SSA's CIO Baitman tells of lessons learned from video contest

Contest received only 10 entries, but it taught lessons

Although the Social Security Administration’s first public video contest drew in a disappointingly low number of entries last year, SSA CIO Frank Baitman said he's confident the lessons learned from that experience are paying off.

The SSA started the video competition with hopes of generating widespread interest, but fewer than 10 entries were received, Baitman said at a FedScoop conference on citizen engagement and open government May 11.

Although the entries were high in quality, the small number of submissions fell far short of what was desired, he said.

Related story:

Low participation in an SSA video contest is latest in a lackluster series

“We did not succeed,” Baitman said. “We tried, we stumbled and we learned. The mantra is that if you try something new, it is inevitable at some point that you will fail, and that is OK. If your heart is in the right place, you will learn. But if you do not try, you will not move forward.”

Baitman said there were four lessons learned from the video contest:

  • Engaging the public is difficult. Even with a large number of customers -- 57 million Social Security recipients -- it can't be assumed that a large percentage would engage in any particular contest or project.
  • The SSA published the winning video on its website, but notoriety apparently was not enough to attract entrants. Lack of prize money for the video contest likely was a factor in limiting participation.
  • The contest asked participants to share their personal stories about receiving Social Security benefits. In retrospect, although the stories shared were powerful and emotional, it was not appropriate for a competition, Baitman asked, “How do you compare stories to say which one is better?”
  • The video contest, while worthwhile, did not advance innovation and problem solving at the SSA.

Baitman said the lessons are being applied to current open government projects, including creating a webinar posted on YouTube and an application development contest to create better accessibility for disabled people for SSA information on the Web.

The webinar, “Social Security: What’s In It For Me?,” was designed to educate young people about Social Security, to help them become interested and invested in the program, he said.

The SSA hired a public affairs specialist to produce the 14-minute video, which features electronic music. “We got half a million hits on a website, 75 universities signing up to offer viewings and 4,000 people viewing it,” Baitman said. On YouTube, the video has gotten 1,200 views.

The SSA used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube extensively to publicize the webinar. “We have learned that in a time of austere budgets, social media is your best friend," Baitman said. "It is a great way to reach people."

The SSA is preparing to launch a public contest to develop an open-source tool to automatically convert Microsoft Word and Adobe PDFs into formats that are easily used by document readers for people with visual impairments. Currently, those file conversions are done manually, Baitman said.

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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