IT leaders in Oakland County, Mich., have years of experience offering shared services to the 61 villages and townships within the county’s 910 square miles. Deputy County Executive and CIO Phil Bertolini never had to think too hard about how to reach out to potential customers for these shared services. “When we had a new service to offer, we had the names of officials there. We could go through one point of contact to inform them of services,” he said. “We never really had to market to them.”

But last year, Oakland County stepped outside its comfort zone by offering cloud-based services to other parts of Michigan and jurisdictions in other states. Early applications include an online payment engine and a health and human services portal that allows educational and health institutions to share data during a health emergency.

As the county launched G2G (Government to Government) Cloud Solutions outside its geographic range, Bertolini and Jim Taylor, chief of e-government services for the county, realized that they were in over their heads.

“We had to do things we hadn’t tried before,” Taylor said, such as reaching out to strangers in new venues, including the National Association of Counties. “Any marketing efforts in the past were done by IT staffers,” he said. “We are not experts in marketing.”

So they convinced County Executive L. Brooks Patterson to fund the hiring of two marketing executives to help get G2G off the ground. It was a tough sell, because Bertolini and Taylor couldn’t find any examples of IT departments hiring marketing staffers. “But [Patterson] approved it, because he buys into our goal of helping other governments,” Bertolini explained, “and, like us, he believes that it can be a win on both sides, and it can offset some of our costs.”

Honing Their Message

Strapped for resources, most technology agencies, no matter how successful or well run, tend to do a poor job of communicating their successes to the public, legislators and other government agencies.

But while it’s still rare for public-sector CIOs to hire marketing staff to help drum up business for shared services, it’s clear that the marketing and communications functions are becoming increasingly important to IT leaders.

Communications executives who were interviewed for this article have recently added staff members, either to improve internal communications or to freshen website content and social media. The trend toward IT consolidation has added to the communications burden of many central IT departments. Recognizing this need, marketing consultancies and membership organizations are starting to target the public sector. For instance, the UK branch of the Information Technology Services Marketing Association (ITSMA), a membership organization, has begun offering special subscription options to the public-sector IT community. ITSMA notes that government IT leaders can learn to better understand the business dynamics of internal clients and achieve better results from private-sector suppliers and internal teams.

One Canadian consultancy works with public-sector agencies, including IT groups, to develop marketing plans and build capacity. “We were formed in 2005 precisely because there is a drastic need for strategic marketing within the public sector,” said Mike Kujawski, vice president for strategic marketing and digital engagement at the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing in Ottawa, Ontario.

“Agencies often give this responsibility to people who have never taken a marketing course,” Kujawski added. “They are referred to as the ‘brochure people.’ They don’t understand how to identify a target audience, and they have vague objectives and goals.”

A key mistake Kujawski sees public-sector groups make is not paying enough attention to social media. “There is a false assumption that social media is all consumer-based, a place where people go to talk about Justin Bieber.” In fact, he said, every niche community in their field is on Twitter and having discussions about things relevant to the agency, and it probably includes their employees.

Government generally has been slow to the social media game, said Kurt Weiss, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. The department is on Facebook and Twitter but is still working out how best to use them. “We had [Department of Homeland Security Secretary] Janet Napolitano in the state recently, and Michigan is a leader in cybersecurity, so we were tweeting about that presentation,” he said. “That was a case where it made sense for us to get the word out in that way, but in general, we aren’t as aggressive about it as agencies that are more public-facing, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

But Kujawski sees social media fundamentally transforming how public-sector agencies disseminate all types of information. Traditionally, communication in agencies is controlled and filtered through the top, he explained. “With social media, your employees can be empowered to have a voice,” he said. “They can share content, provide opinions and become influencers online.”

Agencies will continue to try to maintain control with social media policies. But too often, he said, those policies are long, poorly written and restrictive rather than empowering. “That type of policy gets a lot of pushback,” Kujawski said. Any guidelines or ethical standards about what information can be shared still apply. Social media shouldn’t change anything, he emphasized. Employees just have to be reminded of that. One company, he said, has a two-word social media policy: Be smart. “I like that one,” he said.

Increasing G2G’s Visibility

One of the first issues Oakland County’s two marketing executives, Salina Washington and Valerie Talia, tackled was branding. “They helped us understand that other jurisdictions don’t want the Oakland County name all over their sites,” Bertolini said. “We needed an identity. That’s where the G2G Cloud Solutions name came from.” Now, a website for a small city in Michigan has a small notice at the bottom that reads “Powered By: G2G Cloud Solutions.”

Washington and Talia have identified associations besides the National Association of Counties that the county can partner with to increase its visibility. “They are targeting the Government Finance Officers of America to help us get to that chief financial officer [CFO] in places where the CFO is in charge of IT decisions,” Taylor said.

Potential customers start the conversation with Washington or Talia, but often also end up speaking to Bertolini or Taylor about technology specifics. But the marketers have helped some jurisdictions with implementation. “For instance, one city wanted to have citizens pay tickets online,” Taylor said. “Our marketers helped the court create the notice they use to direct people online, so they know their credit card will be charged. By making that clear, it increased the use of the system. That little bit of marketing help makes a big difference.”

Bertolini said that Washington and Talia are really good at what they do, but he also realizes the county can’t scale up easily by itself if G2G takes off like he hopes it will. “We can’t just keep hiring more Vals and Salinas,” he said. “We have put out a request for information to find a private-sector partner. We got 17 responses from vendors to partner with us on infrastructure and marketing.” Bertolini also has implemented performance measures to assess the value of the marketing campaign. By next year, the team will have a better idea if its marketing approach is on track.

The Accountability Focus

The job of the communications team changes with the context the IT agency finds itself in at the moment.

Cathy de Moll, assistant commissioner of planning and communications for Minnesota’s Office of Enterprise Technology (OET), has worked for the state for 10 years, but the last six months have been the most challenging, she said.

Legislation passed last year will require all IT staff from Minnesota’s 70-plus agencies to move to the OET. Once the consolidation is complete, the OET will have grown from 350 employees to 1,800.

“We are stretched thin at this point,” she said. “I have four people working for me. One is dedicated to the consolidation plan. The others are working on creating marketing material for our service offerings and internal newsletters, as well as press releases and responses to legislators.”

One of the Legislature’s expectations is to have accountability for IT projects in one place, and that will require more effort from the OET’s communications team, de Moll said. She added that over the years, she has learned that CIOs are more effective if they remember to talk in the voice of citizens. “Both with local media and with our legislators, we make a mistake if we don’t talk about technology enough in their terms.” She recalled that after hearing a presentation about a complex IT project, one legislator asked why the state can’t hire the Geek Squad. “They think about it in terms of their home computer,” de Moll said. “We have to talk about how systems can help save lives and make the state government more efficient, how it can make services available to citizens faster, not about networks and interoperability issues.”

The OET communications team also has a new audience internally that it must communicate with regularly about the transition. “We have to communicate more with business leaders for agencies too,” she said. “The person down the hall who worked for their agency now no longer does. We are getting input from agency CIOs on communicating with those business leaders and with staff.”

The OET will soon start marketing its services to local government IT organizations, too.. “As we consolidate data centers, we plan to get local government on board,” de Moll said. “We also have negotiated enterprisewide cloud service agreements to connect and collaborate with Microsoft technologies, and we plan to get cities and counties on board with that.”

The Texas Department of Information Resources has been doing that type of outreach to local government IT agencies for several years. The department doesn’t have an official marketing program, noted Lori Person, its chief administrative officer. Yet it manages extensive external relationships with local governments that take part in its cooperative purchasing program. The department offers more than 750 cooperative purchasing contracts for technology products and services.

“We communicate regularly to them to advise them of products that are available and help them solve problems,” she said in an email response. “We also communicate to vendors, for example, regarding procurement information.”

Communications Role Evolving

Kurt Weiss has been in charge of state-level IT communications in Michigan for nine years, but his role changed drastically in 2010 when the technology agency merged with the Department of Management and Budget. Suddenly he was swamped handling requests for information not just about the CIO, but also the budget director and other finance officials. At the time, he had only one intern. He has since hired two employees, one handling internal communications and the other focusing on external communications and the public-facing website. Weiss says he also plans to hire a speech writer.

There is still some catching up to do, he said. “I just got an email this week from an employee with a URL of a page on our website with contact information of people who no longer work here,” Weiss recalled. “I thanked him and we are updating that. It is something that really fell down last year, and it is important that we keep that fresh and clean up dead links.”

The internal communications effort has become more important as the agency has grown, Weiss said. “Our department has 2,500 employees, 1,600 of them in IT,” he said.  “And that internal communication is a huge part of the job.” The department just underwent an assessment by the Gartner consulting firm. “That makes people nervous,” he said. “So every week we had to communicate what Gartner was looking at, and explain that they were not looking to hack up departments. We have to help them understand the role of the assessment.”

Weiss also closely partners with the agency’s legislative liaison to craft messages in response to legislators’ requests for information. Not a week goes by that there isn’t some story in the local media that requires a response, such as a claim that a contract opportunity isn’t fair or that a software project has gone over budget, he added.

Michigan has received external validation, with multiple awards from the trade press, and the state stays involved with NASCIO projects. “It may not necessarily translate into more money at the state level,” Weiss said, “but now that we actually have a budget surplus after 10 years of deep deficits, having a national reputation as a leader does help.”

David Raths  |  contributing writer