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Time for a More User-Friendly Government

Innovation Times

Posted by JR Reagan on April 4, 2013

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Time for a more user-friendly government

Easy. Helpful. Quick. These are all powerful words, ones that provoke positive feelings. They’re especially important in the context of user experience. We all want tools that are easy to use. We want information that’s helpful, and we want to find it quickly, on the device of our choosing. And we’ll return, again and again, to the companies, websites, and apps that provide good experiences, as well as the content we need.

Now think of your experiences with government service providers, experiences like renewing your driver’s license or signing up for Social Security benefits. Do words like “easy, helpful, and quick” come to mind? Probably not.

And it’s clearly time for action. A poll by Pew Research (April, 2012) showed just 33% of Americans think positively about the federal government (though they view their state governments in a better light). By employing some of the innovations developed in the private sector, as well as by leading agencies, government service providers may become more customer-driven, and change the perception people have of government services.

The American people as customers

A federal initiative encourages and offers guidance for such changes. In May 2012, the White House announced its information strategy for the future, titled “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People.” It acknowledges that the American people are the federal government’s “customers,” and that like any business, the government must put its customers’ needs first. How? By ensuring that the government stays abreast of our mobile, digital world, and drives innovation through its vast store of government data, all while maintaining security.

Creating better customer experiences

In a blog entry, information architect John Schneider writes about how to design meaningful user experiences, and the psychology behind it. Schneider notes that if people are presented with a limited number of things to choose from, they’re more likely to choose. This can present a problem for government service providers with copious amounts of data they want to share with the public.

The Census Bureau—a trove of information—gets it right. On August 23, 2012, U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel recognized the Census Bureau as “a leader in the effort to make government information more easily accessible to the public.” The Bureau has 115,000 Facebook likes, and uses the social media platform to distribute data in small nuggets each day, using tools like interesting infographics to make the information easy to understand, and highly shareable. VanRoekel also announced the release of America’s Economy, a new mobile app available for smartphones.

Another approach to delivering government content was launched in June 2012. The GovInfoProject pulls together information from 50 government sources, organizing it by topics so it’s easy for users to navigate and find content—from federal to local—that’s relevant to them.

Engaging customers on a local level

Code for America, the self-proclaimed “Peace Corps for Geeks,” recognizes the pressures municipalities face, be it slashed budgets or outmoded technology. It invites “civic technologists” join local brigades, matches cities with web designers through a fellowship program, and offers access to Engagement Commons, a forum that showcases and shares successful local apps.

One such app uses a location-based social networking website. Through it, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources created a presence for its state parks. Attendance has increased, and park services are able to use the information from foursquare to monitor visitor satisfaction and improve park service offerings. Other local applications include crowd-sourcing citizen input for street beautification in towns across America, and linking people trained in CPR to nearby victims of cardiac arrest.

Tying it all together

To redefine what “government” means, service providers must strengthen their relationships with customers, and develop innovative services that provide timely information, or help solve real-world, real-time problems. This begins by defining who the customer is, and what they’re looking for. Designing easy-to-use applications that offer meaningful user experiences follows. Organizations like GovLoop, a social network for government with 50,000 members, and Code for America, can help identify leading practices and foster collaboration.



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