In speaking with a number of government Web managers and corresponding vendors recently, I have been asked a lot about why government Web sites and new media efforts are so “poor.” My first response generally is what do you mean by poor and I have been told things like “You can’t find anything on the site” or “The tweets are a mismatch of junk” or “The blog is filled with government speak that few understand” among many others. I then explain that it is most likely because they didn’t build a solid foundation before they started.
When it comes to a successful digital government effort, most Web Managers and New Media Chief’s don’t really think about what kind of foundation they are putting in place. Most are content to jump right in, putting up a Web site, starting a blog, allowing employees to tweet, etc. I am an advocate of open and transparent government, but jumping in like this with out some forethought and cornerstones for continued design and evolution is like building the proverbial house on sand – it won’t stand for long.
Note that I am using the term channel because whether it is a Web site, a twitter stream, a blog, or a Facebook page these three aspects of a foundation are applicable across all.
What constitutes a solid foundation for a digital effort? Three things – content, function, and brand.
- Content. Content is what your constituents want to know and what you want them to know by interacting with you on this channel. Who ever first said content is king was right. Citizens come to your Web sites, read your blog entries, watch your You Tube videos, and follow you on twitter because they are expecting to get content from you.
- Function. Function is what your constituents want to accomplish in this channel and what you want them to accomplish in this channel. Right now most of this is limited to the Web, but expect this to change in the near future as function follows content into other channels. Whether it is the ability to purchase postage, check your social security earnings, check on the status of your tax refund, or make a reservation at a campground online, constituents want and should be able to do more online.
- Brand. Brand is the impression you leave them with and yes the government has a brand. Just check the public perception scores of the National Park Service (NPS) against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). We have all heard the similar stories about the horrific experience Aunt Jane had with the bureaucratic red tape she had to wade through in order to collect her pension or Social Security. As much as I wish these were urban myths, unfortunately most are not. The type of experience you provide across channels will impact the image of your agency and the government as a whole.
Each of these things is one aspect of the interaction between you and your constituency. And like any relationship, there are two sides to each. There may be content or functionality that your constituents want but you are not able to provide yet. If it is something they really want (you should know this based upon the persona research you have done) and you can’t provide it then make the effort to explain why you can’t and if it will be provided in the future.
The Bottom Line: Check and see how solid the foundation of your digital relationship is. Repair where necessary.