A blog about digital government, communications, citizen satisfaction & engagement, GovDelivery, and other e-government issues

In October of 2012 the UK government launched a new website, Gov.UK, which was designed to host all of the central government’s information in one spot. Neil Williams, Product Manager at Gov.UK, spoke about the strategy and process behind building the website in his presentation “Government Digital Service: Gov.UK” at this year’s UK digital communications event. gov.uk

As Neil explained, the Gov.UK site was created to provide a single website for the central government that would replace the central government’s previous two main sites, DirectGov and Business Link, with something clearer and simpler for users. As part of the migration, thousands of pages from DirectGov and Business Link that no one visited were archived, and those pages that remained were made as easy and accessible to the user as possible. As of April 2013, all 24 of the government department sites had migrated to the central Gov.UK site. Rather than having to visit multiple pages on multiple websites to find information or an answer to a question, users can now find everything they need in one place. But, Neil said, that doesn’t mean the work is over.

“Gov.UK is designed to react to user needs, which means that we make small improvements to the site nearly every single day. This kind of iterative response and change based on what our users need is at the heart of everything we do.” Clearly, this approach has paid off. Earlier this year Gov.UK won the prestigious Design Museum’s 2013 Design of the Year Award, the first website ever to do so.

So, how do you make a useful website that wins awards?

You start with needs, Neil said. People don’t come to government websites for fun, they come to accomplish tasks and fulfill needs. Creating any web page without that as the central design principle is a simple waste of time. You have to understand what users are coming to your site for, and structure the site around that. Gov.UK achieved this by creating user stories for its 6.5 million unique visitors every week. They found that those 6.5 million people were coming to do roughly the same 3000 things, so they focused their attention on figuring out how to make doing those things easier, faster, and more efficient.

There are currently 102 organizations publishing their content on Gov.UK, with over 200 more on the way. Of course, this means there’s an extremely high volume of content being published every single day. To keep things manageable for users, Neil and his team created a publishing system that only allows organizations to publish content that meets defined user needs. There is no such thing as a general information page on Gov.UK.

“So how do we make sense of all of this? How do people understand and find the content they want? First, we needed to collaborate across organizations. And second, we need to notify people about new or updated content that meets their needs,” Neil said.

Before, when users wanted to find information about a certain topic, like climate change for example, they would have to jump from site to site, attempting to locate what they wanted from any number of different government organizations and never knowing if it was the best or most current content. Now, because everything is located on one page on one central site, users can find exactly what they need much easier. To ensure the content on each topical page is the most accurate and relevant available, all departments and agencies with information on that topic work together to curate what is included and how it is presented. Users are now brought to a single page with clear and concise information, and a “details” tab with more information in case they want to dig deeper.

Letting people know when information they’re interested in is available is where GovDelivery comes in, Neil explained. Gov.UK allows users to subscribe to extremely specific alerts, offering many different permutations based on organization, topics, and policies, all the way down to publication type. So, if a user is interested in getting alerts whenever a new speech about education is published, they can filter and combine to build a special alert sent through GovDelivery that meets their very specific interest.

Gov.UK now has over 415 mailing lists and email alerts are the sixth top referrers back to the Gov.UK site. Though these numbers indicate that the subscription system is meeting user needs, Neil and his team would like to make the alerts even more specific.

“People’s interests are unique. We want to provide as useful a service  as we can, which means helping the people who want email alerts to get exactly the emails they need and nothing more. If we focus on user needs, collaborate across governments to create content that better meets those needs, and notify people about just the things they’re interested in, it means we can have a better signal to noise ratio from central government.”

For the full story about the ideas and process behind Gov.UK, watch Neil Williams’ presentation here.

Good government communicators are chameleons. As communicators, you adapt quickly and effectively to changing situations every day, whether it’s internal (like last minute change to an email campaign) or external (like Chameleonthe recent government shutdown). You adapt as needed to engage the public amidst changing legislation, budgets and projects. But how well does your organization adapt to developing trends in digital marketing? The journey to digitize government organizations is not always a quick & easy fix, nor is it the same for every organization. It’s important to remember that going digital isn’t a static process. There is no beginning and end, only a beginning and continuous improvements. We at GovDelivery strive to help make that ongoing process as smooth and painless as possible for you. By reviewing some of the latest private sector digital marketing trends, we weed out what’s likely to stick versus what you can ignore, so you can more efficiently push your organization’s communications with smarter, forward-looking decisions.

So what should you look into incorporating in your evolving digital communications strategy? We took a look at one of the trends highlighted in Epsilon’s Email Trends & Benchmark Report: the rise of the “triggered message.”

Incorporating the  “triggered message” in your communications strategy

What’s a triggered message? Sometimes called a transactional message, it’s an automated message sent out to a recipient. You probably get them all the time from private sector organizations (online receipts, registration confirmations, birthday coupons, etc). But transactional messages are very powerful in the public sector as well. Take, for example, property tax statements. Since tax statements contain very specific information, sending a mass communication without personalized information would not be beneficial to the end recipient, but printing and mailing that individualized information is expensive and time-consuming.

That’s where the transactional message comes in. With advances in technology, you can easily personalize communications that are either triggered by an action (i.e. you request a change in your license and you receive a confirmation of your request) or by a deadline (i.e. your property taxes are due and you can pay them online through a secure portal.) Robust communications platforms can pull pertinent information from your internal database or system and send out a personalized message to the recipient with their information.

Ultimately, triggered or transactional messages simplify communications that used to take days and lots of stamps. Plus, by moving these kinds of communications online, your organization can track whether the citizen or your stakeholder received and opened the email to ensure deliverability.

It’s not hard to see why these targeted messages would increase click-through rates for the recipient—it’s personalized, relevant and engaging information. If you’re interested in learning more about the robust opportunities for government organizations using transactional messaging, download this white paper.

Overall, by adapting to the trends you see in the wider email marketing world, as well as those trends you measure in your own organization, you enable your organization to develop a communications strategy that better reaches citizens. As citizen needs and expectations evolve in an ever-changing public sector landscape, government organizations should be willing to shift strategies to better reach citizens.

Does your organization use triggered messages to make your digital communications more efficient? Let us know in the comments below.

Building a successful government communications plan has never been a simple task. In the digital age, it’s become increasingly difficult for citizens to receive your messages, considering the constant noise surrounding them. Content development is one of the many strategies in a government communicator’s digital toolbox that helps to capture more of these distracted citizens. But where do you start? How do you create engaging content that is not only interesting and relevant, but gets more citizens listening to you as a top-notch resource?

That’s just part of what we cover in the Essential Digital Skills Guide for Government Communicators. Read on to learn how to get started with a content strategy that helps you tailor your communications to grow and maintain your audience, or you can skip straight to the source and read the full guidebook by downloading it here.


First…Spice It Up
When you’re providing new topics and feeds, make sure you stick to topics that are interesting and relevant to your citizens. Cover topics that your citizens are concerned with, like local emergencies, breaking news, road closures and so on. The better your topics fit the interests and needs of your citizens, the easier it is for them to connect why they should sign up to receive messages from you.

Tailor It
Give your citizens some power over the content you produce. Ensure that your subscription experience is personalized to each citizen. Have a list of preferences that subscribers can check off to show where their particular interests are so that you deliver exactly the content they want. Make sure you keep the option to tailor subscriptions available and advertised to your subscribers throughout their relationship with your organization. This tactic will ensure that your messages are always up-to-date with your citizens’ most current needs.

Analyze It
What is working in your content strategy? Which topics are the most compelling for your subscribers? Which ones are the least? By taking a little time to look at the analytics behind the scenes of your posts you can determine where your sweet spot of content delivery is—and expand on that messaging or rework your other posts to apply to a wider citizen base.

Multiply It
Develop multiple ways for citizens to sign up for a feed or alert (and then personalize it). While it’s great to promote each piece of content, you do not want to forget to broadcast the “big picture”—your actual feeds and subscription options. By offering sign up opportunities in as many places as possible, you will unearth more engaged citizens who are interested in your topics.

Deliver It
Similar to providing multiple places and options for citizens to subscribe to your feed, you also need to provide multiple options for citizens to actually receive the content. Whether that’s sending emails, text messages or social media updates, make sure you deliver the message through multiple channels to amplify it. That way you won’t lose any subscribers if they only prefer one method of communication over another.

By expanding on these five guidelines to establish a content strategy, you will direct the attention of engaged citizens on the important collection of content your organization is producing. If you’re interested in learning more about the next steps to cultivate the skills and strategies in your digital toolbox, then download the Essential Digital Skills Guide for Government Communicators here.


In the era of social media, where people are accustomed to sharing everything all the time, news spreads like wildfire. One mistake by an organization and a communications crisis is born. While certainly no communications team wants to deal with a crisis, it’s a part of the job and an important one at that. Response and communication during these times are critical, and it’s how you communicate and respond as an organization that can turn disaster into customer devotion.

Missteps happen in both the public and private sector. And although mistakes are a part of life, when they do happen, consumers and the media are quick to highlight and discuss them. Lately, this has been the case for athletic wear company Lululemon Athletica. For anyone who’s not a die-hard fan following the seemingly constant stream of media attention surrounding Lululemon, here’s a quick breakdown of the current crisis.

Handling crisis communications

LulupantLululemon’s communications crisis kicked off in March 2013 when they released see-through pants. Upon criticism that these $98 yoga pants were sheer, the company immediately issued a recall, promising to have them improved and back on shelves within 90 days. Lululemon responded quickly to the problem with a press release and an accompanying FAQ sheet, answering customers’ most immediate questions in a straightforward manner. Throughout all the media attention, Lululemon remained calm, responding to new questions and updating information as the situation developed.

Although many applauded Lululemon for their quick response and crisis control in March, the company has found itself in the negative spotlight yet again.

A couple of weeks ago, while still working toward recovery from the sheer pants fiasco, Lululemon’s co-founder Chip Wilson unraveled the company’s crisis communications efforts during an interview on Bloomberg TV where he blamed “women’s fat thighs” for the transparency issues linked to the company’s product problems.  Wilson’s comment spurred a media explosion, alienating both potential and loyal customers and even sparking a Change.org petition requesting that he apologize for “shaming women’s bodies.”  Needless to say, Lululemon is facing another communications crisis. Seemingly taking matters into his own hands, Wilson took to YouTube last week, posting a video apologizing to his employees for his comments.

Whether or not Wilson meant to insult women, and people everywhere, I can’t be certain. However, his comment, among others, gives us another example of how to handle crisis communications. Government organizations have a responsibility to communicate to and with their constituents. As a government communicator, you should strive to communicate in a way that doesn’t alienate stakeholders. While those in the public sector are not selling athletic apparel, I think there are some valuable lessons to take away from Chip Wilson and Lululemon.

Respond quickly. When mistakes happen and crisis occurs, it’s critical to respond quickly. Don’t let your audience sit around waiting and wondering what’s going on.  Address the issue as soon as possible, whether you have a little or a lot of information. By responding right away, even if it’s to tell stakeholders that you are aware of the situation, you decrease feelings of distrust. When people are sitting around waiting for a response regarding a situation, it’s easy to make assumptions about why they haven’t heard anything. By responding quickly, your audience feels in the loop, which is critical to a successful recovery.

In March, Lululemon responded immediately to let their customers know what was happening with a press release and an FAQ sheet. People appreciated this and responded positively.

With the more recent crisis, Lululemon has taken a different approach, waiting days to take action. Because Chip Wilson waited to acknowledge his upsetting comment, customers and the media had ample time to share their feelings and opinions in tweets, blogs, articles and Facebook posts, with words like “backlash,” “social outrage” and “scorned” being used to describe people’s reactions to Wilson.

Be Honest. While this one might not be the easiest, it’s certainly the most important. Everyone appreciates honesty. No one likes to be disappointed, and by being honest, you foster a stronger relationship with your audience.

Here again, Lululemon does some good and some bad. In March, Lululemon was not shy about the problem. Lululemon acknowledged the allegations and was honest about the lack of quality in the product. While many loyal customers were disappointed, they appreciated the honesty and trusted the company. And that trust transformed itself into a huge growth in stock and sales later on.

chipwilsonOwn up. If you or your organization made a mistake, take responsibility for what happened. This is the issue Wilson and Lululemon are facing now. Instead of just owning up to the inappropriate comments he made in, Wilson directed his apology to his employees and organization, failing to acknowledge the massive amount of people he insulted. If Chip Wilson would have gotten on camera and apologized to everyone, especially Lululemon’s devoted customers, he could have led his company down the road to redemption.

Acknowledge your customers. When a crisis occurs, it’s natural to focus on what happened, how to stop it and what to do. However, you can’t forget about your customers. It’s important to reach out to your customers and remind them how important they are. A simple statement thanking them for their support can make a huge difference. It may not seem important, but when things go wrong it becomes easy for customers to abandon ship, so to speak. While taking the time to release a statement about what’s going on, take the extra minute or two and let your stakeholders know that they are important. A simple, “We sincerely apologize for the mistake that’s occurred, and we’re working to fix it as soon as possible,” is all it takes to make people feel a little better about a situation.

This is where Lululemon is still struggling today. Yes, Wilson made a step in the right direction by apologizing, but he apologized only to his company, not the customers who keep Lululemon a multi-billion dollar company. Without customers, Lululemon can’t exist, and Wilson’s lack of acknowledgement towards them is certainly not helping him retain customers or loyalty.

Follow Through. When a crisis occurs, it’s important to immediately do some form of damage control. However, it’s also important to put a plan of action in place to figure out what you can do to resolve the situation in a timely manner. Set goals. Make these goals attainable and open to everyone within your organization and outside of it. Let internal and external stakeholders know where you are as an organization and what you are moving towards.

Lululemon did a great job of this in March. They heard the complaints and immediately addressed them. They took the product off the shelves and reached out to their customers about what they did, what their next steps were and what they were going to do to resolve the issue. Lululemon followed through on that plan; people saw that and a few months later its sales and stock were up.

Communicating during crisis is a big responsibility that accompanies our job as government communicators. People depend on our information in times of distress and unknowing.  With so many different ways to handle crisis, the challenge can be handling it successfully. In these situations, the most successful organizations are those who directly address their audience, provide them with some form of information and leverage the strategies and communications tools around. Ultimately, the better your organization can respond to crisis, the more able you are to serve your citizens and create satisfaction.

BusLiving in a metropolitan area, I ride the bus and other major transportation a lot. It’s convenient, cheap and a great way to escape the cold Minnesota winters for a few blocks. And it also happens to be a good model for optimizing a successful digital communications strategy in government. Think about a bus route for a minute. It’s easy to find bus stops—they have consistent signs in close proximity to one other. Buses usually don’t stop every few feet to get to a destination, they have well-placed stops spread out throughout their routes. And they keep running that route over and over again so you know exactly where to hop back on again.

Like a bus, you want to make it as easy and convenient as possible for your stakeholders to find your stop (or organization), go through the route (communication sign-up process), and return for another ride (engage with your organization). With small budgets and large audiences, government organizations are under a lot of pressure for their digital communication efforts to be a smooth, fast ride. So how do you optimize your digital communications process along each stop to make sure you’re building and retaining an audience for your communications?

1: How Citizens Find Your Bus

You can’t ride the bus if you can’t find the bus stop. Similarly, stakeholders won’t engage with your organization if they can’t find you (or don’t notice you) in the first place. In the article, “3 Ways to Supercharge Online Marketing Returns,” author Neal Cabage says organizations need to look at a few metrics to increase marketing effectiveness, including:

“Is your message resonating? … If not, try different versions … until you find a winning combination. Try different messaging, images (if applicable), and targeting (keywords, devices, demographics). Cull whatever isn’t working as you add new testing scenarios and you’ll eventually realize significant improvements.”

While Cabage’s advice is specific to online advertising in private companies, it also extends to a broader communications strategy in government. Try out different types and themes of content on your website, blog, email, and social media. Then, measure where subscribers come to you from so you can optimize your content to what will drive activity.

2: Limit the Number of Distractions

Imagine how frustrating it would be to ride a bus that stopped every 20 feet, or circled every block before continuing on. Similarly, when you grab a stakeholder’s attention to your message, you don’t want to make it difficult for them to sign up to receive communications from you, register for an event, or any action you want them to take. Cabage suggests to,

“Think in terms of trying to guide kindergarteners on a straight line from point A to point B and you have the basic idea: remove all distractions and tell them clearly what you want them to do.”

This might mean putting a newsletter sign up button on the top of your webpage and keeping that registration page simple and streamlined. In the GovDelivery Digital Communication Management (DCM) platform, newsletter sign-up pages deliberately feature only one call-to-action (a box for the subscriber’s email) on a clean, basic webpage to limit distractions. Decreasing the steps to sign up for more information from your organization increases the likelihood that the reader will subscribe.

3: Keep Running the Same Route

It wouldn’t be any fun if the bus decided to drive different routes on a whim. You want to make the campaigns that attract new subscribers consistent so they know what to expect from you and where. You also want to make the messages you send to your subscribers consistent for the same reasons. In the private sector, Cabage says that “the net revenue potential of an existing customer is roughly double that of a new customer.” The same rule applies to the public sector; it’s easier to keep your existing subscribers engaged in your organization mission than start at the beginning and move new subscribers through the process. Your communication strategy should contain consistent messaging with a balance between attracting new subscribers and retaining current subscribers with relevant, engaging content.

As you optimize each of these areas in your communications bus route, each tactic will start to build on the next to amplify the results you see from your digital communication campaigns. Do you have any tips or tricks on how to optimize successful communication strategies? Let us know in the comments below.

Achieving cost savings, citizen engagement, and more effective services in their communities

2013 was a transformative year for the adoption of innovative technology in government. And some GovDelivery clients were at the forefront of these technology movements. Last week, Government Technology announced the winners of the 2013 Digital Cities awards. Coordinated by the Center for Digital Government (CDG), this is the thirteenth year that local governments across the United States were recognized for “progress on information and communication technology practices made over the past year, return on investment, and a city’s demonstrated ability to innovate and leverage creative practices” (GovTech).

Achieving a high return on investment through digitization of services has been a growing theme in the local government market. Todd Sander, the executive director for the CDG said, “Cities that are investing in technology are seeing huge cost savings that are critical to operations and their ability to meet higher demand for services. These cities are true innovators and we applaud them as they work in the spirit of collaboration to provide extraordinary value to constituents, despite budget setbacks.”

Many cities and counties are putting time and effort to building innovative online services, but those services aren’t as impactful if people don’t use them because they don’t know about them. Outbound communications are critical to driving usage and engagement of these digital services.

One of the winning cities, GovDelivery client the City of Palo Alto, Calif. is using technology to drive key city projects, like: “PaloAlto311, the city’s online reporting site for infrastructure issues, and its web platform for near real-time notifications on city permits” (GovTech). Palo Alto also uses GovDelivery’s digital communications platform to increase digital outreach and awareness around other key city projects, including the Zero Waste initiative. The Zero Waste initiative ensures the city can continue to conserve resources and minimize paper waste. Palo Alto maximizes the impact of the Zero Waste program with electronic communications to promote these important city initiatives, such as safe recycling of old documents through document shredding events. Find more information on the Palo Alto Zero Waste initiative here.

PaloAltoEmailPaloAltoWebPalo Alto is one example of many local government organizations making the most of digital outreach and technology for the benefit of their stakeholders. We at GovDelivery are so excited to congratulate Palo Alto and a number of our other clients on their hard-earned awards!

Congratulations to GovDelivery Clients:

250,000 or more population category:

2nd — Louisville, Ky.

3rd — Riverside, Calif.

9th — Baltimore

10th — Raleigh, N.C.

125,000 – 249,999 population category:

7th — Tacoma, Wash.

Less than 75,000 population category:

1st — Palo Alto, Calif.

2nd — Fayetteville, Ark.

7th — Auburn, Wash.

For the full list of 2013 Digital City Winners or to find out how your organization can be nominated for an award next year, visit here.

BP_checklistAs successful communications professionals, we are constantly measuring, evaluating and adjusting to ensure that our efforts are achieving real measurable results. Are your email messages getting read? Are your emergency notifications being delivered? Are your social media posts being shared? And most importantly, are your mission goals being met?

If you’re a communications professional in the public sector, chances are you’ve been asked these questions to evaluate your campaign’s effectiveness. But sometimes we forget to not only evaluate the effectiveness of each campaign strategy and tactic, but the actual processes that are making those communications possible—the processes that set the stage for how much time and effort you put into creating those campaign messages. That’s where your digital communication management (DCM) platform comes in.

A DCM platform is a solution that enables you to manage multichannel digital communications – email, text messaging, social media and more – in one system. Whether you currently have a DCM platform and are evaluating its usefulness or are thinking of implementing a more automated process and are unsure of what to look for, start by asking these 8 simple questions:

  1. Are you steadily increasing your online audience with little to no work?
  2. Is sending out digital communications quick and easy to do?
  3. Does your DCM system integrate with your existing IT infrastructure?
  4. Can you send messages to multiple channels (email, social media, text message, etc) quickly, easily, and at the same time?
  5. Can your DCM system automatically send out messages when you have new online content?
  6. Can you access reports on how your stakeholders are interacting with your messages?
  7. Are your messages being delivered at a rate above 90%? Does your DCM system even tell you?
  8. Is your DCM system tailored to the public sector?

If the answers to some of the questions above are a resounding “no” or even worse, “there are systems that can do that?” it’s time to start a deeper evaluation of DCM platforms. Remember, your digital communication strategy is responsible for engaging your stakeholders to drive mission success. Making that process as seamless and successful as possible directly contributes to the realization of your organizational goals.

If you’re looking for more information on the 8 criteria to consider when evaluating a DCM system, check out this Must-Have DCM checklist.

Reviews no footerOnline reviews aren’t just for your favorite restaurant or bed and breakfast anymore. They’re becoming a commonplace standard for any consumer-facing organization—including in the public sector. In our 3 Ways Peer-to-Peer Services Will Rock Government’s World blog post awhile back we touched on how Yelp, among other online review sites, is already being used to review consumer-facing government services.

But what do you do when someone says something negative about your organization online? It could happen anywhere: on an online review site like Yelp, your blog, social media, or even your website. A response by your organization, when appropriate, can help to strengthen the way other reviewers perceive your brand. Responding to negative reviews isn’t only about solving the reviewer’s problem (although that’s important) it’s also about showing other stakeholders who are reading the reviews that you are a responsive, responsible organization. So what communications strategy can you implement immediately when issues arise? American Express OPEN forum’s article, “Turning A One-Star Review Into A Five-Star Opportunity” gives a great overview for how the private sector can handle negative online reviews. Here’s how you can apply those tips to your communications strategy in the public sector:

Stop Focusing on You

If a citizen posts an unreasonable gripe in an online review that isn’t a true reflection of your organization, your response can help to clear up the situation for other readers. Whether the review is a fraction of the truth or completely made up, don’t get in an argument trying to justify yourself and prove the reviewer wrong. Instead, clearly address the problem in a response to the review by saying that you have no record of their visit, purchase, or whatever interaction they said they had with your agency, but you’re sorry about the problem and would like to make the situation right. Give your contact information and ask them to contact you so you can take care of the issue. If they don’t contact you within a reasonable period of time, you can post a follow-up on the review saying you have been trying to locate the citizen and have been unable to but still welcome their contact.

Own Up to Your Mistakes

If the complaint is a legitimate one, handle the review openly and honestly. Instead of denying that there was an issue, accept responsibility and let the reviewer know how you are resolving the situation. As a government organization, you are at a disadvantage from the private sector because you can’t offer coupons or gift cards to compensate for errors, but you can offer a little empathy and let them know you are working to solve the issue that sparked the negative review.

Realistically, you shouldn’t have to worry about negative reviews too often. According to Luther Lowe, Director of Government Affairs & Business Outreach at Yelp, 85% of reviews on Yelp are positive. But it’s that 15% of negative reviews that give you the opportunity to show your stakeholders what kind of organization you are and reinforce your brand in the marketplace.

Do you have a communications process for handling negative reviews at your government organization? Comment below and let us know your suggestions!

I am an admitted social media addict–I’m constantly connecting, checking and updating my various personal accounts. Although it’s been around for awhile now, lately I have found myself borderline obsessed with Instagram. It’s wonderfully engaging and combines the best parts of Facebook and Twitter through a constantly updated stream of photos. Instagram describes itself as a “fast and fun way to share your life” that works by simply taking a picture, applying a filter and posting it to your account (which can also be synced with Facebook and Twitter).

instaWhile routinely checking my Instagram feed the other day, I began to search for various government organizations and leaders, intrigued by the possibilities of what I would find. I found some organizations doing some great things with the social channel, but only a few. I started to wonder why more government agencies, organizations and leaders aren’t using Instagram and brainstorming the various ways they could leverage this channel to increase engagement with their brand.

I know that Instagram may not seem like the most necessary social network for government agencies to use, but the truth is, Instagram is becoming increasingly more powerful every day, moving from a hip and trendy app to a robust social network comprised of 150 million active monthly users and 7.3 million daily users worldwide. That’s a lot of engagement, and it’s not going unnoticed.  In fact, a quarter of Fortune 500 companies are already using Instagram and that number is constantly growing.  In a world where the public sector has a reputation for falling one step behind in the technology department, creating a presence on Instagram seems like the perfect opportunity to prove this stigma wrong.

Government agencies and their employees may have different missions or goals, but engagement and communication provide a common ground. There are no ‘rules’ for Instagram, just post pictures of you, your passions, what you love and let those following you enjoy and engage. There are already some government leaders doing this successfully, but I see room for improvement and a huge opportunity for government to connect with their audience in a more personable manner.

So how can you get started with Instagram? There are a few techniques I think agencies can easily implement, but really anything goes! Government organizations can have fun. Their employees are fun. Leveraging a little bit of fun can build an emotional connection with your audience, and it’s the emotional stuff that gets shared, “liked” and remembered.  While you brainstorm where you can take Instagram in your organization, here are a few “Gov goes gram” ideas to try:

#corybook#Hashtags.  Hashtags are a huge part of Instagram. I’m a huge believer in their purpose and power (when used appropriately). A hashtag is a metadata tag that provides a means for grouping together messages or photos from various individuals that are all related in some way. There’s already a variety of hashtags in place that government can jump right into leveraging.  For example, searching the hashtag #CoryBooker on Instagram yields 2,365 posts from a variety of people. While Cory Booker, New Jersey’s newly elected Senator, is already an active Instagram user, this hashtag serves as an opportunity for the state of New Jersey or the City of Newark (where Booker has been serving as mayor) to jump in and add their own photos and hashtags and get their pictures seen by the 2000+ individuals who have already posted about Booker.

farmersmarketLocal events like farmers markets are also a great way to get local governments and agencies, such as the USDA, involved on Instagram. Again, a simple search for #minneapolisfarmersmarket yields over 200 photos. Food-related government organizations can join this hashtag conversation by simply liking or commenting on a user’s photo. The bonus is that there are farmers markets held in cities all over the U.S. that local government agencies can use to connect with their stakeholders.

Finally, organizations can always create their own hashtags. If it’s a special day or event, such as National Night Out, cities can promote a specific hashtag and ask customers to tag any photos they’re taking at neighborhood gatherings with that hashtag. For example, Minneapolis could promote #MPLSNNO or #MPLSnationalnightout to aggregate and track how citizens are celebrating the event.

Agency Offices and Employees. It’s easy to forget that behind all the bulletins, parking regulations and information put out by the public sector, there are actual people. By posting pictures of your employees or interesting things going on inside the office, people can put a face to the person answering the phone when they have a question or get an insider’s view of the agency. While this might not necessarily be the most “exciting” information, it’s an awesome way to build a more personal relationship with your audience and in turn strengthen your connection with them. Plus, a lot of what we do is pretty cool. I am sure many people would be interested to see behind the scenes of agencies like NASA (who already has an account with 291,000 users). I know I would.

Your Agency’s Assets. This one is seemingly obvious, but it’s a great way to build a base for your account and it’s something to continually update your account with. Each government agency, employee and the people they serve are unique and different. Why not showcase it? The City of Minneapolis does not have an Instagram account but there are plenty of things they could showcase:NASA  lakes, parks, concerts and movies in the park, the annual gay pride parade and inside views of City Hall (to name a few). The best part is, people are already taking pictures of these things using hashtags like #minneapolis. The City of Minneapolis already utilizes Facebook and Twitter, why not build on these channels with Instagram?

NASA has access to incredible images of our earth, planet, solar system and spaceships. Judging by the 291,000 followers it has,  people love to see these things—they are incredible and for most people, a behind the scenes shot inside a spaceship is as close to space as they’re going to get.

Emergencies and Alerts. While this isn’t the most uplifting idea, it’s important to address. Working in government communications means that it’s our job to communicate everything, the good and the bad. While Instagram is certainly not the first place someone is going to look for information if a hurricane hits, it’s a good way to inform people of the magnitude of a situation. For example, if a pipe burst or a gas line leaked, it’s more important to communicate that information via bulletin, tweet or email first. But posting a picture of the leak and the resulting road closure can be a powerful tool to get people to listen to the alert, and it doesn’t hurt to broaden your reach in this way. Beyond that, showing the result of an emergency situation tells a whole different story. Think back to the Boston Marathon bombings. We were all glued to our news sources for updates, stories and any inside scoop as to what was happening. There was an incredible amount of images shared on various sites that told a story all on their own. People like to see that we are resolving problems, that firefighters are putting out fires and that potholes are getting filled.

As simple as Instagram may seem, it provides a wealth of opportunities for agencies to communicate and engage with their audience. It’s becoming more and more important to constantly inform citizens and to tell stories; Pictures are a great way to do this. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Does your organization utilize Instagram? Let us know your tips for how government could be using Instagram in the comments below.


Our recent post on the websites three deadly sins to avoid for government websites looking to engage stakeholders and gain web traffic discussed why the majority of websites fail to attract their target audience. While many websites may struggle to meet customer expectations, especially in the public sector, there are many shining examples of government websites leading the way in better online experiences for both government agencies and the public.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), which performs annual surveys and reports on Americans’ overall level of satisfaction in a variety of industries, reported an optimistic outlook on receptiveness to services provided by the U.S. government in a 2012 report. Customer satisfaction with these services rose nearly 5% over 2 years, which ACSI credited to customer service improvements driven by higher quality websites paired with a larger proportion of citizens interacting with government through those websites:

“The significant improvement in the federal government benchmark over the last two years is due to two interrelated factors. First, while citizens are reporting generally better experiences across the board regarding ease and efficiency of processes, customer service, and information delivery, the satisfaction driver showing the largest gain is user perceptions of the quality of government websites. Second, not only are citizens rating website quality higher, but a growing proportion of citizens are interacting with the government via this channel.”

ACSI regularly benchmarks websites, but only at the federal level. However, throughout the state and local government levels, there is a vibrant public sector technology and digital communication community that offers best practices for any government organization. We took a few minutes to highlight one website from different levels of local, federal, and international government.

Federal: United States Mint @ USMint.gov

The ACSI benchmarks use customer surveys to determine their quarterly rankings. Although government services typically score below private sector services, several federal agencies consistently show levels of user satisfaction similar to high-performing private sector companies.

The United States Mint is one example of a federal website that generates ACSI scores that meet and, in some cases, exceed the scores of private sector customer satisfaction leaders. Considering that private sector enterprises typically dedicate more resources to focusing on customers than the typical government agency, the Mint’s high scores are even more impressive. USmint.gov resources cover the gamut from a collector shopping resource and customer service center to news updates and social media links, all collected in a visually attractive and well-organized design. The website meets many different needs on a single central website that attracts a wide and varied audience but also caters to specific interests within that audience with a clear navigation system and resources to help new visitors learn more. Personalized email subscription options provide a way for any of these stakeholder groups to get proactive updates so they are notified when there’s new information.

The extensive content peppered with beautiful pictures of U.S. currency is navigable via a robust search function, FAQs, glossary, and site map, as well as a 1-800 number in case a visitor is really stuck. Frequent shoppers on the online catalog can register on the site with user information. Furthermore, clearly labeled navigation tabs provide shopping and product schedule information for dedicated collectors as well as coin collecting and coin minting information for school groups or new collectors.


The secret to the success of USMint.gov lies in the thoughtfully designed and implemented website, with a focus on a variety of stakeholder interests. When government websites are developed with a clear understanding of its audiences and what they want, communicators are able to focus on delivering the content stakeholders want and value in more effective and efficient ways.

City: Louisville, Kentucky @ louisvilleky.gov

Online portals for state, county, and city government have achieved new heights in leveraging information technology and web best practices to meet the needs of the public.

Louisville, Kentucky is one example of a city-run website that has not only achieved excellence in content, accessibility and smart design, but has also maintained consistently high quality in its web offerings over the past several years. louisvilleky.gov has been awarded several Best of the Web (BOW) awards and won 1st place in the City Portal category in 2012. The website succeeds at keying in on citizen feedback to deliver services and information that matter, organizing information in an accessible and easy-to-update manner, and providing services that are innovative and fun to use.

The Louisville website offers quick links for service requests, live chats, and web apps for locating popular city services. Subscription services offer updates on over 400 city topics to nearly 100,000 subscribers. Web forms, an active social media center and even a 311 app provide channels for Louisville leadership to interact with citizens and discuss timely topics in real-time.

A relentless focus on providing service to the public through thoughtful, frequent updates has worked – search engines show that louisvilleky.gov is the #1 online resource in the city. A quick visit to louisvilleky.gov opens the door to information ranging from job listings to garbage pickup presented via rich content and interactive features, making it easy to see why this website is a perennial favorite in the city category.

Overseas: GOV.UK

Governments in other nations work to overcome the same challenges as government organizations and agencies in the United States. An increasingly web-savvy population, increasing expectations and needs, and difficulties in combining interesting, up-to-date content with functional design are common opportunities for improvement for all web portals.

GOV.UK is a comprehensive web portal that strives to offer all British Central Government content in a one-stop website. The portal seeks to provide a predictable and complete resource for anything citizens might demand from the government through a central list of links for the entire UK government. Historically, thousands of disjointed websites made up a labyrinth that citizens had to navigate to find the information they needed. The streamlined design, launched in 2012, consolidated multiple resources into a central site.


The re-design effort was headed up by the UK’s Government Digital Service,  which was formed within the Cabinet Office to transform government digital services. The Government Digital Service website states their purpose is to “offer world-class digital products that meet people’s needs.” Ben Terrett, who led the Government Digital Service’s re-design of Gov.UK as head of design, explained how the website design met the department’s purpose:

“Most people visit a .gov site once or twice a year—if that. So designing a dynamic, fresh interface is irrelevant—rather, the idea was to make the user experience as simple and static as possible.”

The accessible and function-first qualities of the website attracted attention by online design communities, and was named 2013 Best Design of the Year by the London Design Museum. The website beat out not just websites, but buildings, inventions, and cars for the award and is the first website to earn the honor. Other government websites looking for ways to improve their approach to serving the public through functional design based on user requirements can learn from the award-winning web design principles of GOV.UK.

More Tips to Learn from the Best

For even more ideas on transforming public sector online communications, check out the guide on HowTo.gov on the Top 10 Best Practices for Government Websites. This list expands on the key objectives of the best-in-class examples discussed above: Focus on the intent of a government-hosted website and how that translates to citizen requirements, base innovative and rich content on those key interests and needs, build in methods for users to provide feedback, make services interactive and easy-to-use, and never stop innovating!

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