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

By: John Simpson, Engagement Consultant, GovDelivery

September is National Preparedness Month, an initiative developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of 9/11 to help citizens better prepare themselves and their communities for emergency situations. Thousands of individuals and organizations from across the country take part in awareness activities and training events designed to help others make an emergency kit, plan for disasters, spread the word about preparedness, and encourage others to do the same. September is full of stories about leaders stepping up and working to make their communities better aware of what they can do to prepare. Yet, people often do not know where to start. Which is why FEMA created the National Preparedness Community.

The National Preparedness Community is an online collaborative community organized by FEMA that allows citizens from across the country to connect with others on preparedness best practices and build relationships with emergency management personnel. With over 38,000 members, those who sign up are able to engage with members in their local area, collaborate with those having similar professional backgrounds, and easily search for events happening in their local area. For example:

  • A small business owner in New York can learn best practices around compiling a business continuity plan from another private sector leader in Illinois.
  • A Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, trainer can connect with another emergency management expert in the same city about classes available in the neighborhood.
  • A local organizer can keep the conversation going after an awareness event by encouraging attendees to join in the online discussions.

The National Preparedness Community provides individuals and organizations the platform to take their passion for preparedness beyond their local community or neighborhood and onto a national, collaborative stage.

But just because September is designated as National Preparedness Month doesn’t mean the collaboration stops at the end of the month. Disasters strike year-round and many emergencies occur without warning. The National Preparedness Community operates every day of the year, providing you with best practices around preparedness and access to emergency management professionals that can share their knowledge on the best ways to protect the people we love. Take the pledge to prepare yourself, your family, and your community by joining the National Preparedness Community.

By Lance Horne, General Manager, GovDelivery Federal Team

talking bubbleNo one thought it would happen. If you look back at all the news stories and interviews, no one in the Federal government believed that sequestration would actually happen. But here we are, and it’s clear that sequestration is making an impact. In my last post, I focused on employee communications during sequestration, focusing on how important it is to keep the lines of communication open for your staff. Now, more than ever, being a leader is as much about communicating effectively as it is about vision and strategy.

In today’s post, I want to focus on a different kind of communication: government-to-citizen communication. In the wake of sequestration, I’m pretty sure your agency may have already had a few encounters with confused citizens over what will be cut from the budget – and how it will affect them. And rightfully so. Generally speaking, people are aware that there will be budget cuts. Deep down, people probably realize there’s a possibility that their particular program may be subject to cutbacks. The biggest challenge is how to talk with citizens and stakeholders and keep them updated about what’s going on.

But, in spite of all the challenges that sequestration poses, I believe it’s possible to gain exceptional reach and value with digital communications components that drive efficiency in the face of furloughed employees and funding shortfalls.

Yesterday I talked about how the cuts may be sporadic, and I used the example of national parks. With summer right around the corner, people are likely planning vacations and may be considering visits to parks. Keeping them informed becomes crucial to keeping them satisfied, allowing them to plan their vacations better. They may not be happy with park closures, but they will be more satisfied knowing ahead of time rather than showing up to the park and not being able to get in.

In an age when new information can go viral in a matter of minutes, your agency is competing for public attention on a variety of devices.  To keep people informed, you need to manage multichannel digital communications – email, text messaging, social media and more – in one system. Having a digital communication system in place at a time like this can save your agency lots of time while continuing to keep customers informed and satisfied.

In our work with more than 550 government organizations worldwide, we tell our customers that you need to have a digital communication management system that can help you dramatically increase your direct connections with the public. By maximizing your direct connections with the public, when you need to relay important information that will impact a citizen’s life, you can do so immediately through multiple channels.

I gave one example of parks earlier, but there are additional situations where an efficient communication strategy is critical. Hurricane season starts in June, and it’s plausible that sequestration could still be in full effect at that time. For an organization like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), sequestration cuts may mean that there are fewer resources to meet the agency’s mission of preparedness. Yet, FEMA’s goal isultimately to keep America’s citizens safe, and this isn’t something the agency can bend on. In emergency situations, effective government-to-citizen communications are lifesaving. Even with sequestration cuts, relaying critical information is simply not an area that should be eliminated.

In addition, collaborative digital communication tools can be extremely helpful. By using a collaborative forum, you might be able to strengthen your relationship with the public by being able to gather feedback and create dialogue with citizens in an environment that’s more secure than a social network. By creating collaborative communities, you can create secure, virtual communities that encourage higher levels of engagement. Not only do you provide information, but you can monitor and respond to feedback easily. Plus, you’ll be able to publish content quickly to as many, or as few, people you desire.

I’d like to hear about what you’re doing in your agency to effectively communicate with the public during sequestration. What have you tried that works? Are you forming communities? Have you found other ways to keep citizens informed? Please share what you think is working.

Read my first post, Don’t Sequester Your Agency from Employees During Sequestration.

To get the FREE EBOOK, Leveraging Digital Communications In Emergencies, click here.

By Jennifer Kaplan, Product Marketing Manager, GovDelivery

We’ve all heard the numbers. 8,000+ flights cancelled. Hundreds of thousands already evacuated. Mass transit shut downs up the Eastern Seaboard.* (stats from CNN)  Up to 60 million people will be affected. Hurricane Sandy, now the largest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, is here.

President Obama, addressing the public in a statement this morning, said, “Please listen to what your state and local government officials are saying.” Government communicators are already in the midst of getting preparation and evacuation information out to those who need it. We’ve also seen additional tips for the public on television, radio, through news websites and social media. Here are the top things your organization can do right now if your stakeholders are affected.

Expand Your Reach. The more stakeholders receive your message, the more likely it is that they will be safe and prepared.

  • Update Your Website. Right now is the moment where citizens are most engaged with government organization. Make sure it’s as easy as possible for citizens visiting your website and social media pages to find the sign-up area for your communications. The key to success is a prominent position.  Keep it in the upper right or upper left of your page, but be careful not to blend it with other aspects of your website. For a temporary fix, highlight your sign-up area in yellow or orange.
    Ready.gov website
  • Leverage the Media to Promote Communications. In his public address this morning, President Barack Obama directed citizens to Ready.gov to get up-to-date preparation and safety information on Hurricane Sandy. If your organization is briefing or being featured through any media outlets, be sure to promote your communications and the ways citizens can subscribe to get updates via email or text message. It’s also helpful to include the URLs to your resources in any media graphics.
  • Recommend Power Outage Alternatives. If citizens lose cable, broadcast signal and Internet, they can still receive tweets about the storm on their mobile phone — even if they don’t have a Twitter account. Have citizens subscribe to SMS Twitter alerts. Here’s a great article from the Washington Post on how to do this.

Get the Word Out Efficiently. Be sure to send messages through all your communication channels.

  • Get Preparation or Evacuation Information Out NOW. There is still time to recommend precautionary actions that can be taken by stakeholders. Urge those in recommended evacuation areas to leave. Send reminders to conserve cell and computer power. Ensure citizens have a list of necessary items — enough food, water, cash, medicine and flashlights — should they experience a power outage.
    National Hurricane Center website
  • Don’t Have the Resources? Not sure what information to send out? Leverage existing, official content.  FEMA and Ready.gov, in addition to the National Hurricane Center with the National Weather Service are asking government organizations to share content they’re already creating to spread the word.  Instead of reinventing the wheel, your organization can share the information, tools and resources from these sites. Like and share FEMA’s Facebook page posts. Follow and re-tweet @ReadyDotGov tweets.
  • Continue to Send Updates Throughout the Week. Use email, SMS and social media and other channels to keep stakeholders updated. Be sure to use all means (especially SMS and Twitter) as some stakeholders may not have Internet.Ready.gov Twitter feed

Google has also developed a Crisis Map that provides real-time information about where the storm is moving. The interactive map shows Sandy’s trajectory of the entire country, plus the public can subscribe to additional alerts such as evacuation notices, storm warnings, shelter locations and traffic conditions.

Picking Up the Pieces. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, continue to use digital channels to send updates to your stakeholders. Government organizations will need to work together to communicate relief and clean-up efforts, as well as provide additional resources available to the public. Keep an eye on FEMA, Ready.gov, and the National Weather Service for more information.

Emily Jarvis, Producer for DorobekINSIDER on GovLoop, recently posted a compelling interview with GovDelivery CEO and co-Founder, Scott Burns, on the changing nature of government communications. Here’s an excerpt from her post:

The government has a history of thinking of communication as a one-way press-release oriented type of activity. What we try to do is help people understand that now you need to personalize the experience with the mission of the organization and keep the individual in mind.

In the business world goals are very straightforward when it come to marketing. Make money. It is easy to measure success and failures. For government it’s much more difficult. We need to help clients understand that the objectives are different.

Lot’s of planning is needed up front, that way communication can actually support the mission not just about about getting more Twitter followers.

[For example last] year FEMA had 8,000 people participate in online communities. This year that number is already hovering at 20,000 people. The online communities are transforming the way people communicate. It’s no longer a one-way conversation, it’s all about direct collaboration.


To hear the whole interview, see Emily’s original post on GovLoop.

Have a question for Scott? Want to hear more about his thoughts on government communications? He’ll be speaking at a digital communications event in Washington, DC on October 16. You can also hear from leading experts from around the Federal government about leadership development, new technologies, and digital communications best practices. Registration is free, but space is limited. Reserve your seat today.

In the current heated political climate, lots of air time is given to the failures of the opposing party.

“This policy was a total failure.” “That idea cost us a fortune and nothing worked.” “That was a horrible idea, and I will work to reverse it.”

This kind of rhetoric highlights two important issues that need to be addressed:

  1. The right kind of failure can actually be quite helpful.
  2. Negativity about failure obscures true successes.

1) The right kind of failure can actually be quite helpful.

The other day, I was watching a video of Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the United States, speaking at the recent NextGen Conference. Park was discussing why he loves working in government: because of the amazing opportunity to make a huge impact.

Park, while talking about how to have a huge impact in government, suggested applying the principle of Lean Start-Up from the book by Eric Ries:

  • When you need to solve a problem, get a small, agile team who understands the situation and task them with implementing change. Apply the Rule of 5 – no more than 5 people should be on the team. Any more than that and the difficulty in communication trumps the value add of the additional person/people.
  • Determine what is the smallest possible thing you could deploy rapidly to get customers to tell you what they really want? Go with that. That’s called MVP – Minimum Viable Product.
  • Rapid Iteration – Learn from your customers and iterate in days or weeks, not months or years. Failing fast is actually the most cost effective way of doing things because you haven’t invested a ton of time or money into doing something fast.

I was also reading through Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims.* The book is all about how taking small risks, learning from your failures, and making improvements to your ideas is where true creativity comes from, rather than out-of-the-blue strokes of genius.

Sims writes, “The type of creativity that is more interesting to [University of Chicago economist, David] Galenson, and that is far more common, is experimental innovation. These creators use experimental, iterative, trial-and-error approaches to gradually build up to breakthroughs. Experimental innovators must be persistent and willing to accept failure and setbacks as they work towards their goals.”

What Park and Sims both touch on is the need for the right kind of failure. Implementing a series of small, rapidly deployed risks opens up the potential for huge long term success while minimizing the potential for colossal failure to occur.

For example, if a team of 4 people spent one week building a simple mobile app that never takes off, your organization hasn’t lost a lot. If that same team took 2 years to build a massive, database-driven web portal that addressed every possible scenario imaginable, and it bombs…lots lost!

Now let’s look at the converse. The same team builds a mobile app, and it gets a little bit of traction. It’s not perfect but people seem to like most of it. They spend a little more time fixing the bugs and adding features. More people use it now. More improvements lead to more interest, and ater a couple of years, you have a bona fide hit on your hands. Now, it’s possible that a big 2-year web portal is a hit, too. Great. But if it’s not, you’ve wasted a lot of time and money.

Question to ponder: How do you find ways within your organization to move quickly, fail fast, solicit feedback, iterate, and improve?

2) Negativity about failure obscures true successes.

Government oftentimes gets a bad rap. Lots of critique with little praise. When the rhetoric is constantly negative, people start believing that everything is dysfunctional. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the video I mentioned above, Park states that, with all his experience being an entrepreneur, he is most excited about the possibilities he has in his current role as Chief Technology Officer for the United States.


Because, as he puts it, Impact = Mass x Velocity.

Startups are great, but when they are in their infancy, they have a lot of velocity but little mass so their impact is small.

The government has a lot of mass. Once it is set on a trajectory toward innovation, and starts gaining velocity, the potential for huge impact is very high.

Park sites several examples where the government has embraced innovation, partnered with change makers, to turn a possibly negative situation into a path of innovation.

Here’s some I can think of:

  • The America’s Economy mobile app that helps you take the pulse of the US economy with real-time updates for 16 key economic indicators. This was a joint partnership between the US Census Bureau, The Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. This app was built so previously disjointed, large volumes of data could be accessed quickly and easily.
  • The Milwaukee Police Department creating the coolest police news website in the entire country. They wanted a place where people would actually enjoy going to a government website and wanted to highlight the great work their officers were doing.
  • FEMA’s Ready.gov program that’s using creative technology to bring people together to make emergency preparedness plans…this couldn’t be more timely given the damage Hurricane Isaac is causing. So, now disconnected people from across the country can come together to work on problems collaboratively.
  • The Virginia Tourism Association had some fun and created an interactive map for a craft beer tour. How do you compete for vital tourism dollars? Highlight something no one else is doing!
  • Louisville, KY has created one of the most comprehensive, informative YouTube sites out there. You have great content but no one is viewing it? Get it to the place where people are already congregating.
  • And countless more…

Don’t become stuck in a rut of negativity. Rather, identify areas that need to be improved and start making small changes. You probably will discover that the once-negative problem quickly can become an area of success.

Question to ponder: What are one or two “negatives” you deal with that could be turned into positives by rethinking and reworking how you do things?

Government has the potential to create huge positive impact in people’s lives. It just takes a willingness to fail fast, learn, adapt, and iterate quickly coupled with finding ways to not get mired down in what’s not working by finding ways to create positive new velocity.

Interested in learning more? GovDelivery will be hosting a free event with Peter Sims as the keynote speaker. Register for the Annual Federal Digital Communications Event on October 16, 2012 in Washington D.C.



In an earlier blog post, Top 3 Email Tips to Engage Your Stakeholders, we lay out some simple tips on crafting targeted email messages, effectively conveying your message and eliciting responses from your audience. Once you have identified the reason your audience should read your message, worked on a clear and personable communication style, and provided an interactive process for your audience to respond to your information, it is time to consider how to make your email marketing strategy work even better.

Creating powerful and engaging messages for your subscription list will help you attract and retain subscribers, but where do you go from there? Here are three tips on how to ensure your emails reach their optimal target.

1) Save Your Emails from the Spam Filter

A study on commercial email subscriptions revealed that over 20% of permission-based email does not reach the inboxes of intended subscribers. So, how do you keep your emails out of your audience’s spam filters?

Let Your Audience Control Email Frequency

Some users would like a daily reminder of what is going on with your communications, while others may prefer a weekly overview or emails containing information limited to specific topics. Provide the reader with the option to select from daily updates to weekly digests when they sign up for your subscription. Allow them to decide how often they receive messages and they will be less likely to mark your message as spam in the future.

Make Your Message So Good, Your Readers Will Miss It When It’s Gone

Following our tips on creating messages that are compelling, entertaining, personalized and interactive will help you build email communication that your audience looks forward to as a source of value and timely, relevant information. Work to continually improve your content and achieve the reputation of a trusted source, and your audience will let you know when they are not receiving your subscription. Gaining this type of feedback from your readers enables you to respond to any deliverability issues.

Work with a Partner that Provides High Deliverability

Email deliverability is much more complex than many people realize. If you’re sending your email out with an in-house solution, you have to manage all the technical aspects of different email formats, spam filters, and Internet Service Provider (ISP) relationships to ensure they remain healthy, while measuring the deliverability rate of your emails. That’s a lot of work! If you feel that time and effort would be better focused on other aspects of your communications, put a trusted email marketing partner to work! GovDelivery is just one example of a partner that can coordinate your subscriptions, and we offer a 98% delivery rate and the peace of mind that someone with email marketing experience is getting your email to the inbox of your readers.

2) Test Your Email Format

Do you know if you get more opens and click-throughs with plain text or HTML emails? Plain text and HTML emails each have pros and cons. Plain text emails look more like the emails your readers might receive from a friend, and all email programs will display these messages in a consistent way. HTML messages allow formatting like colored text, images and links, and support advanced design features like columns and headers. You may get more clicks and opens with one version versus the other, so be sure you try and continually test both to gauge what your subscribers prefer.

3) Try New Methods to Build Your List

“How do I build my list?” may be the holy grail of email marketing because it is not immediately clear what successful subscription lists are doing right. You need to hone in on what makes your target reader hand over their email address to a subscription list. Here are a few options to consider:

Use an Overlay

Using an overlay, which darkens your website and highlights a small box for email sign-ups can help double or triple sign-ups to your email list.

The Department of Interior recently launched an overlay and saw dramatic results. They were able to increase their email sign-ups from 80 to 90 sign-ups per day to over 300!

To find out what works best for your organization, try testing an overlay form for a month and see what results you receive versus your typical sign-up placement.

The New Trend: Use a Prominent Sign-up Box

If you don’t want to use a pop-up form or an overlay, you can try placing your sign-up box in the top or middle of your website’s screen where even mobile visitors will see it immediately. This way, you can ask for email sign-ups in a way that can’t be missed. Your reader has the opportunity to sign up easily if interested or continue to the rest of your content without disruption. Best of all, this method also successfully generates two to three times the number of email sign-ups as a less-prominent sign-up form.

The City of Cerritos is a great example, with a prominent sign-up box on their homepage. The graphics and visual also helps emphasize the call to action to sign up for updates.

Provide Social Proof and Incentives

There are two key things to include in your sign-up box. First and foremost, ask for the reader’s email address. Second and almost as importantly, provide social proof for why they should subscribe and continue to subscribe to your messages. An automated calculation based on the number of subscribers will help make your case: “Join over 20,000 in-the-know citizens.”

As a bonus, include a short message or a direct incentive to convince the reader why they should sign up. The message might promise “Weekly tips,” “Daily news” or “Personalized links,” while some subscription lists offer an incentive in the form of a PDF e-book, brochure or paper to first-time subscribers. For example, the CDC offered a zombie comic book, while FEMA provided a list of citizen preparedness tips.

Government organizations looking to connect with their citizens via email marketing and subscription lists are already on the right track by providing timely and relevant information, enabling interaction and conversation between readers and the organization, and defining an official yet approachable internet persona. By following these tips for even more effective email marketing, you can leverage your carefully crafted messages to reach a broader audience and produce a bigger impact.


By Bobbie Browning, VP of Federal Consulting, GovDelivery

As I was reading through the GovLoop Weekly edition a few weeks back, I was struck by the strong sense of emotion I felt about the ‘negative press’ government gets. The public’s perception of government boils down to this: it’s a broken, inefficient system with lazy and overpaid workers. In fact, a recent CNN story indicates 86% of individuals think government is broken.

Government workers like Sandy Ressler from NIST, are reaching out to make a change. Sandy’s blog entry titled “I Work for Government, and I am NOT the Enemy” poses the question – how do we change the perception of Federal employees as the enemy?

It starts with each of us. The stories we tell have a huge impact on our life and community. We’re no longer captive to getting our stories heard through the newspapers.  Social media allows each of us to be an author of our thoughts and gives us an avenue to tell our stories – stories of government workers who are doing excellent work and having a positive impact on real people across the country. So, here’s my part in using social media to spread the word on good government…

I’ve had the pleasure of working with very dedicated government workers for over 25 years. Each and every day I see individuals dedicated to their work and mission to improve government services, engage the public, and make government better.

The hardest part of writing this blog entry was featuring a single individual who serves as an excellent example of my point. The passion and dedication across government is pervasive! To avoid overlooking many excellent individuals, I decided to offer some general observations from recent experiences across government.

Take the entire team at the Census Bureau: many of whom have reached out to us on the weekends to launch a new idea around social media to improve the response rate, thereby dramatically decreasing the number of personal visits to households, and reducing tax dollars spent to complete the 2010 Census. 

Another example is FEMA, where government workers spent countless hours building and perfecting an Agency-wide blog capability to ensure coordinated communications and regional interaction in the event of a disaster. Fortunately, there was a mild hurricane season in 2009, so few people ever learned of the preventive measures that were in place at FEMA.

The stories we tell have a huge impact on our life and community. Join me in building a better government community and improving public perception. Tell your good government story today! Comment on my blog post with a story. Or, if you haven’t already, join GovLoop – the premier social networking site for anyone in and around government. This is the perfect place to tell your proudest moment in government. Look for my next “Good Government” story! 

Signed, Bobbie “Good Government Storyteller”

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