Agencies plan marketing blitz

The Bush administration's e-government initiatives will be going public in a big way this summer with the launch of a major marketing and promotional effort for the FirstGov government portal.

Millions of people are already using the growing number of e-government services agencies are offering, as demonstrated by the increasing number of visitors to cross-agency portals such as Regulations.gov and GovBenefits. gov, developed as part of the e-government initiatives.

However, many people are still not accessing the government online, as shown in a poll conducted during the past few months by Hart-Teeter Research.

"FirstGov is not a household name, that's for sure; and that would be the objective," said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive officer of the Council for Excellence in Government, at the release of the poll results April 14.

Security and privacy concerns are partially to blame, but there are also far too many who simply do not know that e-government services are available or cannot find them, said Dave McClure, vice president of e-government for the council, which sponsored the poll.

"That's sort of ironic given all the portals that are in place," he said. "But there's obviously take-up room that could be impacted by some marketing."

The administration's new marketing campaign — which will include television, print and possibly radio ads — is intended to raise general awareness of available e-government services and will stress that it is often easier to conduct transactions online, said M.J. Jameson, associate commissioner of the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Communications, which oversees FirstGov. GSA received $875,000 in its fiscal 2003 budget specifically for its FirstGov marketing effort.

The Bush administration's goal for FirstGov has always been to provide central access to all government services, ensuring that citizens do not have to know what agency, or even what level of government, to go to. The agencies in charge of individual initiatives have their own marketing strategies to bring users to their portals, but general citizen access to all of the services is intended to go through FirstGov.

Those individual agencies and initiatives have been doing marketing, some more than others.

Internal Revenue Service officials, trying to raise the number of citizens filing their taxes online, are quite proud of their efforts to market the electronic filing options and the new Free File initiative. The agency worked hard in recent years to put together a marketing strategy based on research about what citizens wanted and how they wanted to find it, said Terry Lutes, director of the Electronic Tax Administration.

The Social Security Administration is "gently" marketing through its existing channels, making sure that people who go to any of their 1,400 offices around the country or use the call centers are aware of the SSA Web site, said Tom Hughes, chief information officer at the agency. Officials are then tracking usage of the SSA site and changes in that use, so that they can adapt services to better meet citizen needs and therefore encourage even more use.

"I don't think people are inherently wanting to deal with the government," Hughes said. "So we're in this phase of being able to show citizens we can provide value on the Internet."

Already the initiatives that are up and running have moved to a common branding strategy: the "e-gov — my government, my terms" logo that is now seen everywhere. And that has helped draw them together, Jameson said.

But so far the majority of the e-government promotion has been one-time announcements or efforts targeted at specific users. As a result, the Office of Citizen Services and Communications, working with the e-government portfolio managers at the Office of Management and Budget, is getting ready to launch a national marketing campaign to show citizens across the country what is available online from the government, Jameson said.

Agencies have "saturated circles of audiences really well, but it's a rifle approach. Now's the time to get the shotgun and try the shotgun approach, because we've got to hit a wide swath," she said. "We're talking a different level."

Until recently, marketing on a broad level was not truly necessary or even a good thing, because e-government isn't fully mature and is just reaching a point where the services will be useful for citizens, according to Paul Brubaker, former deputy CIO at the Defense Department and currently a partner at ICG Government.

"We've done half the job, but we haven't done a particularly good job at marketing these initiatives," said Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census, at a luncheon April 8 sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management. "Getting them up and online is only the beginning."

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