Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Surprise! Gov 2.0 is about the people

Here is what we learned at Gov 2.0 LA: It's about the people.

Yes. Social media is about the people.

That's the easy part.

The more difficult part is figuring out which people on which topics in which way and who gets to decide how the game is played. Each government department and program has a mandate, a target audience, and certain objectives it is trying to meet. But in the social media world, you don't get to define your community or to direct the conversation. For government, that is scary.

It may be scary, but it isn't new. There have always been conversations about government that it doesn't control. There have always been people criticizing its policies, its programs and its procedures. They did it through the media, letters to the editor, by contacting their elected officials, by venting to their friends or screaming from the rooftops.

The difference now, with social media, is that the government is starting to open some doors that may provide people with the opportunity to engage the bureaucracy directly and to comment on their own home turf. I say *may* and I say it cautiously because what I've seen from government so far via social media is mostly one way communications followed by “talk to the hand”.

That is an unacceptable approach to social media. Social media is not social if it involves one way communications. Social media is not social if it involves the towers of power spewing one-liners onto the Internet, but not listening to the reaction and certainly not responding to the questions. But will people forgive the government? At Gov 2.0 LA, some attendees thought that if the government is honest with people about being a relative social media newbie that the public may give it a break...for a bit...while it gets its feet wet and figures out how to interact.

But this is not a free pass forever. The government has to get out there and try to be social. It may require taking new risks, it may require new policies, it may require creating new types of positions (community managers maybe, but at least people with a mix of government public relations training and social media savvy), it may require inviting the public to criticize the government publicly on its own turf (like the EPA) or another friendly moderated turf (as U.S. Government officials and politicians have been invited to speak with women at blogher.com), but it has to happen. People will make mistakes. That is inevitable. But it is an awful lot better than the much bigger mistake of being an anti-social participant in social media.

There is a lot of work to be done on that front, but I do think it is possible. What worries me more is that the current approach we are taking to social media may create a situation similar to the fragmented Web experience that existed prior to Government On-Line (I'm dating myself) and that still exists to some extent today. I worry that once the government says “we are here and we are listening” that people will not know where to direct their comments, which may result in them being directed to the wrong place. Will each bureaucrat participating in social media on behalf of the government have not only the responsibility of engaging their own community on their own issues, but also have to act as a broker, directing people and their comments to the right place? Will people expect a no wrong door approach to social media or will they take the time to figure out where to direct their comments?

I was encouraged to learn about some services like GovLuv and SeeClickFix being developed to act as a broker and try to direct feedback and concerns to the right place. I hope that these will pick up and take off in Canada too. Many Canadians are engaged and ready to talk to the government. Now we just need to ensure that the door is open because opening those doors will not only meet people's expectations of how you're supposed to act in social media, but it may also provide a cure for voter apathy and sense of powerlessness among Canadians. This may be what is required to mobilize youth, women, and other underrepresented communities and get them interested in politics and in government.

To read some of the great insights coming out of Gov 2.0 LA, check out:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Can the government do social media?

I've had the opportunity recently to both participate in and follow a number of government departments that are dabbling in social media. The question that invariably comes from those who have been in government for a while is:

So who approves your tweets?

...or some other similar question.

The bureaucracy and its communications machine has traditionally been a fortress. While politicians and political aides get to take risks here and there and are sometimes unceremoniously shown the door for their mistakes, bureaucrats are both kept from and protected from ever being able to say or do something that may embarrass the government. Bureaucrats who want to communicate with the public need to go through layers and layers of approvals.

But does that work in the social media world?

Not so much. If a tweet, a blog post, a facebook update, a LinkedIn connection or otherwise had to be approved by senior staff in three different branches and possibly multiple departments before it saw the light of day, it wouldn't be very social, would it?

But still people ask: who approves that?

I think the solution to ensuring that the use of social media in government remains agile is to consider it service delivery, not communications. When front line staff, whether in-person, by e-mail or on the phones, are dealing with the public, they are governed by their training and a set of guidelines that sets out what they can and cannot do. They are expected to use that training and those guidelines to the best of their ability to provide the highest quality of service possible.

I think that in the vast majority of cases, social media should be treated the same way. Sure, it is a communications channel, but it is a channel that is used to serve the public. To put information in their hands when they need it. To respond to their questions. To meet them where they are. To interact. To connect.

That won't happen in the fortress of government communications. But in the world of government service delivery, perhaps it has a fighting chance.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

How did you improve your Web site this week?

Many people think that designing a Web site is a point in time activity. Sure, content may be added over time, but it gets added to the same Web site structure, same design, same labels. But if your organizational priorities have changed, if your clients needs are shifting, or if your content has grown or changed, then your Web site needs to change to reflect that too.

- What are clients looking for and not finding on your Web site?
- What search terms bring clients to your site?
- What messages do you need to push to your stakeholders?
- Which sections of your Web site have grown the most in the past year?
- Which content is visited most often? Least often?
- Which links are used on the home page? Which ones are not?
- Are you creating content that is of no value to your clients?

To answer these questions and more, you should have a defined research framework in place to guide your site. Contact us to learn more about developing and implementing a research framework for your Web site.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Why is the Minister's picture on the home page?

In the hey day of Government On-Line, most government departments became Web savvy enough to know that users do not want to see a picture of the Minister on the home page. It doesn't help them with the tasks that they came to the Web site to perform and it doesn't get them the information they need quickly. This is common sense and I have also seen the proof by analyzing Web metrics and search logs for numerous government departments. People are not searching for the Minister's name. People are not clicking on the Minister's name or the Minister's picture.

But now, under the Conservative government, pictures of Ministers are all the rage again. But why? Is it because the Conservative government isn't Web savvy and is making a big faux pas? Perhaps, but maybe not.

Usability expert Gerry McGovern conducted a study in 2007 that looked at how client-centric or organization-centric government Web sites in several countries were. Having the Minister's picture on the home page was one of the organization centric features, as is using the Web site to talk about your 5 year plan rather than using it to implement it.

Back to our current conservative government and their love of having the Minister's picture on the home page. Why are they doing it? I don't think it is just ignorance of client needs. There is more to it than that. People do not know the faces of the Conservative ministers. This is a new government with lots of new blood. There will be an election sometime soon, and they want more visibility for their core team.

We don't want to view advertisements when we're watching TV. And we don't want to see pictures of Ministers on government home pages. But if advertisers and the Conservative Party of Canada are trying to etch images into our minds, we aren't likely to be rid of either one any time soon.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The intersection between organizational goals and client needs

Most Web sites are organization centric. They use terminology and information structures that reflect the way the organization does its business. Just like it is wrong to assume that your party guests want to sit through your vacation pictures, it is also wrong to assume that users are going to find an organization-centric Web site useful. Perhaps a few of them will - those that know you best - but most will not be interested.

Luckily, there seems to be increasing recognition of the need to be client-centric.

In some organizations though the advocates for client-centricity are going too far. They will use client research as an argument for stretching the organization’s mandate, perhaps at the cost of not achieving the organization’s goals and objectives. Doing everything a client wants can water down what you do, spread resources too thin, and prevent you from meeting your objectives.

So how can organizations become more client centric while not losing sight of their mandate and objectives? First, recognize that your mandate should drive what you do, but your client drives how you deliver it. Second, understand that you cannot be all things to all people - focus on the 80/20 rule by delivering the 20% of content that 80% of your clients are looking for and doing it really well.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Don't be fooled by that research

If you have a conclusion, chances are you can find some research to support that conclusion. Or, if not, it should be fairly straightforward to design a research project that will tell you want you to hear. I am being slightly facetious and know that most people do not do this on purpose, however, it is easy to be fooled by unintentional research bias.

Reputable research firms will do everything possible to reduce bias in the sample and questions that are used. However, even the best designed research projects still have some level of bias. Since most organizations have limited research budgets, most research projects end up being imperfect.

To overcome this, I would suggest always seeking out a variety of different research sources before making a decision. If you are making changes to your Web site, look at your metrics and what similar Web sites are doing in addition to analyzing your usability research findings. Also, don't forget to think creatively. Don't be afraid to innovate. Research may be great at suggesting ways to tweak what you are doing, but it is not usually the source of great "Eureka" moments.

Yes, research is important. Just be cautious and don't take it at face value.