FCW Forum — Government 2.0

Know your audience

Agencies need a comprehensive open-government strategy to address the various users who visit their sites

As federal agencies work to address the Obama administration’s open-government and transparency initiatives, a disturbing trend is taking shape.

Often, the government’s approach to open government is to set up a Twitter or Facebook page and wait for users to come and do their thing. That strategy might work if you are a one-name government celebrity, and by my count, that list consists of Obama, Hillary and — well, OK — Kumar, aka Kal Penn. For the rest of the executive branch, there is no such name identity. A different approach is in order.

To succeed in creating a free-flowing information exchange that unleashes the potential of social networking, agencies must first do one very important thing: Know their audience. Too often, it seems, agencies try to communicate to their constituencies as if they were a single kind of user.

I count six types of users who visit government Web sites. A comprehensive open-government strategy must address each group’s special needs and interests.

1. Specifics seekers. It’s all about ME! This type of user is focused on a particular matter of interest only to himself or herself. Examples include passports, job searches and grant applications.

This is where the government gets its reputation for being a black hole. To counter that, agencies could include an online rapid-response mechanism for specific inquiries and a ratings system to allow users to comment on the service they received. Imagine if the Veterans Affairs Department allowed users to rate the service they received at VA hospitals. As a management tool, that is a far better way to learn about veterans’ experiences than seeing photos of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center on the pages of the Washington Post.

2. Underground wonks. These people — and you know who you are — watch both C-SPAN networks late into the night and are interested in following the movements of every government official and topic — the more obscure the better. Agencies can easily respond to this community by twittering updated schedules of the secretary and deputy secretary (subject to national security limits); hosting audio/video streams of public speeches, meetings and hearings; and setting up Flickr photo pages.

3. Pragmatics. This group has limited time and wants to get in and out quickly. They might have broad questions about government limits on hiring workers, say, or bidding on a contract, but many government Web sites leave them confused.

User-generated wikis or structured forums could address many of those topics. A government moderator can and should point to the official answer on the primary agency site, but many times the user-generated, unofficial information is more useful. For example, one user might comment: “Don’t bother calling the toll-free number. I kept getting voice mail with no return call. I did better to go in person, where they gave me the correct form, and I was finished in 10 minutes.”

4. Single-topic passionistas. This group is interested in a single agenda item but doesn’t have much interest in other parts of government. The topic could be the Obama health care initiative or the union card check bill, for example. This is where the Facebook model of like-minded communities makes the most sense. Agencies could post blogs to keep these users abreast of new developments in rulemaking and legislation. They could include a Google Trends app to show the number of recent searches, headlines and blog entries to give perspective on the topic’s relative importance in Washington, D.C.

5. Free-timers. My first government job was in a governor’s mailroom. We quickly identified certain correspondents as pen pals — mainly because they had lots of time on their hands. Online, this group has the potential to bog down the social Web with random, meandering and even hostile information. It is important to have a government moderator who is responsible for steering the conversation back on course and deleting hostile comments. A user-generated ratings system can help identify the most helpful, active members.

6. Government insiders. The final group, which includes Capitol Hill staffers and federal employees, can identify all the sub-agencies at the Health and Human Services Department and knows when each Commerce Department grant will be announced. As the government moves its Web sites to two-way participation with citizens, these insider voices must be fully engaged. They hold the knowledge of how the government operates day-to-day and should be strongly encouraged to share that knowledge via Web 2.0 tools.

About the Author

Keith Nelson is president of 2425 Group, a consulting and development firm aimed at improving government Web sites. He was formerly assistant secretary for administration at HUD and associate deputy secretary for management at the Labor Department.

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