Bringing government closer to the people: It’s getting better

150 150 Christopher Nelson

The social media approach to the Curiosity rover was just one example of government going to infinity and beyond (Photo: Euclid vanderKroew)

For the second year in a row, California Forward attended the Gov 2.0 LA conference on Pepperdine campus in sunny Malibu over the weekend. . We heard much inspiring dialogue on how government can be more participatory with citizens and agencies alike working together and sharing information.

The topics were wide ranging and inspiring: spanning our increasing reliance on cloud computing and the democratizing effect of technology to the social media strategy behind NASA’s California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to the many ways the Arcadia police department is starting two way conversations with the people it serves.

Though the women behind the Mars Curiosity rover’s wildly popular Twitter account (1.3 million followers and counting) arguably stole the show, the genesis of their vast social media program (500 accounts) is based on a simple tenet found in NASA’s charter, written in 1953, that summed up the theme of the day rather nicely.

“The NASA charter clearly states that mission details and outcomes are to be shared with as broad an audience as possible,” said Veronica McGregor, social media manager at JPL.

NASA did not specify how they should go about doing so, which is why McGregor decided to take to Twitter soon after the service was launched and start communicating in first-person as one of their satellites.

Think about the concept: a government organization making it a priority to share as much about their operations as possible with the general public.

Our forays into space are educational and should absolutely inspire, so it’s something of a natural progression for JPL and NASA to be so socially prominent. It was a later presentation by Sgt. Tom Le Veque of the Arcadia police department that made his workplace an unlikely counterpart to JPL in this belief.

“It’s not just about the patch and the badge, I’m a person and I’m here to help you,” said Sgt. Le Veque. “I want social users to tell me what they want to hear, not the other way around.”

But more than simply keeping in touch with the people of Arcadia, technology is also revolutionizing how they deliver vital information. If an Arcadia resident registers their mobile phone number with a service called Nixle, Sgt. Le Veque says they can send out targeted messages to an entire zip code right down to a specific building. Imagine the lives it would save should something like what happened at the Bostom Marathon happen here.

Indeed, social media is truly becoming the normal course of business for government agencies as Andrew Nebus of the New Jersey Transit Authority noted. He agreed that information delivery is vital in an increasingly mobile world, which is why he stresses that government web design should prioritize the mobile browser.

 “Give your webmaster a smartphone and make them use the government site during a disaster,” Nebus said. “If they can’t, it’s time for an overhaul.”

The impetus to share should certainly be lauded, but it is by no means the end game when it comes to government transparency. It’s impossible to predict the daily needs of an entire constituent base, so all information must be readily available not just to be informative, but to also instill institutional trust.

Hillary Hartley works in the Bay Area office of a Kansas-based company called NIC which helps state and federal agencies be more transparent. She views a state’s residents as customers and tries to layer that mentality into the designs she promotes.

“It’s about letting users help themselves. Increasing user happiness helps them find success in their queries, which creates return customers. If your website is not immediately perceived as usable, people will never come back,” Hartley said.

She says it’s no always easy to talk her clients out of the “NASCAR problem” of an overly crowded homepage, filled with notices and other content. One look at Utah’s state homepage and you’ll see her clean aesthetic at work, with a single search bar as the lone item on the page. Much of the wizardry is done in how the data is organized on the backend.

Hartley also emphasized the importance of developing for mobile devices while showing stats of mobile traffic on the sties she maintains doubling last year and in some cases jumping by 25 percent a month in 2013. All of her sites begin their design first with a mobile phone and then they scale out to tablet and normal computer screen sizes.

Hartley’s mantra is “mission before tools.” The mission for her clients who are states is simple: put all the information in one place and allow people to access it with ease however they choose to do so.

“What is the one kernel of my business or organization that is worthwhile to the outside world? Once this question is answered, the technology will follow,” said Hartley.

As an added bonus, Hartley says that they typically save states millions in administrative costs by using a “self-funded” model that eliminates needless or redundant infrastructure and reduces man-hours and travel costs for state employees.

California is not currently a client of NIC’s, but as a state that has taken steps backward in recent years in the realm of transparency and open data, there is certain a lot they could learn from Hartley’s presentation. 


Christopher Nelson

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