A Lesson from Katrina – It Takes a Leap of Faith

Five years ago, we all sat horrified watching the ravages of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast. Seeing so many, many fellow citizens losing everything and facing enormous challenges to get their lives back was powerful motivation to act. And the government web manager community did just that – we came together to help. I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating…and looking at what happened afterward.

The day after Katrina hit, Bev Godwin (then Director of USA.gov) and Gwynne Kostin (then Web Manager at Homeland Security) got on the phone with their web manager colleagues across government and got us organized to deliver consolidated, coordinated information on our government websites. No one asked them to do this. They didn’t go to their bosses and get permission. None of us did. We instinctively knew if we acted together as a community, doing the right thing, we could succeed. We took a leap of faith.

This post-Katrina effort was a real milestone in government web management – and a model for future strategies – for 3 reasons:

  1. Leaders led. They saw a problem, and they jumped to action. They didn’t worry about possible recriminations from bosses. They showed the moxy that all successful leaders must have. They knew the right thing to do, and they did it.
  2. The community came together and acted as one. We trusted one another because we knew one another. We had a governance structure – the newly-formed Federal Web Managers Council – in place and ready to operate. And we had the government Web Managers Forum, an extended group of web managers across government and across the nation who had been comparing best practices and sharing problem-solving for 5 years. We had the infrastructure, and it worked.
  3. Most important, we looked at our customers as a whole. We, as a cross-government group, talked about the spectrum of needs of the people affected by Katrina: need to find their loved ones…need for housing…need for food and clean water…need for medical assistance…need to volunteer to help. We didn’t need a contractor to do an analysis. We didn’t spend months making sure we covered every esoteric want. We used our common sense and kept to the basics. Then we asked every agency what they could bring to the table in those categories; we chose the best, most useful of those options (we didn’t throw in everything but the kitchen sink); and we formed “lanes” around customer needs, with lane leaders to keep us organized and make sure we didn’t stumble over one another. We listened to our customers – every day – through email, through phone calls, and through government workers on site; and we added to and adapted our content accordingly.

Within hours, all government websites referred Katrina victims and others to information from across government, organized from the customers’ point of view – not by agency. It wasn’t perfect – but it was far better than anything we’d done before.

The Katrina crisis brought out the best in us – we believed in our community. We took risks to do the right thing. A group of government employees bound by common goals – not organizational lines – came together, developed a plan, organized our content around our audiences’ needs, and made incremental improvements based on customer input. A real Gov 2.0 victory.

And then what? Well, we drifted back to our organization-centric ways. Not entirely, to be sure. The Federal Web Managers Council and the USA.gov team continue to urge agencies to work together to organize and consolidate content around customer needs. But without the mandate of a crisis, we faltered. We lost our faith in the power of the community.

Look…I know the federal bureaucracy (heck – government bureaucracy at every level) is an overwhelming force for chunking web content by agency. There is no motivation or reward for agency leaders to sacrifice personal or organization credit for the good of our customers. In fact, the reward system – better jobs, better pay – favors competition, not cooperation. Agency web managers face daunting challenges operating in the culture of organization-centric government, as they try to establish customer-centric service delivery.

But it is not hopeless. We know what to do, and we know how to do it. We proved it in our response to Katrina. When we trust the power of our community – our critical mass – and take risks to do right things to provide the best possible customer service, we can succeed. We don’t need a crisis. We need to take that leap of faith.

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That’s a great story I hadn’t heard before.

It just shows we all have a good hunch on what needs to be done and how to coordinate. Just need a powerful enough reason.