A couple of weeks ago, after I’d cut loose with some ideas for the government web community (and witnessed the weary and wary looks on my web colleagues’ faces), my good friend Bev Godwin bailed me out by saying, “as long as I’ve known Candi, she’s always asked ‘what’s next?’ We need to keep asking ‘what’s next?’”
Bev is right – we always need to be thinking about where we want to go next…what we need to do, or be, to keep improving customer service. Why? Because when you know where you want to go, you’ll be on the lookout for that path that could get you there. And when that vision is shared, you’ll have a whole community looking for those paths. You’ll be ready for that unexpected elevator conversation with a key official or that last-minute lunch with the “connected” friend that starts the ball rolling. When you think ahead and keep asking, “what’s next?” you’re being strategic. You are creating the opportunity to shape your future, instead of having it shaped for you.
So – here are some thoughts on “what’s next” for the government customer service community. Yeah, I know. I’ve pushed some of these before. But maybe now is their time.
Customer Service Objectives
- Focus like a laser on those 6 Customer Service Objectives from the Federal Web Managers Council 2008 White Paper. Use them as the context for all your work. Cite them as the introduction for all your efforts. They articulate your community’s vision. They describe the results you want all government websites to achieve. So talk, talk, talk about them. Sound a drumbeat. Do Web Manager Forum calls on each of them. Talk about best practices, and figure out what you could be doing better, across government. Make them the centerpiece of the next Web Managers Conference. Maybe organize that Customer Service Summit I’ve been talking about for months.
- Gather some evidence. Establish performance standards and get baseline data to measure those 6 objectives. Come up with metrics that will give you (and the public) a good idea about where you stand. Ask all agencies to use those metrics, aggregate the data across agencies, and publish the results. Define some performance goals (for example, reduce the time it takes to complete top tasks by 10% in the next 6 months), ask agencies to make incremental changes, and measure again. Keep at it. Show the public what you’re doing – across government – to provide the best possible customer service through the web.
Plain language: The Plain Writing Act has cleared the House and Senate, and – woot! – is on the President’s desk. We’re getting close. So why wait? Here’s an opportunity to create a strategy for making sure government websites – especially the most-used pages on government websites – are written in plain language. The key: focus on results.
- Start by developing a simple list of plain language rules for websites. You don’t have to invent them – plainlanguage.gov and centerforplainlanguage.org have plenty. Involve the Web Manager University faculty – many of us teach these principles regularly. Besides me, there’s Gerry McGovern, Ginny Redish, Leslie O’Flahaven, and others. And of course, there’s our good friend, former colleague, and Plain Language Warrior Annetta Cheek. She’s sure to have something to offer. There’s nothing new to discover – you just need to synthesize. Don’t get too esoteric – start with major points. Publish the list on webcontent.gov as a best practice, distribute it to the Forum, and issue it as a recommendation of the FWMC.
- Sound a charge! I know everyone is worried about training people in plain language. But the truth is that we’ve been training web communicators to “write for the web” for years. Tons of people have been trained. The problem is getting people to use what they’ve learned – to rewrite that bad content and insist that new content be plain. So challenge the web community to “Get a Head Start on Plain Writing.” Urge agency web teams to review and re-write their top task content in the next 6 months. Make it part of the whole effort to improve customer service. Give it some hype: “Don’t wait to be told to write well…do it because it’s the right thing to do for great customer service!”
- Now here’s the most important part: measure and promote the results. Set up a review panel. It doesn’t have to be “official” – create a panel of peers, sponsored by the FWMC, to do top task reviews. Keep it friendly. Encourage agencies to submit their re-written content to the panels, and do simple plain language reviews. Give them feedback. Ask them to make changes accordingly. Post “before” and “after” examples on webcontent.gov. Give awards for “most improved” at your conference next spring and/or collaborate with the Clearmark Plain Language Award folks. Celebrate the successes – it will inspire replication. It’s the review process that’s been lacking in the past. This is something you can start right now.
Governance: So here’s my last one (for today). What do you want to be when you grow up, Web Customer Service Community? Up to now, you’ve been a grassroots operation. We found each other, linked up through the Forum, and created our own Council. So what’s next? Is it time to turn into a hierarchy? Both FWMC co-chairs are at GSA now, and GSA has picked up the reins on many support functions (best practices, new media, apps, etc.). Would it help you move forward if there were a more formal management function at GSA? Do you need a Chief Customer Service Officer at OMB? Do you need to be codified, like the CIO Council? Or would establishing a hierarchy at GSA and OMB detract from the grassroots community of practice that has worked well up to this point? Figure it out. Discuss and get some general agreement. That way, when one of you happens to be in a meeting where this comes up, you’ll be ready to say, “here’s what we need and here’s how that will improve customer service across government.”
Yes – it makes your head hurt to think through these issues. But improving customer service is a never-ending, iterative process. Keep envisioning new possibilities. Keep setting new goals. Keep looking for those opportunities to cause change. It all starts with this simple question: “what’s next?”