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Upgrading .Gov to Appeal to Millennials

BY Michael Connery | Monday, April 6 2009

(Promoted to the front page -- Nancy)

There is a great article in The National Journal that deserves more attention: Ed.Gov's Tough Homework. The gist is this: young people are growing up in a world where technology turns over every couple of months, and the expectation is that online experiences will be both intuitive and interactive. Most websites using the .gov domain, however, are barely a step above BBS's in the lineage of the web. It's a problem of both design and functionality, the result of which are dashed expectations on the part of Millennials, and low traffic and usage rates on .gov sites.

It's never entirely graceful when the behemoths of the federal bureaucracy tiptoe into the online waters. The Department of Education, though, faces a number of challenges that other offices don't, not the least of which is attracting young people to a site ending in ".gov."

"The satisfaction someone has with a Web site is based on two things: what they're actually getting from that site, but also their expectations for it," said Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, which polls visitors to government sites. "When you think about their audience profile" at the Education Department, "their audience will have much higher expectations than someone going to a Medicare site or even an IRS site."

Read the rest of the article. It's pretty shocking. The Department of Education's web pages are painted as trailblazers (or at least front-line fighters) in this struggle to modernize the government's online presence, but it's not at all clear to me that they are successful or that their strategies are correct. Traffic on sites like College.gov are shockingly low (if the article is correct, the site garners barely more traffic than a state political blog), and attempts to connect with students on Facebook have proved fruitless (though execution seems somewhat half-hearted).

I think the crux of the problem is twofold: most young people don't know where, why, or when to visit a government site (except perhaps high-profile sites like Whitehouse.gov or IRS.gov), and when they do make their way onto a .gov website, many of those sites are extremely static and information dense. It's really hard to wade through all the links and figure out how to do anything useful on them (assuming you can do anything useful, which is a big "if," since many sites are barely beyond "brochure-ware"). That's probably why:

their most popular offerings remain what the E-Government Satisfaction Index refers to as "transactional sites," such as the FAFSA form, which allow users to complete a specific task instead of just looking up information. While Education sites as a whole scored 67 on the consumer satisfaction index, the FAFSA site netted an 88.

Social media, when used correctly, can help increase traffic and some of the functionality of these sites, but more than hopping on the latest tech trend, government websites demand a basic usability upgrade. Government techies need to determine what various departments can do for citizens (and conversely what citizens would like them to do for us), and develop a really clean intuitive design that actually walks people through those processes. It would be a nice cherry on top if we could also have personal data transfer from one agency to the other using a secure account linked to our SS# (imagine if I could pay my taxes on IRS.gov using a Turbo-Tax style interface, transfer all that data easily over to my FAFSA, and maybe apply for disaster relief or unemployment insurance should it become necessary with one easy account/interface accessible from any .gov domain).

Once those core problems of usability are solved, I could then easily think of probably a dozen ways or more to use social media as a distribution channel to reach out to Millennials where they are. Thinking specifically about the Department of Education's College.gov site, I would create Facebook, MySpace, MiGente and Black Planet accounts, all supported by targeted, in-site ads; targeted Google Ads in low-income communities where college attendance is low; Twitter and other microblogging services as a way to alert students to grant/loan opportunities and upcoming deadlines. . . etc. The possibilities are endless, but the sites must first become useful.

Expectations on Millennials to contribute major accomplishments to American civic life are high and growing. Our ability to interact with government (and faith in the reliability and quality of those interactions) will be a factor in our ability to live up to those expectations. I highly recommend this article, and commend the author for asking some good questions that I don't see anyone else exploring.

Those interested in this topic from an official/constituent perspective should check out the work that the New York State Senate CIO is doing to upgrade a state legislative branch for the 21st Century.

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