Citizen engagement is part science and part art. Agencies increasingly crunch user data and A/B test site designs, yet truly connecting with end users requires skills and mindsets that can remain elusive.
On Feb. 22, FCW gathered a cross-section of citizen engagement experts to explore what’s working, where the obstacles persist and what to expect during the Trump administration.
The discussion was on the record but not for individual attribution. Here's what the participants had to say:
First, use analytics to help define the user
As analytics take hold across government, agencies are learning how to tease citizens’ intent out of all that data. Several participants said social media has been essential to bringing that picture into sharper focus.
Daniel J. Chenok
IBM Center for the Business of Government
Recreation.gov Program Manager
Consumer Engagement Product Team Lead
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Lead UX Designer, USAJobs
Office of Personnel Management
Internet Services Manager
Office of Communications
Director of Online Engagement, Operations and Media
Internal Revenue Service
Digital Service Specialist
Small Business Administration
Rosetta C. Lue
Department of Veterans Affairs
Public Affairs Specialist
U.S. Forest Service
Government Customer Experience Lead
General Services Administration
Evagelia Emily Tavoulareas
VA Digital Service
Department of Veterans Affairs
Acting Executive Director, 18F
General Services Administration
Note: IBM sponsored the roundtable gathering. The discussion was led by FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider, and this recap is strictly an editorial product. Neither IBM nor any of the roundtable participants had input beyond their Feb. 22 comments.
"I’ve run my agency’s website since 1995,” one official said, and until recently basic page views were the central statistic, though not a very informative one. “OK, you’ve got page views,” he said. “We know this particular web page got looked at a lot, but what did people do with it?”
By monitoring social media, the official said, agencies can finally begin to answer that question. “For as long as we’ve been trying to figure out, ‘How do we engage people?’ now we can,” he said. “We can actually see it.”
Yet that data on its own is of limited value, other participants noted. Too many agencies don’t think enough about who really needs their services, and they define their customer as simply “the taxpayer” or “the American people.”
“It could be the entire U.S. population,” one participant said, “but when you really think hard about who you’re serving, you need to do some kind of segmentation and then really understand their specific needs.”
That’s true even when the target audience — veterans or students, for instance — is clear, others said.
Engagement, one participant said, "is ultimately about access. I think of it simply as part and parcel of providing services better to the public. In order to do that, you have to know who they are, and you have to engage with them and have a two-way rapport rather than a one-way transactional relationship.”
That requires more than simply listening, another official said. “Business process re-engineering is a huge part of this, identifying the root cause,” she said. “If I told you about a problem yesterday, if you continue to do it, then you’re not listening. If we begin to show that we are engaged, we are changing, you’ll see their expectations and satisfaction are off the charts.”
Yet “there is only so much of that, I would posture, that can be done remotely,” the official added. “You have to look people in the eye.” She did note, however, that social media “really helps us drive down and point us in the right direction.”
“Analytics prove value,” another official said. “They also prove the risks. You should be treating everything on a spectrum from real, hard ethnographic research to hardcore data around how you’re supposed to be evaluating it. It’s not going to be obvious which ones you do and when. It’s going to be based on your product vision and where you are in shaping that product vision.”
Second, assemble the right team
True engagement requires more than focus groups and user-centered design, the participants agreed. Sites and systems must be built, deployed and rapidly iterated — no easy task given traditional acquisition approaches, rigid security standards and ingrained agency habits.
Agile development has been essential to addressing those challenges, the roundtable participants agreed — not only because it allows for rapid changes as feedback comes in, but also because it pulls in outside specialists who might otherwise create obstacles and instead gets them focused on solutions.
“We had a revelation with one of our contracting officers who had helped with several of our procurements,” one official recalled. “She did not understand agile until a two-week sprint development process, [when] she came and sat in all of the meetings, saw the team work, saw the product owner change priorities on the fly in a sprint planning session.”
“That was kind of like baseball,” he added. “If someone writes the rules of baseball down and you read them, you will not understand how baseball works. You have to go watch a baseball game.”
Similarly, several participants said, bringing acquisition and security specialists onto the team helps the developers and designers see things differently. “When we talk about acquisitions and security as barriers to good products, that misses the point,” one official said. “If we can stop treating acquisitions as a thing to be avoided and [the Federal Information Security Modernization Act] as a thing to be avoided but instead as necessary conditions to be successful and to create guidance by which you can [go] faster...that’s the world that we want to live in. We’re not there, but it’s fundamentally a world that we need to move toward.”
Building such expert teams is easier said than done, the participants acknowledged. One talked about his agency’s goal of bringing a procurement specialist into the CIO’s office, "whose only task is strategy and technology procurement strategy, and that’s their job 100 percent of the time.” But that is not a discrete role at most agencies, he said, and there’s not a federal job classification that fits it — even though such a person would “be a tremendous force multiplier.”
Expert teams also are far more practical than trying to staff every agency program with leading-edge digital talent. “You’re not going to see, ‘Go find 20,000 awesome engineers and designers and just fix all the problems,’” one participant said, prompting laughter and nods around the table. “It’s just not a thing. If it were a thing, it would be done by now. The government has the ability to do that sort of work. But, really, we need to invest in people, in teams, again.”
The group agreed, however, that the model of highly technical teams deployed from the top has challenges of its own. The government might not need thousands of Google-grade engineers, but it does need more than it has. Agencies must have the right experts in the room, one speaker said, and “we may not have the experts who are on the cutting edge of what’s happening in the technology world right now.”
“If you’re trying to build a digital service here,” she added, “and then that person is not available to whoever needs [him or her], you’ve just thrown up another roadblock.”
Don’t call it a rescue
Digital services teams can come with another risk: reinforcing the idea that they have “special privileges that allow them to operate in different ways” and that only newly imported coders can effect change.
One agency leader shared a story of how 18F and the U.S. Digital Service “came to our rescue” — a framing that caused the participants who hailed from those groups to bristle.
“The way that I approach it, and I know that the team approaches it, is that the heroes have been in the government all along,” one such speaker said. “We didn’t rescue you. Developers, designers and product managers are doing a role that needs to exist within the government, but it’s not like a rescue.”
He added that those teams now make it a point to invest “a little bit of extra time to sort of pave the road behind us so the next people don’t have to do a workaround. If Policy X is the challenge, then fix Policy X as you’re going through the process.”
Another participant with a USDS background agreed. “The narrative of Silicon Valley, Stanford kids coming in and saving the day is fun, but it’s really not accurate,” she said. “If that was a solution, then we’d be good. We’d just hire a bunch of those people and, ta-da, everything’s fixed. But the truth is we’re talking about this highly complex organization where there is no one entity that is going to fix the whole thing.”
The all-important ‘air cover’
The group’s general consensus was that citizen engagement and the digital teams to make it possible are now more valued across agencies than just a few years ago. Although there are certainly still pockets of skepticism, participants voiced optimism about what lies ahead.
The first step, one participant said, is simply getting leaders to recognize the gap in technical expertise. Few agency executives, he noted, would be “making decisions on economic policy or foreign policy in any way without the expert on economics and finance at the table. We’re making it clear to leadership that technology is no longer this fun, extra, shiny, nice-to-have thing. It’s the spinal cord of the way we operate.”
So far, most participants said, the new political leaders of their agencies seem to get it. “We had immediate, tremendous support and buy-in from the new politicals, who are very much into serving the end user,” one said. “That’s all they care about.”
"I would echo that,” another said. “Times of transition, no matter what kinds of transition it is, are always a little unnerving. But the experience, so far, has been incredible support for just doubling down on making sure that the agency is delivering effectively and efficiently.”
Even at agencies where huge policy shifts are expected, speakers said, the results-oriented nature of citizen engagement can resonate. “For us, I think it’s too early to tell, but we’re optimistic for two reasons,” one participant said. “One is our business-driven culture, and the other is one party.”
“It’s one party now, so you don’t have a reason to be at odds about moving forward,” that official continued. “Whatever the path is, they want to go forward. We’re seeing some good signs.”