Internaut | Try real service to the citizen

Shawn P. McCarthy

Improving 'service to the citizen' is the one of those catchphrases that show up in government project plans and press releases. It's tightly coupled with e-government initiatives, which promise to make government much more interactive and responsive. The trouble is, service to the citizen has no clear set of deliverables. It represents only a vague promise to provide better interactions and access to information.

With that as a backdrop, here are some ideas for how government agencies really could improve their service'not by making major investments in new software, but by reorienting the way they interact with both citizens and businesses.
  • Leverage so-called 'social search' Web sites such as Yahoo Answers, Google Answers and Microsoft's Windows Live QnA. On these sites, people can post questions while other people leave answers that are seen by all. The result is a cross between a message board and a supercharged frequently asked questions list, with sets of links and useful tangential ideas. A government site would need to add a taxonomy to the answers with lots of links to content across the agency. This could grow chaotic, so there would have to be a government employee moderator/editor for such interactions. But dedicating an employee to this task, rather than having one more person answering the phone, could be cost-effective. Agencies spend fractions of a cent if people find answers on a Web site, but three to five dollars per question if they're answered by phone or mail. A nice side benefit: Managers and regular visitors to the social search sites develop relationships and become experts in specific issues. Such informed helpers can be very valuable to the larger community. That really is citizen service.

  • Develop service channels on topics that reach across multiple agencies. That's not something the government is good at today. For example, a health channel could contain links and interactive forms for Medicare and Medicaid, plus health tips from the Food and Drug Administration and maybe even food advice from the Agriculture Department. An education site could consolidate everything from education standards, to loans, to government internships. The FirstGov Web site has subject directories, but it doesn't integrate online applications, news, advice etc. in a single place.

  • Allow citizens or businesses to set up an online account at your agency. Take a look at the Postal Service Web site to get the flavor of the depth of services that can be offered on a site that's built mainly for citizen interaction. Visitors can schedule pickups, track packages and make payments. No matter what service a government agency provides, it could benefit by enabling user accounts that support online payments and direct interactions with government applications.

  • Participate in content syndication. On the low end this can be as simple as setting up Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds for an agency's public files and announcements (many agencies do this already). On the higher end, it can mean tagging all data and making some of it available internally or externally for import into other applications, or to share via the 'channels' mentioned above.

Ultimately these improvements will be driven not by an ambiguous promise of improved service. They will be driven by an anticipated return on investment. Real online citizen service frees up other resources, either for cost savings or to channel those resources in new and productive ways.

Former GCN writer Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager for IDC Government Insights of McLean, Va. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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