanted to communicate with us. We built that from the ground up with a whole new focus on how we do it.”

GPO officials deployed what they call a no-surprises approach, said Bob Tapella, GPO’s chief of staff.

“We are completely open and transparent with our oversight committee,” Tapella said. “A lot of agencies fear their oversight committees. They’re concerned because they don’t know what the oversight committee is going to be asking about. We don’t have that problem.”

The reason is that GPO keeps its oversight panel in the loop “pretty much on a daily basis,” Tapella said. “They know what’s going on so if they do have concerns, they are raised early on in the process and there’s no ‘oops.’ We get their feedback while we still have an opportunity to help guide programs and guide the agency.”

GPO’s openness strategy helps the agency avoid embarrassing snafus in its marketing efforts, Tapella said.

Meter said GPO’s campaign of openness applies to all its constituencies. “That’s how we run our business all over the agency, whether it’s [related to] the press, the public, the libraries, customers or Congress. If something is going on here, you’re going to know about it from us. We don’t like waiting for the phone to ring to be asked about something. We want to be the one telling you about it.”
What public agencies miss by skipping Marketing 101The practice of agencies using commercial marketing techniques to spotlight their programs is becoming more acceptable as the federal government searches for ways to operate more efficiently, effectively and transparently.

“Public agencies can benefit from bringing a more conscious marketing approach and mind-set to their mission, problem solving and outcomes,” Philip Kotler and Nancy Lee wrote in their 2007 book “Marketing in the Public Sector: A Roadmap for Improved Performance.”

“In the private sector, marketing’s mantra is customer value and satisfaction,” they wrote. In the public sector, it is citizen value and satisfaction.

The authors try to offset the negative image of marketing. Accepting the simplistic notion that marketing is another word for selling — or worse, manipulation — is to miss the power and benefits of marketing for government agencies, Kotler and Lee wrote.

“Not knowing marketing is tantamount to not doing market research; not defining one’s customers, partners and competitors; not segmenting, targeting and positioning one’s offerings of services; not managing the challenging process of innovating and launching new services; not recognizing new channels for distributing public services; not pricing these services correctly when the agency must recover some of its costs; and not communicating about them in clear, persuasive ways,” according to the book.
— Richard W. Walker

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