Friday, March 20, 2015

A personal comment on analytics.usa.gov - content and process

It is an amazing achievement that we have this now. We can see which websites are popular - needed and useful - and which aren't. 

Unfortunately the headline on Drudge was: "Obama Admin Tracking Visitors To Government Websites." It links to NextGov, headline: "New Dashboard Tracks Which Federal Sites You're On, And How You Got There."

I think the problem here is twofold:

* Government was lost in congratulating itself rather than thinking about/being sensitive to how the public perceives (mistrusts) government

* The visual that went with the NextGov article (which was based on the 3/19 White House blog post) didn't convey the intended message. The intention was to show a data-driven improvement in customer service. But the unintended consequence, given the context, was to make it look like the government is invading people's privacy with Orwellian-style monitoring.

This comment is NOT to rain on the parade at all. It is to suggest a way to improve government communication. Most obviously, before releasing news, it helps to think about two things:

* The CONTENT - what they're trying to achieve in terms of a technical, explanatory or process advance

* The CONTEXT - how people perceive government + communications and the two of those concepts together

After releasing news, if it's taken badly, it never hurts to do a "Myths vs. Facts" type post where you clear up the distortions and inaccuracies.

With that in mind - here is a SAMPLE (not official, not real, purely conceptual) straightforward-type blog post government communicators ought to write more of, and quickly, as needed. When people are suspicious, they have a right to be; when they are concerned, they need answers. 

Often I get the impression that professionals think it's somehow "beneath" them to respond to the "trash" that people say. That responding will actually validate false accusations. 

But the opposite is true. For the sake of public trust, it is the job of the federal communicator to respond to negative public perceptions of positive things. Quickly.

So here is a sample post. Please don't go out and reprint it as though it were a real government blog.

# # # BEGIN SAMPLE # # #  

"What We Do & Don't Track About Your Visits To Government Websites, And Why"

Some people think the government has nothing better to do than track public visits to websites, just so that we can spy on people. While we do want to know if you're visiting us so that we can improve customer service, we are totally NOT interested in finding out who you are. Not only would it be a total waste of our time, but it wouldn't even be legal.

Here are a couple of myths vs. facts about how and why we track visits to our websites:

Myth: The government is using website visitor tracking to spy on people.
Fact: We are trying to improve our customer service, which you've repeatedly told us is not great. (INSERT STAT). We're doing it by using a commercial, off-the-shelf, free product to improve our customer service - which benefits taxpayers by telling the government which websites to focus on and which may not be as useful as they seem. If you have a blog and you use Google Analytics or any basic analytics, you have the same tools we do.

Myth: This kind of tracking is invasive of citizens' privacy.
Fact: Google Analytics doesn't track individuals; individual IP addresses are anonymized. We get three kinds of information: The popularity of a given page (number of visits), the device being used to access the pages (which tells us the optimal way to design our sites), and what operating system is being used (same usefulness as knowing the device).

Myth: The government is spending more and more time and money spying on its own citizens.
Fact: We look for national security threats. When we need to go after someone we suspect, here are the rules we follow (VERY GENERAL SUMMARY). Obviously we're not going to tell you how we do everything we do, but it has to be legal.

Myth: The government disregards the law. It does whatever it wants.
Fact: We've got some pretty strict attorneys.Yes, bad things happen - mistakes, poor judgment, and sometimes, but not usually, corruption.

Myth: The government is the opposite of transparent.
Fact: The government has taken a number of steps toward greater transparency just over the past (X NUMBER) of years. That doesn't mean we're perfect; issues remain around human error, the high number of requests vs. the technology and human resources available to process them, and (ADD ANY OTHERS).

# # #  END SAMPLE POST # # #

Links referenced in this post:

http://www.nextgov.com/cio-briefing/2015/03/new-service-tracks-which-Federal-sites-youre-and-how-you-got-there/107946/

https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/03/19/turning-government-data-better-public-service


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All opinions my own. Not representative of any government agency or entity. Rohrschach test image via Wikipedia.

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