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Why Isn't the Citizen-Customer Being Served?

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, April 29 2010

At a January White House summit on modernizing government, President Obama asked why the federal government seems to often lag far behind the rest of the world when it comes to people's ability to get what they want and need online. "If you can book dinner on OpenTable," wondered Obama, "or a flight on Southwest or United online, then why shouldn't you be able to make an appointment at your local Social Security office the same way?" He went on, before a crowd that included customer service maestros like Craigslist's Craig Newmark and executives from Yelp assembled in the basement of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. "If you can track your UPS package with your iPhone, then why not be able to check the status of your citizenship application on a website, rather than having to write a letter, and wait for a letter back?"

Well, why can't we? Why isn't the Social Security office more like OpenTable.com, the Department of Homeland Security more like UPS.com? To approach it from a slightly different angle, why did yesterday's post on FEMA's new mobile site seem to produce, to generalize, a split reaction along government/non-government lines? Government types said, "Neat!" Citizens not employed by government seemed to react more along the lines of "Nice, but this is a big deal?" Why is that? What is it that people toiling inside government are seeing about the way government relates to the that makes incremental steps take on outsized importance? What is the path from where government is when it comes to online "customer" service to where the President, at least, wants the country to be?

One place to find answers: this morning's release of a new progress report on the state of online government from the Federal Web Managers Council (pdf).

A landmark 2008 report from the same group, called "Putting Citizens First: Transforming Online Government," (pdf) took a snapshot of web government, back before the days, even, of the White House's Open Government Directive. What's changed, what hasn't, and what needs to? "While many agencies," reads the report, naming several, including USDA, the Defense Department, and the Department of Justice, "have made great progress to identify and improve their top customer task, the U.S. Government still has a lot of work to do."

In 2010 as in 2008, the inter-agency group of federal web professionals finds that not enough attention is placed in figuring out what it is that citizens want or need to do when they come to a .gov site, and how to help them do it. These "top tasks" aren't always transactional, as simple as reserving a table or checking up on the status of an application. They could run more along the lines of, for example, getting the latest in agency thinking and research on climate change.

Again, the question returns: why can't the federal government do what every dot-com and major corporation has figured out, how to serve their customers? There is, of course, one underlying truth. The federal government of the United States is huge, its missions diverse, and audiences often very numerous. But the web managers' report homes on other specific issues that they call to be placed front and center.

For one thing, government hasn't, in many cases, accepted the idea that online is very, very important. "Web communications is not yet managed as a core business function throughout the federal government," is how the report phrases it. There's no natural niche in the government hierarchy, suggests the report, for people whose job it is to fill up the ever-increasing number of websites in the federal universe. In some agencies, suggests a member of the council, a content creator might have to be hired as a "program analyst."

Not enough focus is placed on producing good, solid, web-usable content throughout government; thus the push for the plain language movement. Not enough attention is paid to divining what it is that citizen-customers want from government, whether that means checking Google search data, as the White House did in one memorable incident, or tuning into Twitter to see what people are curious about during tax season. Useful information if you're the IRS. There are bright spots, to be sure, in how agencies are taking cues from the world around them to shape what it is they do online; to wit, TSA had a Thanksgiving-time blog post answering what Blogger Bob said was the most asked question at the TSA contact center. And yes, you can bring pies aboard airplanes, providing that you send them through the metal detectors first.

Of course, the major event in the web government world in the interim between the '08 Federal Web Managers Council report and this update is the White House's issuance of its Open Government Directive. As it applies to customer service, some inside government suggest that while "many OGD requirements (like online dialogues and Open Government webpages) fall squarely on the shoulders of agency web teams" without the allocation, in many cases, of extra resources, the OGD can be an ally in the fight to create achieve better citizen service online. The trick might be to use the requirements that, for example, call on agencies to provide high-quality data to the public to figure out just what it is that the public is particularly interested in getting from an agency.

There are other potential tricks for those in government to make use of. Lacking funding, focus, and, in some cases, the institutional authority or sway to make change happen, web professionals and their allies in government can carve out more manageable pieces of the web to tackle. In some ways, the FCC has gone this route, segmenting off their important and timely work on broadband from the troubled FCC.gov and giving it its own, brand-new home on Broadband.gov.

In other cases, solutions might be found in cross-agency sharing information, vetted information, best practices, and tools, whether that's through the new Apps.gov or through in-person brainstorming sessions like the 2010 Government Web and New Media Conference that brought what organizers say was about 500 web professionals from state, local, and federal government to the Renaissance Hotel in Washington yesterday and the day before. You can check out video from the sessions here, and the full report here. I've tried to hit some of the highlights here, but it really is chock full of good stuff.

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