Content strategy at government agencies

Posted on June 30, 2014 by - Strategy, User Experience

USDA in Washington, DC

Interested in doing content strategy work for the government? Read these notes from a DC panel of digital specialists. Photo by Robert Claypool, Creative Commons

What challenges do content strategists face when working for the government? Three content strategists for government agencies shared stories and advice during a panel discussion on June 26. The panel was organized by Content Strategy: DC, hosted by Threespot, and moderated by Natalya Minkovsky.

Meet the panelists

Andrew Hughey

Andrew Hughey is a product development director for the Internal Revenue Service’s Office of Online Services. He works with clients, editors, and engineers to ensure that products meet the users’ needs.

Bernetta Reese

Bernetta Reese has served in digital and strategic communication roles at the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Homeland Security, and Housing and Urban Development.

Katherine Spivey

Katherine Spivey is the web and social media manager for the General Services Administration’s Integrated Technology Services branch, which sells IT solutions to government agencies.

Content strategy challenges in government agencies

All three panelists mentioned aspects of government that make content strategy challenging.

Government agencies often have strict rules about who can work with their content. In some agencies, Bernetta noted, employees have to go through training before they’re even allowed to touch the content or the content management system.

At the IRS, Andrew’s team is trying to introduce more modern tools. “I’d rather use stuff that’s already built and . . . used by the rest of the world,” he explained, but the approval process can take years: “We have a lot of support from senior executives, so [the approval process] is only six to nine months for us.” It can take years to get approval for new software at other government agencies.

Katherine has just finished interviewing job candidates for a content position. All candidates had to go through the government’s screening process before she interviewed them. “Some people got through . . . who had no content experience except for the word Drupal” in their résumé. “I told them, ‘There’s no logistics, no coding. The position’s about writing, interviewing. Are you really interested?’”

According to Andrew and Bernetta, senior leadership is often onboard with content strategy and user experience. Resistance more often comes from other stakeholders. In general, though, government agencies tend to look for quick, prescriptive solutions to problems, Andrew observed. When presented with complicated challenges, stakeholders often say, “‘Oh, we’ll just create FAQs.’”

Section 508 requires government websites to meet certain accessibility standards, and the Plain Writing Act of 2010 says that the government content must be written in plain language. Section 508 is “a magic word that will scare people,” Andrew noted, “but don’t use it too often . . . . It can kill a project.”

Objectives for government websites

It can be challenging to get stakeholders to agree on the objectives of a site. A site’s objectives should align with the organization’s needs and the users’ needs, but often it’s a struggle for organizations to define either set of considerations.

For the General Services Administration’s Integrated Technology Services website, the objective is to increase market share by selling more IT solutions. When Katherine receives a request to put more content on the site, she asks, “Are you providing this information because you have it, or are you providing it because people are actually asking for it?”

Sometimes visitors want information that the site doesn’t provide. Most government agencies have traditionally treated the web as an afterthought. Katherine tells senior leadership that their site needs to be “the center of the agency’s outreach efforts . . . the centerpiece of your business decisions.”

“You know tons of stuff,” she paraphrased, “but it’s not necessarily reflected on your pages.” It’s usually not enough just to attract visitors or get them to download materials. What do you want people to do? “Is it to sign up for training? Is it to fill out a form? Is it to get more orders?”

It won’t happen by accident. It takes coordinated, deliberate effort. “Content strategy is a people strategy,” Katherine emphasized. “You have to get [people] involved, and they have to care.”

Tools that government agencies use

Andrew, Bernetta, and Katherine all talked about the power of analytics to create an impetus for change.

“Our pages tend to reach thousands,” Bernetta said, “so if [a page] is not reaching at least 2,000 visits in a whole year, we know we need to make adjustments.” Her team at USDA uses this data to identify common problems across pages and look for ways to consolidate content. The analytics report can be very influential at the department because it goes all the way up to leadership.

Staff at government agencies commonly use Word, Excel, and Google Spreadsheets to create and manage content. All three panelists would like to move to more powerful tools.

The IRS recently began using A/B testing and multivariate testing with tools that were created in house. Andrew is seeking approval to use Optimizely or the Experiments feature in Google Analytics.

Katherine and Andrew use eye-tracking software and heat maps to help clients understand how visitors interact with content. Andrew often invites stakeholders to observe the usability testing. Once they see how users struggle with the site, it’s impossible to ignore the problem.

“We have a ‘Rate this page’ function that feeds into a Google Docs document,” Katherine mentioned. “Sometimes people say really helpful things. ‘I was expecting to see this here, and I didn’t.’” This feedback can help the owners to see their content from their visitors’ perspective. What pages in aggregate are people asking about? Are there certain pages that need to be clarified?

Advice to content strategists who want to work in government

“Know the rules,” Bernetta advised. “We have guidelines and rules that we have to follow.” Content strategists need to understand Section 508. They need to know how to navigate within a bureaucracy.

Remember that content strategy is about managing people. “Don’t contradict your content lead in a meeting,” Katherine warned. Know when it’s appropriate to brainstorm and share ideas, and know when to hold your comments for later.

“You need to be able to write, speak, and give a persuasive presentation,” Andrew advised. It’s important to be able to organize your thoughts in a coherent manner. “If you can get those fundamentals, the details matter much less. You can learn them as you go.”

Josh TongJosh Tong is a content strategist and content marketer in Washington, DC. He helps colleagues create powerful content through research, strategy, and implementation.

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Content Strategy at Government Agencies by Josh Tong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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