Open Government, Social Media and CRM

The first point of contact between a business and its customers is increasingly a website, not a phone call or an in-person store visit. For government agencies, where store-like “walk-in” access is either difficult or unavailable — especially at the national level — improving customer contact through the Internet has become an essential, continuing goal.

Recently, hundreds of federal agency Web managers came together at the “2010 Government Web and New Media Conference” in Washington, D.C., to learn from each other, as well as from some high-powered private sector experts, ways to improve their presence on the Internet. In the course of the conference, it was apparent that the drive to improve government website performance involves many of the same issues facing the private sector in broad-based customer relationship management (CRM) objectives.

For example, just as corporations struggle with eliminating the “silo effect” of having different parts of a business address only one aspect of customer contact, such as billing from one department, and marketing and product delivery from another, federal agencies need to recognize that their individual agency identities are part of a broader enterprise: the government itself.

“Sometimes we need to step out of our agency boxes and look for sensible ways of doing things on a government-wide basis,” David McClure, associate administrator of the Office of Citizen Services at the General Services Administration, told conference attendees. “In the long run, they can make good business sense from a cost and efficiency basis, and make things better for the public in presenting one face.”

Obama Plan Sparks Webmeisters

While government Web operators have been collaborating for several years through the Federal Web Managers Council, this year’s conference took on greater significance in terms of moving to the next level of website achievement as a result of President Barack Obama’s “open government” initiative.

“Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public,” Obama said in a January 2009 memorandum. The directive called upon the federal chief technology officer, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the administrator of GSA to spearhead the initiative.

The presidential initiative also reinforced a November 2008 program launched by the Federal Web Managers Council for transforming online government, which emphasized using website communications as a core government business function.

In terms of developing open government policies, the administration’s emphasis over the past year has mirrored private sector CRM initiatives by more actively engaging customers and gaining feedback.

“We didn’t have an idea of what we were going to do up front,” Vivek Kundra, the administration’s federal chief information officer, said at the conference. “We started with turning that model around by saying we want to hear from people before we implemented these plans and then — after we heard from customers — the federal agencies and the general public — we would develop our plans,”

While Kundra did not present any specific quantitative results, he characterized the input and customer engagement process as “massive.”

Toward Open Government

In a report released at the conference, the Federal Web Managers Council listed several positive developments in meeting the open government and online improvement goals. Just as commercial firms have used the Internet first as a static electronic billboard, then as a more dynamic marketing and promotional mechanism, and then moved it to its current status as a customer engagement tool, so too have federal agencies moved to a greater level of customer functionality and service.

For example, by using Nielsen NetRatings, search feedback results from, and Gallup poll findings, a list of customer “top tasks” was created to provide focal points for improved Web access.

The idea was to create a better website working environment for the major tasks involved in contact between the public and the federal government. Those tasks included passport processing, Medicare and Medicaid assistance, student loan applications, veterans’ benefits, tax filing and disaster assistance.

The report gave a good sense of the direction being taken at the federal level to enhance customer experience through website contact. In the past year, 24 agencies opened online dialogues to give the public an easier way to voice opinions and share ideas. Agency representatives conducted 20 talks with leading social media providers such as Facebook, YouTube and Flickr, to teach agency personnel how to utilize those channels. The council, acting through GSA, created terms of service agreements with 30 providers to advance the use of social media, resulting in 179 agreements with 39 agencies.

To demonstrate the value of social media, Chris Bruzzo, vice president for brand, content and online at Starbucks, related how his firm capitalized on the new media.

Starbucks quickly reached the No. 1 brand on Facebook just 24 months after it adopted a policy to use social media as a way to get back in touch with customers. The company had foundered after its sensational success and needed a boost, Bruzzo told attendees.

Starbucks parlayed social feedback mechanisms under a program called “My Starbucks Idea” for soliciting customer ideas through channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Those ideas, plus the general “buzz” that resulted from the program, had a major impact on restoring revenue.

Customer engagement has moved from a marginal promotional tool to the focal point of company operations. The program “is now changing the way Starbucks goes to market,” in terms of new product development, Bruzzo said at the conference. He emphasized that whether an enterprise is public or private, improved customer engagement should be a top priority.

Also during the past year, the interagency council’s Web Manager University generated 10,000 registrants for classes dealing with a variety of Web functions, including enhanced use of social media. In addition, the council worked with the Office of Management and Budget to implement the federal Paperwork Reduction Act.

Website Content Challenge Ahead

Even with this progress, conference panelists and the Web managers’ council report both reflected more challenges ahead. In a dialogue with Kundra about the advantages of the open government initiative, Sheila Campbell, cochair of the council, noted that “one of the things we struggle with is pushing agencies to release more information” — while at the same time a lot of clutter accumulates on agency websites. The council’s report noted that in late 2008, the federal government managed 24,000 websites with a staggering amount of content.

Another customer relations challenge, according to the report, is the task of providing consistent responses to the public through all service channels, whether a call center or a website — a problem that also faces private businesses. Like so many businesses, measuring performance in terms of customer satisfaction remains elusive.

“The depth of research is dependent on the resources available at each agency, so those agencies with fewer resources are not able to measure as thoroughly as others,” the report notes. “This inconsistency makes it hard to provide government wide progress assessments.”

Kundra agreed that among the future challenges for IT services in government are resource management and content control.

One of his first tasks after joining the administration, he said, was dealing with government IT projects that were either over budget or far behind schedule. He initiated a program in which project managers come to the White House for short focus meetings designed to get projects back on track.

Addressing the content issue, Kundra noted that one of the “macro” trends in IT is that as a society, “in the next five years, we will create as much digital content as we have since the beginning of civilization.”

Making content available to the public through simple access mechanisms, including the growing use of mobile devices, will be a major challenge, he said.

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