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Project of the Week: NIH Intramural Research Program

This weeks project of the week comes from the NIH. After more than two years in development, the new website for the Intramural Research Program at the National Institutes of Health launched, congrats to the NIH! Ben Chambers shared with us some information about the new website and the Intramural Research Program. Be sure to join the IRP Group here on GovLoop and check out the site at: http://irp.nih.gov

1 – Last week you announced a new NIH presence. Tell us about it. What sparked the concept?

On September 19, 2011, the NIH launched a new website for its Intramural Research Program (IRP), the largest biomedical research enterprise in the world. It has been clear for some time that many people in the general public, government and the scientific communities are unaware that the NIH conducts groundbreaking research on campuses funded with taxpayer money. To remedy the situation, the NIH scientific directors drew attention to the need for “windows” into the IRP that will foster enhanced public engagement with the IRP community.

2 – What do you hope to accomplish out of this initiative? What does success look like?

Our overall goal is to increase our audiences’ familiarity with the IRP and its basic, clinical and behavioral research. One measure of success will be an increased number of well-trained, highly talented scientists and clinicians seeking careers or training opportunities in the IRP. In phase two of this initiative to be launched next year, we will integrate webpages for the more than 1,200 IRP principal investigators with the website, enabling people from academia, industry, other government agencies and more to find information about the research being done on the IRP campuses and to identify potential collaborators.

3 – Tell us about the process to make it happen. How long did project take? What tech tools did you use? Any inspirations you used for the project?

After hatching the idea at the annual scientific directors’ retreat in December 2008, two co-chairs were appointed to head a committee of approximately 80 members from across the NIH. Just as GovLoop brings together people from various levels of government and agencies, the IRP website project was made possible by reaching out to numerous people in our own community, including communications and training directors, information technology specialists, researchers and clinicians, administrators and more who could all weigh in on website content, layout and architecture.

We selected Drupal for the website development platform, due to its open-source accessibility and industry credibility (WhiteHouse.gov uses Drupal). And, we concurrently launched five social media accounts as alternative and complementary avenues for engaging our audiences: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, GovLoop and YouTube.

Prior to launching the website, we performed usability testing. We recruited 17 test participants to test-drive the website and perform several key tasks, allowing us to uncover problems with the site’s language and navigation. Being so close to the website development for more than two and a half years, we needed some outside perspectives to show us where a new visitor to the website might trip up.

Our process was greatly inspired by the opportunities afforded us in a 2.0 world. We have yet to incorporate all the great ideas and inspirations we have had, but are eager to try.

4 – What’s your advice to a leader who is thinking about launching a similar initiative/redesign in their agency? Why should you do it? How do you get buy-in with offices? What are the best practices/ Potential problems to avoid?

With budgets crunching and the volatile public discourse surrounding the government’s role in America, it is vitally important to provide the public with information on the value your agency brings to the table. The Internet is a great medium for relaying this information, but if a website is unappealing or hard to use, people will get frustrated and not last long at the site.

The first step in any initiative is to identify the leaders’ wants and develop a clear vision for success. Decide whom to bring into the project, then gain their commitment and trust by sharing the leaders’ vision and developing strategies for communicating frequently, constantly reevaluating the goals and objectives, as well as the steps being taken to achieve them. Often, volunteering or being asked to contribute to a project means extra work for those involved, so everyone needs to have a clear understanding of his or her role, responsibilities and expectations.

Never underestimate the power of f2f (face-to-face) conversations. Email and large group presentations are a necessary part of disseminating information but cannot replace the human element necessary for building trust and relationships key to generating support for a trans-organizational effort.

Finally, input and collaboration from people with diverse ideas, work experiences and cultural backgrounds within and across an agency has been vital. It is equally important for the project leaders to keep the conversations going with regular updates and requests for feedback at all levels of the organization. When committee members do not feel their voices are heard, they may easily disengage, leading to the possible loss of valuable insights and perspectives. It truly “takes a village” for an effort like this one to be successful, and that perspective should always be at the forefront of all aspects of planning and development.

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