3 must-do's for agencies to improve citizen engagement

People have more ways than ever to contact the government; here’s how to make sure that’s a good thing

Just for fun, Candi Harrison sometimes picks a federal agency at random and sends the same question to its Web site, chat room, e-mail address and any other communications channel the organization might have.

Then Harrison, an instructor at the U.S. government’s Web Manager University and former Web manager at the Housing and Urban Development Department, marvels at how many different responses she gets.

“No matter how hard agencies may try, the different areas don’t communicate with each other,” she said.

That exercise might be edifying for a Web professional such as Harrison, but it can create mind-numbing frustration for people trying to locate a disability claim form or resolve a tax question April 15.


In this report:

3 must-do's to improve citizen engagement

The benefits of speaking with one voice

Getting help with online communications


The inability to share information and present a unified message through all communications outlets is a paradox given how easy it is to connect with government agencies these days. Choices range from the traditional — such as toll-free telephone numbers and interactive voice response (IVR) systems — to the nouveau traditional — such as e-mail, instant messaging and blogs — and the latest online social media, such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

But more communications alternatives don’t necessarily mean happier people: About 44 percent of people who contact federal agencies are disappointed by the service they receive, according to research conducted by Convergys, a vendor of customer relationship management applications.

Multiple communications channels can make it harder for agencies to consistently present their expertise. Poorly organized and overly segmented information systems can inhibit intra-agency collaboration. As a result, people are sent to multiple departments, sometimes without ever finding the information or services they’re seeking.

The General Services Administration is in the thick of such challenges. It oversees call centers, online chat rooms, social networking sites, and USA.gov and its Spanish-language counterpart GobiernoUSA.gov — two uber-sites with links to other government agencies. GSA logged nearly 245 million citizen interactions across all channels last year.

As part of its effort to improve services, GSA is creating a citizen engagement platform that collects best practices for internal use and distribution to other agencies.

“We’ve got to make sure that the frontline government agent can provide answers as fast as possible, and to do that, we’ve got to integrate content across agencies and across service delivery channels,” said David McClure, associate administrator at GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications.

The goal might be clear, but the solutions are far from easy. To create cohesive citizen engagement, government executives and consultants say agencies need a strong managerial hand. Here are their recommendations for getting started.

Action Item No. 1: Make internal collaboration someone’s job.

Cohesive communication begins at the top. Therefore, the first step is to appoint a senior manager to oversee activities and work across organizational boundaries, according to a report released last month by the Government Contact Center Council (G3C).

But consultants warn against giving that responsibility to the existing director of information technology or communications. Instead, the person should have agencywide clout and be able to lead a cross-functional team that draws members from IT, communications, records management and other areas, said Lisa Welchman, founding partner of WelchmanPierpoint, a Web operations management consultant.

One of the first tasks for that group is setting and enforcing agencywide policies for classifying information.

“Standards enable collaboration, and that requires people to represent their data in similar ways” for easy collection and dissemination, she said.

To do that, agencies need to create a taxonomy — an overarching framework for organizing and classifying information — and consistent guidelines for tagging information with descriptors that make it easy for content management systems to gather related data. Without those foundations in place, agencies will continue to rely on error-prone manual processes to make relevant data available to each of the communications channels.

Action Item No. 2: Understand what your constituents want.

Knowing the needs of constituents and their preferred ways of accessing information and services is crucial, according to G3C’s report.

The standard way to determine preferences in the commercial world is with market research studies, said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and author of a study that compares technology best practices in the private and public sectors.

Formal research studies might be prohibitively expensive for agencies with tight budgets, but economical alternatives exist. They include using online surveys that ask users to rate their experiences with receiving information or services from agencies.

USA.gov used such an approach to conduct an online dialogue about the effectiveness of the site. It garnered more than 200 comments.

“By actively reaching out and making sure that you know what your customers want, you don’t over-engineer or under-engineer the [communications] solution,” McClure said.

But avoid vague questions such as, “Tell us what you think,” said Richard Stapleton, deputy director of the Web Communications Division at the Health and Human Services Department.

“That’s too amorphous,” he said. Instead, he posts questions such as, “What’s one thing you would change to improve our Web site?”

Stapleton’s staff used public feedback to develop Flu.gov, an online clearinghouse of information on seasonal and pandemic influenza.

Agencies also might consider using software designed to help managers analyze user behavior by pooling activity data from IVR systems, Web sites, call centers and other sources. Companies often use such tools to gain insight into how their customers interact with various contact and service resources, said Ryan Pellet, a vice president at Convergys.

For example, a bank’s traffic patterns showed that customers were routinely calling the IVR system to confirm that transfers initiated on the Web site had safely landed in the right accounts. But because the phone system didn’t include a prompt for balance information, callers selected the option to speak with a live agent, an unnecessary expense of as much as $15 per call for routine information. The bank freed staff time and reduced costs by sending automated transaction confirmations via the Web site, Pellet said.

Even more important than how agencies solicit information is the diligence they show in responding to comments. Stapleton said few glitches fan citizen frustration more than unacknowledged feedback.

“There’s no point in asking for the information if you are just going to pat yourself on the back and say, ‘We’re interacting with the public now,’” he said.

Organizers of Flu.gov post responses to feedback even if the suggestions aren’t ultimately incorporated into the site, he added.

Action Item No. 3: Consider consolidation.

Some experts say they believe the best way to streamline communications is to significantly reduce the number of channels people must navigate for information and services.

An extreme example is the United Kingdom’s Directgov, which goes beyond being a Web links directory, such as USA.gov, to act as a central point of contact for government information and resources.

“People don’t really understand the difference between various agencies; they just want information or a particular service,” West said. Having a central destination means people don’t need to hunt for the right agency or department for their needs.

Directgov has already helped the United Kingdom eliminate hundreds of Web sites, which could save more than $600 million in the next three years. And the approach has at least one admirer on this side of the Atlantic.

“The beauty of it is you don’t get bounced to HUD or the VA or USDA or EPA for something to do with home ownership,” Harrison said. “It’s all right there in one place.”

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Reader comments

Tue, Feb 9, 2010 Doug Ward Washington, DC

Good suggestions. One thing that could help consolidation efforts at the agency level would be to integrate Chief Information Officers into the actual strategic planning of the agency. They are too often viewed solely as implementors. Cheers, Doug Ward http://www.opengovblog.us

Mon, Feb 8, 2010 Kevin Paschuck Herndon, VA

This article is spot on ... regarding #3 consolidation, USA.gov has implemented this approach with the "FAQ" tab by linking various agencies (SSA, Census, CMS, etc) knowledge together - most citizens are uncertain which agency is responsible and accountable for various information. USA.gov removes that uncertainty by linking the knowledge into one portal.

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