How a Small Agency Became a Big Information Provider


When a state arts agency had its budget slashed years ago, the staff changed its communication tactics from reactive and media-based to content creation and information aggregation. The result kept the agency relevant to the field, despite its tiny budget.

The importance of information

In 2007, the California Arts Council was in its fourth year of suffering with a minuscule budget after the impact of the Dot-Com bust. Fiscal year 2003-04 was devastating for the agency, with cuts of over 90% from two years previous. Not much was different by 2007, meaning that the agency’s principal benefit of local assistance in the arts (i.e. grants) was seriously handicapped.

So how can an agency that had historically been a granting entity remain relevant? The Arts Council did so by completely revamping its communication strategy to provide quality information to the public, specifically to the nonprofit arts field.

First, the agency took a good look at its website. Like most government websites at the time, the pages were static. No information changed without a line by line edit of the web code. We also had a twice-a-month eNewsletter, but the time devoted to crafting the publication as a single document was burdensome as well.

As the sole communications staffer at the time, I was bombarded by emails from the field about opportunities. “Can you post this arts job?” “Can you send this foundation grant info in the newsletter?” “I just found out about this report – why didn’t you tell us before?” I rapidly became buried under the information overload, as did the staff who helped post the information and build our e-newsletter.

Then a friend in the web-design field said some magic words that changed everything: database-managed content management systems, or database-driven CMS.

Organizing with a database-driven CMS

A CMS is a computer application that allows publishing, editing and modifying of web pages through an interface. Blog applications are CMSs. Facebook is a complex series of web CMSs. Most of us use CMS tools now without realizing what they are. In 2007, this mentality and mindset was new, at least for state agencies, and utilizing a database to the CMS added even more structure and power.

Most people have used databases at one time or another. The public library is a perfect example. There’s the catalog of books, with different fields of information (type of book, location of home library, title and author name, year of publication, etc.), which is matched up with the records of thousands of library-card holders information and their borrowing.

Starting in 2008, the Arts Council used this method of information organization for our website and eNewsletter content. New report on the arts? Fill out “Reports and Research” record in the back-end database, and it appears in our website research listings. New grant opportunity from a foundation? Same thing. Now our web pages were constantly updated.

Employee expertise, public benefit and staff workload

The Arts Council was extremely fortunate because our sole full-time IT employee, Tom Bergmann, happens to have a specialty in building databases. What even better is that these entries can be slated into our e-newsletter with the click of a button. What was once an all-day task of newsletter creating and formatting now takes mere minutes. Our staff-created content of press releases and blogs could now be organized for easy e-newsletter blurbs and webpage listings.

Once the systems were in place, the Arts Council expanded outreach through social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter (the subject of a future GovLoop blog post). We also provided learning opportunities, specifically our online convening series launched by current communications lead Caitlin Fitzwater, which lead to a tripling of our ArtBeat eNewsletter subscriber list size. All the content and services are provided for free and without advertising content.

None of this happens automatically, of course. Each database had to be carefully mapped out before the page was coded. Populating the back-end databases that house the opportunity and information listings take time. Arts Jobs and Artists Calls must be approved daily by a staff member who tosses out all the spam listings. Input and editing has become a team effort for the Arts Council staff, so the workload doesn’t overburden only one or two staffers.

But the benefit to the public for the past eight years has helped thousands of Californians working in the arts.

Mary Beth Barber 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.

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