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Originally posted on Candi On Content

The initial drafts of federal agency plans to improve online customer service have been posted.  Agencies were asked to report on what’s happening currently, as the first step toward developing their plans; and I must say, the results are – well – disappointing.  If you want to know what’s wrong with government websites, just scan a few of these draft plans.  They’re all over the place.

In case you aren’t up to speed, the White House announced the .Gov Reform effort in early summer.  It emanates from the President’s Executive Order, “Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service” and the Campaign to Cut Waste.  Specifically, the .Gov Reform task force is inventorying government websites, assessing the status of web operations, and developing a governmentwide web strategy.  As part of this effort, agencies are to develop a “Web Improvement Plan that communicates their strategy for managing web resources more efficiently, improving online content, and enhancing the customer experience of Agency websites.”  These draft plans are the first step.

OK, take a look at these “plans” and see what you think.

I reviewed 14 Cabinet level agency reports and the White House web team report.  For the most part, these are very process-oriented.  Few mentioned overarching goals or a vision for online customer service.  The lack of consistency across government is quite apparent.  Look at their descriptions of “governance,” for example.  Several talked about budget procedures and technical requirements, without mentioning the who, what, and why of their governance structures.  Do they know what “governance” is?

Only a few (I counted 4) said they factor in usability testing to help them make sure they’re meeting customers’ needs.  While customer satisfaction surveys, statistics, email, and focus groups can help – and certainly should be part of the metrics agencies use to improve their sites – the number one way to make sure your website works is watching people use it.

And the biggest omission?  Customers.  Knowing them.  Listening to them.  Focusing strategies on their needs.

There are some bright spots.

  • Health and Human Services admits to having no strategy, but their thoughtful analysis of the problems makes me hopeful they’ll develop a strategy that really will improve customer service.
  • EPA is a winner, with its “One EPA” strategy to make web content consistent across the agency (and consistency is fundamental to great customer service).
  • Labor talked about using GSA’s “First Fridays”program to help them assess the usability of their website and make improvements.  Way to go!
  • Some of the large agencies, with many sub-agencies, are beginning to pull policies and procedures and people together to work toward – there it is again – consistency.

But on the whole, these “plans” tell me there’s much to do to improve the way the federal government is serving customers online.

So…a few suggestions.

First – to those of you outside government who value transparency and who care about making government customer service better: read these plans and then speak up about what you see.  Let the .Gov Task Force know what you think (Alycia Piazza is listed as the contact for more information about the effort).  Blog, Tweet, stir up discussion.  Let’s help the govies make online customer service better by pointing out where they can improve.

Second – to the .Gov Task Force:  These reports are a reality check.  I think the notion of “improving customer service” has not sunk in.  Maybe you should back up and help agencies get up to speed.  I’d bring in Gerry McGovern, who has worked with governments and top companies all over the world to improve online customer service, for a half day.  Put him in front of all the agency Directors of Communication, Directors of Public Affairs, CIOs, designated customer service officials, and top agency web managers.  Help them understand the principles of online customer service so they can set priorities and create strategies that really will change the way government serves its customers.  While the governmentwide web strategy you’re crafting should help get agencies on the same path, I think it’s important they’re doing it with a good understanding of the vision.

Third – to the Federal Web Managers Council:  I think you need to jump into this effort in a public way.  Soon.  This would be a great time for you folks to issue another white paper, laying out what these strategic plans could/should look like, or – at least – reintroduce your previous white papers.  The CIO Council is out there pushing.  You should be, too.  You’ve been talking about it for years.   You have a wonderful opportunity here.  Step up to the plate.

The recent National Dialog on Government Websites produced some terrific ideas and got a lot of people – inside and outside of government – excited about the possibilities of the .Gov Reform initiative.  But change starts with a commitment to improving customer service.  These plans do not reflect that commitment.  Fix that, and you’ll be on your way.