USA.gov: What analytics can tell us about the American mind

When people think of trailblazing online customer service, they usually think of Amazon and Netflix. When the topic is online engagement, they look to Facebook and Twitter.

The federal government is not yet thought of as being in those elite ranks, but its online mission is no less compelling. The evolution of Web 2.0 technology is creating unprecedented opportunities for federal agencies to engage with their customers, giving them access to a treasure trove of information and helping them develop a new generation of services.

In her more than 10 years of working in various jobs at the General Services Administration, Bev Godwin has been right in the thick of things.

She has been director of the Federal Citizen Information Center in GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies since January. Previously, she was director of GSA’s main federal Web portal, USA.gov, and of Web best practices for 10 years and spent six months detailed to the White House's Office of New Media in 2009. Her previous jobs include serving as deputy director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government from 1993 to 2000.

USA.gov — which predates Amazon, Netflix and many other online ventures — now gets 55 million visits a year. So to talk with Godwin about Web 2.0 is to talk with someone who has lived it every day for as long as anyone else.

Godwin recently spoke with staff writer Alice Lipowicz about how the agency is capitalizing on its opportunities to connect with citizens and her advice for others who want to make a career of public service.

FCW: What's new at the Federal Citizen Information Center?

Godwin: The FCIC is alive and well and providing citizens with access to more than 600 federal publications. As part of a broader .gov reform effort, we consolidated the FCIC website and five other websites (including Info.gov and ConsumerAction.gov) to the new Publications.USA.gov portal, which is part of USA.gov.

The five websites had more Web pages separately but less traffic and brand recognition. By bringing them into USA.gov, we can leverage its 54 percent brand recognition. USA.gov is the strongest brand we have.

For 40 years, the FCIC was sending out hard copies of federal publications. Now we are moving to digitized versions. You can still order printed publications, but now you can also download them. It is an exciting project, and we have more than 600 books digitized to date, which we made available in the last month. We are working on making them available in various e-book formats.

We are seeing a lot of response. We saw a huge increase in people looking at the publications online.

Another result we have seen is our content has become more popular in search engines. If you search for a sample consumer complaint letter on Google, the form from our consumer action site on USA.gov comes up as the No. 1 search result. That is an example of how powerful it is to consolidate.

FCW: What other tools are you using to improve services to the public?

Godwin: We have been using social media to help us accomplish our mission. Along with e-mail, websites and chat, we are using social tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

GSA was the first federal agency to go on Tumblr, another popular platform, which is used for blogging and blog-sharing. Several other agencies — including the State Department, Peace Corps and National Archives — have followed. We’ve been very happy with the amount of users and the vivid nature of people sharing blogs. In our seven months on Tumblr, we have seen traffic to the Blog.USA.gov site go up by 40 percent.

We are beginning to use images to provide information: It is images as content, not decoration. That includes infographics but also photos by themselves, and NASA is doing a lot of that. We are also looking to ensure accessibility under the Section 508 rules, to make sure content is tagged and can work with things like screen readers and mobility aids.

We recently held a contest on Challenge.gov to invite the public to make how-to videos to promote our FAQs on USA.gov. They covered things like how to get a Social Security card or how to change your address with federal agencies.

FCW: What is the big picture on federal customer service?

Godwin: I love the broad purview of seeing what the public cares about. I look at things like Web search terms and 1-800 information queries and I see the same issues pop up — driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, passports — but also the immediate issues, such as the Middle East, mobile devices and immigration.

We get 55 million visits a year to USA.gov. That is a large sample of the population. We have more analytics than you can imagine: Web analytics, Google, social media tools, USA.gov search trends and more.

We generate analytics with our own URL shortener, which under our partnership with bitly keeps the .gov within the shortened URL. It gives us an enormous amount of data to see what people care about and what they are sharing. We held a Hackathon Day to use that URL data to create useful things. Even with that, we haven’t begun to realize the full potential of USA.gov in terms of analytics on what is on the American mind.

The data is so powerful and drives what you do. We also work with the Web Managers Roundtable, which has government, industry and nonprofit representatives. And we are looking into geographical location features, such as on Foursquare.

Through our analytics, we saw GSA hit a major milestone this year in citizen touchpoints, which are all the ways we interact with citizens, including hits on USA.gov, searches, orders, downloads, phone calls and text messages.

In fiscal 2010, GSA had 181 million touchpoints. For fiscal 2011, we set very aggressive goal of 250 million. We just hit 272 million citizen touchpoints for fiscal 2011, as of Sept. 30. That is an enormous accomplishment that everyone can be proud of.

FCW: How is your office dealing with budget pressures?

Godwin: In IT, one of the challenges is planning two years in advance. We always try to get flexibility because you have no idea what will be happening in two years. Overall, we have been doing more with less.

FCW: You have been in public service for more than 20 years. What advice would you give to others?

Godwin: Find a place where you can stretch, where you can innovate and try new things. Don’t try to do things alone. Collaborate with your colleagues — in your agency and across agencies, levels of government and nations — to learn best practices for doing things in government.

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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Reader comments

Thu, Jan 12, 2012

I love Microsoft. By why is the government paying for USA.gov when all it does is repackage the results of a Bing search?

Sat, Nov 19, 2011

What, exactly, is a "touchpoint?" And how does that measure usefulness, or success? These "analytics" seem pretty sketchy to me.

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