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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