Jun 03 2010

Technology Tools for Engaging the Public

Agencies look for ROI and smart approaches to expanding the methods they use to interact with citizens ands share information.

As social media has expanded, an interesting change is taking place in the programs run by the Federal Citizen Information Center. There’s a decline in e-mail but not in website visits or phone inquiries to the government’s National Contact Center.

The one-stop FCIC, run by the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services, manages the call center and the CitizenServices.gov website. GSA describes the center “as a single point of contact for citizens with questions about federal agencies, programs and services,” either via phone or e-mail.

Citizen Services monitors how citizens want to interact and obtain information based on trends in information-sharing and communications tools being used in industry, says Martha Dorris, deputy associate GSA administrator for citizen services.

There is definitely a move to small-format devices, says Dorris, who spoke on a panel with other feds at the recent Management of Change Conference in Philadelphia. To that end, GSA has begun creating mobile applications and pushing those out to third-party providers when it makes sense to do so, she says.

Agencies across the government are following suit.

A Few Suggestions

The real point is that agencies need to use multiple channels when providing information to the public, offers John Teeter, deputy CIO at the Health and Human Services Department. At HHS, information is made available online, through social media, face to face, by telephone and through the federal broadband initiative.

A challenge in these efforts is the breadth and depth of federal data stores, Teeter adds. Going forward, agencies must do more to enhance metadata capabilities so that data can be shared and aggregated more easily, he says.

Teeter also points out that many of the services that the government provides are very personal in nature. When developing new methods for collecting, sharing or pushing data, agencies should ask, “How are we going to use that to make a very personal difference in someone’s life?” That’s where the meaningful use of information comes into play, he says.

Teeter recounted a story about a town hall meeting at which a woman asked about how to get incorrect information in an electronic health record changed. For citizens, a chief issue is data integrity, he says, and notes how crucial that is in building trust and in using data as an engagement tool. “It seems so simple: Just get the information right.”

Another important consideration when using social media and other new tools to interact with citizens hinges on capability capacity, adds Lisa Schlosser, director of information collection at the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s really important, she contends, to set appropriate expectations. When expanding the use of social media, it can’t just be a one-way conversation, she says. Be prepared to determine how the organization will maintain services and respond through these tools, Schlosser suggests.

Forward Progress

Despite the challenges these new tools present, Teeter and Dorris encourage agencies to continue figuring out ways to use them.

By making data more readily available and federal operations more transparent, government organizations at multiple levels are able to “do better government,” Teeter says. The ability to overlay different types of data creates “different types of information that we didn’t have access to before,” he notes. The exposure of that information, coupled with crowdsourcing to take advantage of expertise beyond the government, then becomes “a very powerful multiplier.”