As Associate Director for Communication at the Census Bureau, it’s my goal to make sure no customer gets overlooked. I’m talking particularly about people like a childhood friend I’ll call “Angie.”
Angie’s not one of the Census Bureau’s 200,000 “power users” — the statisticians, academics and researchers who frequently use and understand Census data. Rather, she’s just one of the 45 million other customers who visit Census.gov — an accomplished hairdresser and entrepreneur from my small hometown.
When she was trying to decide whether or not to open another salon and what services to offer, I suggested she tap into the demographic and economic data available for free on Census.gov. She, like so many small business owners, can get a lot of insight about potential customers from our data.
People like Angie expect and deserve to have access to the information, data and services government agencies like Census have to offer. But, for that to happen, the perspectives of people other than power users have to be considered when we’re designing our outreach plans, products and tools.
What’s your agency doing to communicate with people like Angie?
If your answer is “not a lot,” your most likely first step is convincing your colleagues that people like Angie would benefit from having access to their work. I’ve found that although that kind of convincing can sometimes be hard, it is worth it in the end. Here are a few things that have worked for me:
- Speak Your Agency’s Language
At the Census Bureau our work is all about statistics and data — collecting, analyzing and disseminating it. We live and breathe facts and figures. So instead of coming at my colleagues from a public relations standpoint, I let the data speak for itself. Let’s say website analytics tell us 90 percent of users are searching a certain term we have data on, but it’s not the term we typically use to describe that data — health vs. well-being, for example. Then we can go back to our data-collection colleagues with that statistic when explaining why additional metadata and tagging will enable customers to find what they are looking for.
At other government agencies, the language of data might not work as well as the language of safety, the language of justice or the language of conservation. Figure out how your colleagues define the public service they provide, and remind them of the importance of reaching the people they are trying to help.
- Focus on the Value of Your Agency’s Work
Sometimes the public is not connected to the work we do on their behalf. However, that doesn’t have to be the case, and letting your colleagues know that their hard work is useful to many people is a great way to convince them that change is necessary. For example, at the Census Bureau, we are migrating our online content to a content management system, or CMS. That’s a lot of work. It was difficult for some of our colleagues who produce the content and data to see the return on the massive investment of time and resources. We explained that content in a CMS enables mobile optimization, search engine optimization and other strategies that result in their work being seen and used by more people. Buy-in (almost) achieved.
- Highlight Return on Taxpayers’ Investment
I say it all the time: Our #1 customer is the taxpayer and that’s who we are here to serve. Conveying that message is one of the most effective strategies for convincing others to expand their definition of the audiences we should connect to our data. This is how we make the case at the Census Bureau:
- Taxpayers are funding our mission.
- Our mission is to produce high-quality data for taxpayers.
- Simply put, that high-quality data comes from high response rates.
- How do we ensure adequate response rates? By making sure our customers are familiar with the value of and have access to Census data. If they understand its importance, they are more likely to respond.
- For that to happen, customers must easily find our data, ingest it and use it in their daily lives. And the best way to make that happen is through direct communication to that audience — starting with the 45 million customers visiting census.gov every year.
- Tell Them Not to Bury the Lead
Information has the power to help people, but not if people can’t find it. As government communicators, we can help our colleagues think about who should be getting what message and which organizations, platforms, or news vehicles can reach those people. A safety warning placed in the Federal Register is not enough. Find out what networks serve the people who need the information, and ask them to do an email blast to their membership. Tag these groups on Twitter or if photos help explain the risk, post them on Facebook. The key is to provide your expertise as a professional communicator and advise your colleagues on how to deliver information so the intended audience can easily find it.
As government communicators, it is up to you to represent the needs of the customer — the taxpayer — at your agency. Technology has made it easier and more efficient than ever to reach the public, so continue working with your colleagues to connect more people to their work through dissemination. Every day, go to work thinking about your customers and how you can do a better job on their behalf. After all, that’s what we’re paid to do.
Jeannie Shiffer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.