Time for a Re-Think of USA.gov

When USA.gov was born, a central links directory for the government was a huge asset. Now, however, citizens turn to Google for lists of links. So if USA.gov is to add value, I think it’s time for a major re-think of its purpose. It’s an important discussion…one that impacts – and therefore should involve – the whole web manager community – and beyond.

So what could USA.gov do that no one is doing now? To me it’s obvious. There’s a huge void that needs to be filled. We need a one-stop “government service center.” We need a place where we citizens can go and find everything we need to know about the most used, most important government services. We need it to be written in terms we understand, with as few steps between getting to the site and leaving the site a satisfied customer, as possible. We need one place to draw the very best advice and service that government has to offer, synthesized so that citizens don’t have to go from link to link, agency to agency, trying to figure out what their options are. We need content that says, “start here” and “have you thought about this?” We need decision trees…is this your situation? Go here. Is that your situation? Go there.

How do you do that? Turn USA.gov into a CONTENT site – not a links site. Focus on top tasks – starting with the things that citizens are most worried about today…how do I find affordable housing? How do I keep my home? How can I put healthy meals on the table when I don’t have much money? How can I send my kids to college? I just lost my job – where can I find a new job, and what can I do to keep a roof over my head and feed my family until I get that new job? I’m a Boomer and was planning to retire – what are my options in this economy?

Turn the USA.gov staff into content leaders. Convene teams from across agencies, around the services citizens want most. Include agency web managers and web writers, but also subject matter experts. Involve plain language experts. And for Pete’s sake, get some usability experts involved from planning through execution and evaluation.

Get citizen involvement – don’t sit around and second-guess what makes sense to citizens. And make that involvement routine, to keep the content fresh, focused, and on target. Use new media to tell citizens about this new content. Make that part of the strategy. Cycle experienced agency web managers through GSA to help with the effort. Give the USA.gov staff editorial responsibility – we need someone who can say, “no, we’re not going to use that junk” and “yes, you DO need to re-write that content to make it more citizen-friendly.”

Start small and build. Don’t wait until you get it all together and then roll out a new USA.gov website. Get a couple of services together and put it up. See what works, what doesn’t; and then do more. Call it a pilot, to get started.

Add a human component. Use that wonderful online chat service that USA.gov already has to assist citizens through these services. Bring in subject matter experts who can actually answer citizens’ questions – not just refer them to more links. Many years ago, I talked about the need for governmentwide “ombudsmen” – government employees with broad knowledge about a variety of government services whose job is to just work with citizens – online – to help them navigate government processes when they stumble. Maybe it’s time to give that idea another look-see.

Use this as an opportunity to start downsizing the inventory of government websites and consolidating government web content. Write MOUs with the agencies, getting them to agree that – when the content is absorbed into USA.gov – they’ll pull it off the agency site. Eventually, experiment with consolidating services through layers of government, so citizens don’t have to know whether what they need is federal, state, or local.

OK – you may agree or not. But here’s the bottom line: I’m convinced it IS time to come up with a new paradigm for USA.gov. Let’s think big.

December 15 – this just in! GSA is inviting public comments and suggestions about the future of USA.gov. This is YOUR chance to join the discussion – please do! Visit: http://blog.citizen.apps.gov/yourvoicematters/

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Lucas Cioffi

Hi Candi,

In the off-chance that you’re going to be here in DC the week of January 11th, this would be a wonderful topic to explore at the Open Government Directive Workshop Series at DOT.

I’m one of the organizers and we’re ensuring that participants will be able to craft the agenda for the second half of the day. We hope to see you there.

Candi Harrison

I’ll be there a couple weeks later. But it’s still a great topic for your workshop series; and I’m sure that Sarah Roper, who runs USA.gov, or Sheila Campbell and Rachel Flagg, who chair the Web Managers Council, would be happy to talk to you about that idea.