Selling e-gov

Thomas R. Temin

The Office of Management and Budget has hired a high-powered public relations company to market federal online services. The e-government build-out is mostly ready for prime time; the problem now is getting people to use it. So OMB's instinct to raise awareness of e-gov services is correct. But it won't be easy.

At one time, marketing to the United States as a whole was simple: You bought ads on one or two of the three television networks. Such advertising put the otherwise obscure Pueblo, Colo., on the map in the minds of millions as the place from which the government mailed pamphlets. Who can't remember word-for-word some of the jingles and slogans from yesteryear's ad campaigns?

Nowadays, cable and the Internet have made the media market so fragmented that only high-priced broadcasts like the Super Bowl draw an audience comparable to those of the '70s and '80s and earlier. Add to that the array of narrowly targeted print and radio media, and the challenge of raising awareness of government Web sites becomes huge and expensive.

Any advertising or public awareness campaign must start with some objectives'clearly stated metrics by which to measure whether the campaign is working. The government isn't peddling a new low-carb soda or some digital device to 20-somethings. Grants.gov, Recreation One-Stop and E-Authentication, for instance, represent a wide range of user communities requiring different messages through different channels.

The ultimate metric will be increasing usage rates of the various e-government channels. But tracing those increases to the specific marketing campaigns will make for difficult vendor evaluation. If ever a project called for a performance-based contract, this is it.

In the meantime, there is one thing the government can do for itself. OMB and the General Services Administration ought to look at the FirstGov home page to see whether its presentation aligns with the marketing goals for e-government. The record is spotty. Grants information is easy to find. But try to find a camping site. It takes at least three clicks just to get to www.recreation.gov.

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