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Where Is E-Government Communication Headed?

Scott Burns, the CEO of GovDelivery, shares some insights about the present and future that might surprise you.

For years and years, governments have been feeling the pressure to communicate more effectively with the public. Social media and other readily available tools have been a big factor in changing citizen expectations, and some governments have done a better job than others at meeting the increased demand for transparency and real-time information. Some governments have chosen to bring in outside expertise to modernize their communications. One of the biggest players in this emerging market is GovDelivery, a St. Paul, Minn.-based company providing automated messaging solutions, social networks and other tools that are tailored to the needs of government.

Government Technology caught up with the company’s CEO Scott Burns about the present and future of government-to-citizen communication. What he had to say might surprise you.
What exactly is GovDelivery trying to do, and what niche in the marketplace is it filling?

The basic opportunity that we create for government is the use of communication to drive mission results. Historically in government, communication was seen either as a public affairs role, or a defensive or reactionary role. What’s really amazing now is the transformation that we have seen, where clients at all levels of government have started to see that just because you are in public sector doesn’t limit your ability to use communication to move the needle within your mission. If you think about it, the private sector has made incredible advancements in how it markets to the public. We are marketed to with a lot of sophistication by Amazon, airlines, television, print, social media — everywhere we go marketers are figuring out new ways to capture our attention. In government, I think that sort of mentality is often frowned upon.

The government looks at communication, again, as something that needs to be more reactionary or more public affairs-oriented. The last couple of years this really exciting transformation — and new tools — is bringing new opportunities for government to connect directly with people on issues that actually get down into the details of how the government is benefiting each individual citizen. So for one person, it might be helping them save time on their commute. For another, it might be helping them identify the transit pass that makes the most sense for them. For another person it might be getting them to get the flu shot.

GovDelivery’s mission is to help the government make these direct connections with the public. We do that in three ways: One is to help the government build up a base of people that it can reach electronically. At the simplest level, it’s getting people signed up for things like newsletters, SMS alerts and tweets, and fanning out on Facebook. We are about building that digital audience for outreach to be as large as it can possibly be, which is critical to any digital communication. The second thing is automating the communication process, which can be very difficult to do in government. In a small city, how the parks department and the police department each communicate is dramatically different. The third thing is using a government’s reach and streamlining the communications process to drive real results.

Do you think state and local governments are doing a better job of communicating than they were, say, three years ago? And in what ways are they and what ways aren’t they?

I think the general trajectory is very good as far as how government communicates. If you compare government to the private sector — sometimes it’s not a fair comparison. The private sector is naturally going to advance more rapidly in certain types of communication because the measurements are much more clear. It’s much easier to make progress in the private sector when it comes to digital marketing because in the private sector if you try something that generates more selling, you do more of it. In the public sector that innovation happens a little bit more incrementally and with a few more false starts along the way. Because it’s harder to measure results, and often the communication’s success or failure is subject to the judgment of a number of different individuals rather than hard metrics. So it’s a mixed story, but there has definitely been a lot of progress in terms of creating more ways for the public to get information and keeping the public more informed.

I would say that there has been a rush to do more with less. In the private sector, what has happened that’s different is people are doing more and doing better by doing things differently — and by giving up some of the old practices. We are seeing advertising shift from television to digital media, for example, and direct mail go to direct email. That shift is not occurring in government quite as fast, and I think that has put government under a lot of pressure. In some cases, I think governments are trying to do too many things. Where we see the most success is with clients that first think about how the communication they are doing can really make a difference — in terms of benefiting their mission or impacting the community. Then where they focus on a small number of tools that can make a difference, rather than trying to throw every possible solution at the wall.

What in your mind are governments doing that they shouldn’t be doing?

If the mayor’s Facebook page has 15 fans, they don’t need to spend a lot of time putting the message out there. Maybe they should focus on the city website, where they are getting a lot of traffic or email lists that have grown over time. Or maybe they should go out to some gathering places where people around town are getting together and do in-person updates. It’s about going where people are, and the communicators that we see having success are just as inclined to use press releases as they are to use Twitter if they think it’s the best solution. When you see a city trying to do everything all at the same time — and bring the same 10 tools to every problem without a lot of focus — that’s when they seem to struggle.

There are a lot of cases where there are some blinders on in terms of when to take the message offline. For example, one of the very best places to get people signed up to email alerts is at a neighborhood meeting. It’s one of the best ways to reach people and get them signed up. And it’s incredibly difficult for us to get our clients to gather email addresses or mobile phone numbers in person because often the people who are doing the online digital work don’t show up to the neighborhood meeting. So that is probably the biggest mistake that we see.

Based on your analysis, where do you think the market is going? Is email, for example, a dying medium?

We have made a big investment in social media and networks, but what I think people don’t understand is that new channels often reinforce each other more than they compete with each other. Email might have killed the fax machine, but Twitter is not going to kill email. Email is a foundation channel; it has incredible benefits in terms of the kind of outreach that the government needs to do. We have seen then demand for email go up dramatically as people have gotten more engaged online and in social media. That seems to be happening everywhere in the market. We are seeing across our client base 30,000 people or more signing up new for email every single day. The No. 1 mobile app is email. It is not just our observation, it’s just the facts. Email is not going to die. It’s going to be around for 100 more years.

What’s your opinion of governments that are investing in staff positions for social media directors or Web 2.0 gurus?

I think it’s a good idea to have a social media director at an agency. Anytime an organization is putting focus on a communication position, I think that that is a good idea.

But basically calling somebody a social media director is like calling them a Web 2.0 specialist. They will be outdated pretty soon. It actually makes a bias toward a particular tool, and I think that there is going to be a coming together over the next three to five years where there is no such thing as a social media expert — there will be a communication expert who has current knowledge of how to use social media, and there will be communications experts whose knowledge is dated. My view is that the social media expertise needs to be integrated into every single position so that it’s part of the toolkit for the library director just like it is part of the toolkit for the public information officer. I think that it will happen naturally. It’s important that we don’t outsource this incredibly important knowledge of experienced public servants to people just because they are the young, hot social media expert. I think that is very dangerous, so social media tools need to be integrated into the outreach strategy that includes phone, print and neighborhood meetings.

How much is your company thinking about the emerging trend of machine-to-machine communication? The idea is that citizens driving past the DMV would immediately be sent a text message reminding them to renew their driver’s license.

What government doesn’t do very well is to do that sort of age-old McDonald’s trick: asking everyone if they want fries with their hamburger. This idea of machine-to-machine communication can be executed in a very simplistic way just by looking at every moment of interaction with the citizen as an opportunity to introduce to them other ways that they can get value from their relationship with government. In order to support that as a technology platform, we’ve had to rearchitect our entire platform over the past three years to be entirely open.

The FAA manages a database of 5,000 different airplane parts that are tracked for emergency directives. The agency has set it up so that that database can automatically send messages with PDF attachments to all the people interested in those aircraft parts whenever there is a problem. Maricopa County, Ariz., has an air quality system that is tracking the quality of air all the time and automatically triggers alerts out through GovDelivery. So I think that era [when machine-to-machine communication is everywhere] is around the corner and that can be very exciting.