7 Ideas on White House’s Project MyGov

One of the new Presidential Innovation Fellows project is Project MyGov:

Reimagining the relationship between the federal government and its citizens through an online footprint developed not just for the people, but also by the people. myGov will rapidly prototype a streamlined and intuitive system for presenting information and accepting feedback around the needs of citizens.

I have a lot of ideas on the topic so I thought I’d use my Friday afternoon to write my 7 ideas on Project MyGov:

1) Think Me-gov vs We-gov – I’m a huge fan of Scott’s “Me-Gov” concept (yes I’m biased as we work together) but I think too often we focus on theoretical “engagement” of the ideal collaborative citizens instead of improving the “Me Government” services that affect most Americans every day: from road closure updates that inform citizens to use alternate routes to severe weather alerts that notify the public to seek safe shelter.

Think of your sister, cousin, father – do they really want to engage in government? Or do they want to quickly get information they need on the services that impact their lives (recall information for a toy, how to renew the passport)? Or simply get the transaction with government done as quickly and easily as possible (renew online, quickly do their taxes)?


2) Optimize the Big Traffic

Most agencies have 3-5 big tasks that get almost all of the website traffic. Find what those are in each agency and across government (usa.gov has a good list – theirs includes jobs, grants, list of agencies) and prioritize how that information is experienced. Once people land on those pages, how are we presenting other information that is relevant to them? How are we signing them up to a recurring relation (such as Facebook, email, etc)? How are we leaving them feeling excited about the process?

See how utah.gov presents information on one of their big tasks (drivers license) – its great to see the services available, key forms, and ways to engage (phone #, application)

3) Search Search Search – When citizens need information, by far #1 they go to google and not to a government website – they search for h1n1 information, passport renewal, product recalls. If you want to improve how most citizens get information, make sure all information is getting in search the right way (luckily gov’t has an advantage as google loves .gov urls). And then optimize those pages like crazy to present the key information

4) Show Related Information

If you buy at amazon, it shows other recommended products. If you read any story atCNN, you see recommended stories from across CNN as well as across the web. This is an awesome presentation layer government lacks. If via search, you ask about H1N1 and get to the H1N1 CDC page it would be amazing if at the bottom, it showed other related links from CDC on the topic and on the other column related information across government websites.

There are a couple companies like Outbrain that already do this (that’s what CNN uses to the left) that could be leverage or government could create their own Outbrain style network to recommend content “From around government” section instead of “From around the web”

5) Don’t iGoogle – Over the last decade, there’s been a lot of talk of having one citizen account with all their services. While it makes sense, that trend has failed on the web with one clear example beingiGoogle closing lately. Also you can talk to government website creators like NIC and CivicPlus who have similar functionality but my gut says while sounds good in theory, most people just aren’t that motivated to created “a citizen profile” – they just want their problem solved (pay taxes, renew license, get passport info)

6) Easy to Share/Embed Government Information

The great part about government websites is unlike media it doesn’t matter how many page views we get – all we want is people to consumer our great info. So instead of just focusing on making sure people get to our website – make it easier for others to embed our great government information. Government has had luck with widgets before (EPA on Oil Spill).

How about continuing that idea with something like Quora’s embed feature where you can easily take government information on a site and embed it elsewhere. It is already legally allowable but people have to do it by scraping or cutting/paste. Much like sites like Slideshare/Scribd have made it easy for journalists to include documents it would be great if it was easy for non-profits, journalists, website owners to quickly embed key gov’t info on topics.

7) What Feedback Does Government Want

One of the pieces of myGov is to “accepting feedback around the needs of citizens.” There are already tons of feedback channels being used by government from Foresee which provides surveys of government websites (pop-up to left) to sites like Ideascale/Spigit/MindMixer/Uservoice where citizens can submit suggestions to WeThePeople for petition submissions to blog comments at TSA’s Blog.

The question would be – what feedback does government want that it is not getting? And why is it not getting it? Is it because of lack of promotion, lack of a social reason to provide feedback, too high burden of effort.

Also I would think – do we want feedback on information? Feedback on service delivery? And how are we going to incorporate the feedback (often the biggest problem)?

There’s my 7 ideas (and I haven’t even gotten into some of the basics like plain language) – what’s your idea?

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Profile Photo Chris Cairns

#1: You know what I want from “Me-Gov.” I want a service where I can update a street address change centrally and that service then updates subscriber records (such as a credit card company). #4: Some sort of Outbrain capability is a great idea. #6: Love the idea of a stackoverflow for government.

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Profile Photo Peter Sperry

Coordinate with state and local government so the user can be quickly referred to the appropriate service provider based on their zip code. The average citizen often views “government” as monolithic and wastes hours searching the wrong web sites when their problem could be solved quickly and easily if they were dealing with the correct jurisdiction.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Peter – I like that idea. Got any specific examples?

You can also do that by IP address as well.

My friend Chris Bennett actually built a cool site on gov’t data where put in a zip code and see fed/state/local govt information – govlive.com – hopefully some of that code and thinking can be leveraged

Also I think there’s times when you want related fed/state/local info (like a Hurrican where you want FEMA, State Emergency Mgmt, Local) and there’s times where it’s not really relevant to bring all the services together. So I’d optimize those points where want all 3 levels of info (hurricanes, business permitting, etc)

I think #4 show related information may be the best way to do it. Instead of spending a lot of time creating one-stop of all the info, optimize the related information (so if at one page on Hurricane Irene you get referred to related content).

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Profile Photo Scott Burns

Steve- I’m hugely biased toward any entry that references a blog post from me, but this is really good stuff. As you point out, it is so hard for those of us who are perpetually aware of the role of government to “get over it,” and focus on what most people really care about. My mother was on a school board for many years and when we first launched GovDelivery back in 2000 she said, “You’ll know this new technology is really working when it helps get new people involved instead of just helping the people already coming to every meeting and following every issue stay even more on top of things.”

So, you’ve captured that perspective pretty well.

My only add would be that “Government” is not a corporation with a single brand and a single role. Many of the people who look at this “portal” / “MeGov” concept think there is some holy grail where you put government under one brand and create this more robust relationship. That would be like putting “Business” under one brand.

The challenge is that mission and audience for each agency is so different than for the others that efforts to brand them more holistically will always fail because it is like trying to brand Citibank and Coke and the Gap under one umbrella. People do not develop a direct connection with the government, it is with their local park, a particular program/benefit, their kids school, a specific regulator in their industry, a provider of research they need to do their job, etc. To further complicate things, an individual who wants information from Social Security might want to request it as a citizen while gathering health information anonymously and business information under work contact information. By working to hard to make a relationship “citizencentric” sometimes we run into the fact that the Citizen wants a few different relationships with government rather than just one.

If the goal of this project is to, “rapidly prototype a streamlined and intuitive system for presenting information and accepting feedback around the needs of citizens” that should facilitate a citizen driven design process. We just need to make sure that, where possible, we’re looking at how most citizens are really using government information and connecting with government rather than making it easy for a few “Gov 2.0 nerds” (of which I’m one) to provide feedback on what they want.

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Profile Photo Chris Bennett

There’s one problem with Steve’s 7 ideas – he’s being far too modest. They’re not “ideas,” they’re requirements for MyGov to be a success.

Steve is the expert on this topic and has learned from numerous eGov/Gov2.0 initiatives what will work and what will fail.

If you don’t believe Steve, believe me. I learned these lessons through not one but three failed government startups that I founded, bright-eyed and optimistic fresh out of Harvard’s Technology and Innovation program. These startups represent millions of dollars and years of my time before getting it right on the fourth try, so I’m all-in on this topic as well.

Quick recap: (1) OneStorm – interactive family hurricane planning, from which Ready.gov, RedCross.org and numerous state and local governments used as a model for preparedness and information dissemination; (2) America’s Emergency Network – connecting government offices to the public and media to transmit live video broadcasts; (3) GovLive – largest real-time aggregator of official government news and social media releases, connecting citizens to important and interesting information (we also did cool things like this).

My Top 3 Requirements (not Ideas)

Connect people quickly to what they want – when you Google a restaurant name, how frustrating is it when you can’t find their location, hours and menu? In line with the Me-Gov concept, a local government site that quickly enables me to pay my utility bill or find out trash collection holidays is immensely more valuable than a socially-engaging one. Don’t kid yourself here – the majority of government sites still fail miserably at usable access to basic information, so winning at that alone would be a huge success.

Focus on “pain-points” above “problems” – a page from my experience, one would think that citizen preparedness would be a major problem and opportunity post-911 and Katrina, and you’re right, it is a problem… but not a pain-point. When St. Pete was in Tropical Storm Isaac’s cone this Saturday, my neighbors were out buying PopTarts and beer (trivia: Wal-Mart’s #1 and #2 sellers), not Googling their evacuation zones or checklists for actual supplies they may need. Keep this in mind for any government tech initiative. Are we solving a pain-point that the general public (even your mother) really cares about? As Steve observed, people aren’t clamoring for an citizen-government version of iGoogle (people weren’t even clamoring for an iGoogle of Google!).

Fail-fast, keep it stupid-simple and copy from the bestOn failing: Focus on doing one thing really well that people will love and you will be successful. It’s fine to start with 3 or 4 ideas, but regardless of how pretty or innovative they all are, quickly narrow it down to one. On simplicity: if you haven’t in awhile, create a new Twitter or Tumblr account and post something new. Holy crap that’s easy, but it wasn’t at all by accident. How can you design My Gov to be that simple? On copying: Related to simplicity, don’t reinvent the wheel. Which wildly-successful service out there collects or presents information in a similar way to the goals of your project? Accomplish your own unique goals, but don’t be afraid to copy the experience that will get you there fastest.

My Related Blog Posts (since it’s been awhile!)

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Profile Photo Michael Ashford

(Sorry this is so long, I just care very deeply about this topic)…

I think at the heart of a lot of these next generation eGov initiatives are two things: access to data and processes (transparency) and the trend toward a more direct democracy (citizen sourcing). There are certainly sub-points to each of these – things like social media-like interactivity and enhanced search capability, among others – but nearly all of the trends we’re seeing at CivicPlus are directed towards these two things (transparency and citizen sourcing).

With transparency – which government has misused so much that it’s a cliché rather than an initiative – it’s about taking the day-to-day of our elected officials and government staff and exposing it all to the public in as close to real-time as possible. Processes, data, answers, information… transparency covers it all. It’s so much more than the ability to submit a FOIA request… it’s having that constant access to data (especially localized for my neighborhood, region, city, county, state, etc.), have it cross-referenced and searchable so that follow-up questions are easily answered as well, and then being able to easily share that information with others. I think what the City of Austin has done with their financial systems is a huge step in the right direction: https://www.ci.austin.tx.us/financeonline/finance/index.cfm

And as for citizen sourcing, this often scares government officials. The idea of letting citizens have access to a government website to post their thoughts, ideas, feedback, etc. – and then allow other citizens to vote on those ideas and converse with each other about them – is enough to have even the most seasoned government employee break out in a cold sweat. However, there are people within every community that have phenomenal ideas, but because of the everyday constraints of life, they cannot participate in government in the traditional way. In the government space, the most successful citizen sourcing initiatives first and foremost frame the conversation and the topic in a positive light rather than opening it up for a random citizen free-for-all. Allow citizens to be part of constructive conversation, and invite them into the process from the beginning, and the results will serve you well. Look at what Castle Rock, CO, did when they planned their new park in town: http://crgov.com/communityvoice

Steve made a great point in his post above when he said, “Think of your sister, cousin, father – do they really want to engage in government?” That’s the question a lot of government staff and elected officials have, and that’s where a lot of apprehension comes from when digital civic engagement ideas are discussed. And it stems from our past in that the only times a lot of governments have ever experienced active citizen engagement, it’s been a negative issue or an outlet for anger.

I think the goal should be – and it’s certainly our goal at CivicPlus – is to find the ways that citizens actually want to positively interact and engage with their government outside of the transactional realm. Yes, convenient bill payment methods and ways to easily apply for a permit are great, but do those things really help improve the quality of life of a community? Probably not. The goal of active citizen engagement – especially at a digital level – should be intentional and positive in its attempt to involve the citizens for the betterment of the community. Helping plan a new park through online “ideation” tools, allowing citizens to vote on agenda items so that elected officials can get a more direct pulse of their citizens’ wants and needs, hosting an e-Town Hall where citizens can engage with government officials and staff from the comfort of their home or office, and yet still affect change within their community.

I would say above all, with any next gen eGov idea, if it’s passive, it only leads to a realization of fears…because the only citizens speaking up are the ones that are upset to the point that they find an avenue to release their anger and frustration. Active digital citizen engagement encourages positive interaction, giving citizens a voice to drive innovation and change for the better.

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Profile Photo Chris Bennett

Michael, I think you and CivicPlus do great work, but to respond to your comment:

I think the goal should be – and it’s certainly our goal at CivicPlus – is to find the ways that citizens actually want to positively interact and engage with their government outside of the transactional realm. Yes, convenient bill payment methods and ways to easily apply for a permit are great, but do those things really help improve the quality of life of a community?

I genuinely believe that convenient access to bill payments and permit applications improves quality of life in a community ten-fold over efforts to increase citizen engagement.

Why? Nothing is more time-consuming and resource-wasting than having to drive to a government office to perform a basic service, and to a lesser-extent having to call an office. If I can find the information I’m looking for on a city website immediately, my life is better, and the city saves money.

My belief is that after, and only after a government website has done an amazing job on optimizing access to basic city services, then they should explore how to engage citizens. If one were to randomly pick 100 city websites of varying sizes (we went through thousands for GovLive) it’s amazing how lacking most are – as I’m sure you well know.

In your two examples, Austin Finance Online is an awesome example of time and money well spent improving access to city information – both because of its execution and the size of the audience it serves.

Castle Rock Community Voice however showcases a great use of technology, but there’s only a few dozen people engaging in discussion. It’s not the platform’s fault, it’s that I would venture to guess that most people in Castle Rock are fine leaving parks and rec decisions up to the city.

To contrast that example, CrimeReports is very popular use of government data. Why? People do care about which neighbors are getting robbed and when sex offenders move in.

I don’t believe people are honest enough when entering a new business / gov project: “Am I building something that solves a pain-point for the larger unengaged community, or creating something for the engaged few?” If the latter, for what purpose? If for a learning experience, wonderful. If for widespread adoption or profit, are you sure it’s the right move?

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Profile Photo Michael Ashford

Hey Chris, I have to agree with you. My sentiments came out wrong when I wrote “Yes, convenient bill payment methods and ways to easily apply for a permit are great, but do those things really help improve the quality of life of a community?”

My line of thinking was more along the lines of what you said, it just came out weird. What I intended to convey was that a more convenient way of paying a water bill doesn’t necessarily equate to safer neighborhoods or more low-cost or free recreation activities for children. But you’re right, it does improve quality of life, no doubt.

Those transactional elements of a government website absolutely do need to be perfected before diving into the more advanced digital engagement pieces. Otherwise, citizens will scream for the basics and become flustered by the absence of convenient transactional services. But we’re just wrapping up a study that shows us that nearly 70% of Internet-using citizens agree with the phrase “I would engage more with my government if my government offered more ways to engage digitally.” I think that’s pretty significant.

The feedback we got from Castle Rock was that 80 or so people came into their in-person town hall meetings, and another 60 or so gave feedback online. To nearly double the amount of feedback they got for planning their new park simply by implementing an online feedback tool – for free, no less – speaks volumes about the potential digital engagement functionality holds.

Actually getting citizens to use functionality like this will probably take some time, simply because their not used to government connecting with them in these ways, and quite honestly, you’re absolutely right in that most government websites don’t have the transactional stuff right yet. But access to data and access to avenues to provide direct input are still extremely valuable and important.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Pretty awesome stat – “70% of Internet-using citizens agree with the phrase “I would engage more with my government if my government offered more ways to engage digitally.”

Which leads to the work you are doing & some of project MyGov – what are those ways and how to make them super light-weight & meaningful? Which are both design, UX, technology & process questions

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Profile Photo Michael Ashford

It is a really exciting stat. Unfortunately, other data we’ve collected tells us of the gap between what citizens are telling us and what governments are actually providing.

To Chris’ point, 84% of citizens say email is the best way for local governments to connect with citizens, but only 54% of local government websites offer email subscription services to residents. 70% of citizens would like the ability to pay for basic government services online (small permits, parking fines, etc.), yet only 23% of government websites offer the ability to do so.

Getting the basics right is hugely important. When you start adding the expanded functionality and the more engaging features, that’s where design and technology truly come into play.

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Profile Photo Candi Harrison

Whew! Lots of big ideas here. So first, Steve – I think your blog post is spot on and lays out many important concepts. Federal web managers have been talking about, and working on, “top tasks” for more than a decade now (and the UK has come up with a great model for aggregating top tasks in its DirectGov website). And search engine optimization has been a big ticket item for at least that long. Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to do in both of those areas, but I think those balls are rolling.

The iGoogle idea has been around a long time, too. In truth, it might be a good idea for people – mainly business partners – who come back to the same places often. Not sure how much it would be used by average customers, so you’re probably right on that one, too.

Truthfully, I’m not quite sure what’s envisioned with the “MyGov” concept. I’ve re-read the words several times, and I can’t quite grasp it. But it seems to me that your last point – on getting customer feedback – is an issue the group should chew on.

You are absolutely right – we already (and have been for many, many years) provide many ways to get customer feedback. Here’s the problem: what do we do with it? How do we read it, synthesize it, analyze it, share it, and use it to improve government? And how do we keep the public involved – or at least informed – throughout that process? I think that’s the real problem with engaging the public. What do we do with what we hear? And how do we keep them engaged?

Let me give you two examples. Way back in 1996, we put up customer discussion rooms on the HUD website (I was web manager there for 10 years). How cool was that? Customers could come in and discuss and share their ideas, with the hope that good ideas would be replicated. And many customers did come to those discussion rooms and use them. But what we didn’t consider was our role in that discussion. We didn’t ensure that HUD subject experts were monitoring those discussions regularly, to guide topics, share information and facts, answer questions, and bring what was learned into agency planning. Within months, the discussion rooms were in disarray; and we pulled them all down. Lesson learned. If we invite discussion, we have to have the resources to participate.

Second example: in the fall of 2011, GSA sponsored a National Dialog on Improving Government Websites. They used software that allowed participants – govies, non-govies, experts, and interested citizens – to post ideas, comment on other ideas, and vote on ideas. Many really great ideas were presented, discussed, and voted up. Lots of people participated. At the end of the period, GSA summarized the ideas (State of the Federal Web) and put it into the hopper for the forthcoming government web strategy. But that’s where the engagement stopped. The next thing we saw was the Digital Government Strategy which did incorporate some of those ideas but mostly went in another direction, leaving many of those participants surprised (and even disappointed). If you invite engagement and then change course or don’t use those suggestions (and that happens often for many good reasons) and you don’t keep the public involved or informed in that process, you can end up doing more harm than good.

Open government and transparency are great, right concepts; but gosh, they’re hard to pull off. It’s way more than creating ways to engage. It’s figuring out – before you start down that path – how you will see it through. And how you will continue that engagement.

Again, I’m not quite sure what MyGov will be. But if it’s to be a centerpiece for open government and public engagement, I really hope it will have the resources and back-end processes to ensure success.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Love idea of having better data to compare across agencies. It’s always difficult to compare apples to oranges but I know Best Places to Work data on HR has actually gotten folks to invest/focus more on it (nobody wants to be last, everyone first)

Yeah – I’m big on what people actually do. One of my key nuggets from a quick conversation with Tom Steinberg of mySociety – he says they research Google search trends to see what people actually searching for to see if enough demand before building one of their opengov services. Govt should do same

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Profile Photo Dave Lewan

Great points Candi and Gwynne! Agency web (and now mobile) managers can ask for and receive feedback in many ways; and do. You’re right; the question really boils down to, ‘Now what?’

Most managers we meet with don’t have enough time, money and resources to get everything done on their sites they would like to, so it’s not just important to ‘check the box’ and gather feedback but also to model and measure the input they are receiving. Government sites, web and mobile, have rich content, navigational tools to find that content, a look and feel of the site, search engines, and often specific functionality to fill out a form or to sign up for agency communications. But those ‘things’ by themselves have a different relationship with the overall experience your visitors/users are having with the site, so it’s critical to ask ‘what improvements/investments will have the greatest impact on the experience they are having?’

Why so important? Well, let’s face it at the end of the day government employees do a lot of work to get the word out about how departments, agencies and programs serve their constituency. And citizens depend on government to provide that data, information and programs. So focus on the Right Stuff. Citizens have also expressed a desire to connect, perform functions and consume information digitally v. offline channels, requesting hard-copy information or having to connect to a call center; in the long-run this also offers significant cost-saving opportunities for the government as well.

The ‘net’ of my message here is continue to gather feedback from those you serve, but take the next steps, model the data out, find out what lever can be pulled that would have the greatest impact on the experience your visitors have so they continue to 1). return, 2). talk about and recommend your work through social media channels and 3). find your site, mobile experience or app, their primary source for what you deliver.

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