Government Has A Communications Problem First, Then A Web Problem

The dotgov reform effort should be lauded for trying to clean up, streamline and bring some customer-focused standards to the federal government’s web presence.  It’s a huge leap forward and passionate – and new – voices are emerging.

However, this effort’s objectives will never fully be realized unless agencies change the way communications – not just the web - are managed.

If customers are being told something different on the phone than what is on the web, does it matter if your website has a customer-focused information architecture? If your staff or industry leaders are telling your customers even more different information about your rules or regulations, does it matter if your open-source website has the same look and feel? If you are running social media accounts but have no idea whether they are helping you meet your program goals, should you be using them?

The Assigned Duty

Several have suggested we simply need more governance. However, grabbing a dozen or two dozen “other duties as assigned” staffers from various parts of the agency to “govern” essential communications channels is not an effective or efficient sustainable solution.

If digital channels – web, social media, mobile, apps - are really essential, high-priority tools for government, then developing strategy for how to use them effectively needs to be the assigned duty.  Let’s take a look at the groups currently involved:

  • Offices of Public Affairs handle media relations and publicists and are closely aligned with the politically appointed administrator or secretary. 
  • CIOs are – or at least should be – driven by the hardware, software, data, security, privacy and the tools. However, they’ve become the de facto owners of web strategy in numerous agencies.
  • Public Engagement or External Affairs is focused on stakeholders organizations – not necessarily the individual customer – and while incredible communicators, often do not understand web communications or new media.
  • Webmasters, in most cases, still serve mainly as the publishers —making sure that what they are sent gets put up somewhere. Many agencies have multiple webmasters spread loosely across all levels of the organization with each responsible for their “section” of the web.
  • Program Managers essentially touch all of the above and, in many cases, have their own webmasters and communicators.

Current governance models periodically assemble staff from these various groups and give the group a name. But expecting a patchwork of staffers with different motivations, different interests, different goals, different skill levels, and with different levels of authority to create a cohesive agency communications strategy as a “part-time” duty is difficult - and not sustainable.

The pace and quality of communications required by our customers – due to their increasing expectations about the ways they should be able to interact with their Government on the web – cannot be kept in a part-time model. Communications must be managed by a full-time matrixed organization.

And while many assume that being so close to the program and its customers is a communications benefit, the opposite tends to be true. Being able to take a step back “from the weeds” allows you to be more strategic in terms of tactics and allow you to scale your already limited resources.

An Argument for an Office of Communications

Every government agency – and just a handful currently do – needs a true Office of Communications. I suggest that this Office should be:

A multi-disciplinary, specialized group that designs, develops, implements and monitors the success of communications strategies across all communications channels – web, social media, newsletters, publications, phones, emails and “in real life” events —for priority messages and campaigns for the Agency.

The Office of Communications does not set an agency’s or program’s strategic goals – it creates a strategic communications plan that ensure messages, services and information gets amplified to the extent possible in the right channels, in the right way, and for right reasons.

For example, does the current assumption that an agency should only have one or a minimal amount of websites and platforms really make sense for a diverse customer base? The Office of Communications should be able to research and make an informative, research/data-driven answer instead of an arbitrary one.

Bringing strategists, researchers, content creators, editors, developers, public relations experts and designers together allows for a truly coordinated and integrated approach to communications that will maximize tactic’s impact.

The group will be:

  • Agile enough to send smaller teams to support high-profile project or initiatives and react to breaking news and emergencies—the equivalent of a communications “tiger team”
  • Large enough to tackle the massive task of modernizing communications tactics and objectives across the agency

The Office of Communications would be physically located together – to the extent possible – and report the highest level of the agency possible. It is essential that this office be given the authority to make real change.

This office could immediately begin to:

  • Refine and implement the agency web strategy and monitor its success
  • Create and implement a cross-promotion/engagement strategy for digital communications
  • Centralize and drive communications and web-related policy changes across agency
  • Recommend engagement and transparency tactics to all administrations
  • Attack and delete piles of antiquated web content
  • Map the customer experience and add related or useful links and contact information to web pages
  • Redevelop and repost any existing high-priority content to maximize usability
  • Recommend/create new content based on user demand from all channels
  • Drive consistency across non-digital and digital channels
  • Scour the web for violations of content/style standards – and/or create new standards
  • Advise and assign staff to develop an integrated approach to new or existing program campaigns

All of these tactics and activities would ultimately be included and serve as the foundational work required to create a truly integrated communications strategy – research, develop goals, implement tactics, measure to objectives, adjust and repeat.

Government agencies MUST invest resources is developing and building real communications goals and objectives instead of just trying to label and govern the tool and tactics.

Easy, Right?

We know that this type of reorganization and paradigm shift is a huge change — and won’t happen overnight. But we also do believe there are some ways that you can start to push towards this change quickly. Here are just a few:

  • Institutionalize the relationship between non-digital customer channels – phone, email, etc. – to get as close to real-time information about what people are calling about. Establish standards for collecting data on a weekly – if not daily – basis and share with the web team to add new content. People are calling and emailing because:
    • They can’t find you online
    • They can’t find what they’re looking for on your website,
    • Or your website is so frustrating, they simply gave up.
  • Establish a web team dedicated at least 90 percent to the internet – if not 100 percent – and not the intranet. I am not suggesting that internal communications go away by any means. But resources and priority are often given to improving federal intranet sites instead of public sites. This has to change now. Your public site needs to live and breathe to meet customer demand and improvements need to be daily. Ensure you have a talented communicator – not just web masters and developers – on that team.
  • Start a “Web SWAT Team” pilot. Select a “rockstar” communications expert, a designer, an innovative lawyer, and a developer and let them loose on your web site with minimal parameters other than “make our website better.” Give them 30 days to propose 30 changes. And then give them the authority and another 30 days to make those changes happen. The results will be amazing.