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Feds Build a Better Brand

Federal organizations learn to brand themselves and deliver superior e-government initiatives.

A woman with pink hair and a pink dog sits waiting in line in
a pink Cadillac convertible. "But you don't have to wait in
line," says the voice-over as a laptop computer drops from
the sky, "because now the government is officially online!"

That TV public service announcement heralds
FirstGov.gov, the Web portal to more than 24 million online
pages of useful state and federal government information. FirstGov.gov is the
online component of USA Services, the symbolic
flagship of 25 federal e-government initiatives. The
brand vision of these initiatives is to "unify and
simplify" by using the Internet and other information
technologies to transform the government—eliminating red tape and making it easier for citizens
and organizations to do business with it.

"The initiatives provide an opportunity to
present government in a new, more positive
light," says Greg Streib, a professor of public
administration and urban studies at Georgia State
University and co-author of an upcoming study
titled "E-Democracy, E-Commerce and E-Research"
to be published in Administration & Society.

The new e-government initiatives, which include
everything from campground reservations to online
tax filing, have three primary goals: create a citizen-friendly brand based on easy access to information
and a citizen-centric perspective; reduce costs for
government organizations, businesses and citizens;
and increase efficiency.

The federal government's citizen-centric
perspective is evident in its new approach
to distributing grant information.
Previously, academic, nonprofit and state
institutions that wanted information about
grant opportunities had to search multiple
Web sites, scan the Federal Register or rely
on word of mouth. Today, however, the
e-government initiative Grants.gov offers
one-site access to grant information.

In a world where the organization is the
brand, government also wants to change
internal attitudes and examine issues from
a citizen's perspective. "If you had to boil
our efforts down to a bumper sticker, we're
here to help citizens find and apply for
grants," says Health and Human Services
Department CIO Charles Havekost, who
until April was Grants.gov's program
manager. "That's quite different from
thinking we're here to help agencies
announce and receive grant applications."

To promote its e-brand, Grants.gov
representatives, such as Rebecca Spitzgo,
the former deputy program manager who is
stepping into Havekost's shoes, attend
meetings of the American Association of
State Colleges and Universities, National
Criminal Justice Association and other
groups to promote their Web site and
encourage online links. Because of these
links, a search for "grants" on search engines
places Grants.gov in the top tier of results.

Agencies are trying other creative
approaches as well. The General Services
Administration (GSA) worked with
representatives of the "Dear Abby"
newspaper column to distribute nearly
1 million free Citizen's Survival Kits, and
the Small Business Administration (SBA)
is using National Small Business Week as
a venue to promote its efforts. And this
June, USA Services plans an integrated
multimedia campaign to promote its
accessibility and capabilities.

Cutting Costs, Increasing Efficiency
Cost

reduction for citizens and businesses,
as well as for government, is paramount in
the new e-government. SBA estimates that
regulatory compliance annually costs U.S.
businesses $320 billion in paperwork and
other expenses.

Filling out forms costs businesses an
estimated $40 an hour, so SBA is developing
online capabilities to minimize the time
needed to complete paperwork. One pilot
program will automatically distribute
common information, such as business
name and address, among multiple forms
for programs affecting the trucking and
coal mining industries. Online grant
application forms at Grants.gov save
copying, mailing and other costs.

Agencies save time and money by
outsourcing some activities to USA Services
and Grants.gov. "When we help the Interior
Department and other agencies field
telephone calls or e-mails, they save on
personnel and can concentrate on core
missions," says Stuart Willoughby, program
manager for the GSA's USA Services.

Technology is vital to improving
efficiency, and Grants.gov is a good
example. It uses Extensible Markup
Language (XML)-based application e-forms
for competitive grants totaling about $100
billion. This technology lets information
be exchanged easily among various
systems, regardless of the underlying
platforms. Grants.gov will shortly provide
grants opportunity information in XML
format to facilitate further analysis by
the various applicants' systems.

In addition, Grants.gov uses e-mail to
communicate new grant information. It has
sent 250,000 e-mails to interested parties
announcing the availability of grants.

For greater efficiency, USA Services relies
on speech-recognition technology. Its
interactive voice-response system answers
between 35 percent and 40 percent of
telephone inquiries without human
intervention. A knowledge base covering
more than 3,700 topics lets representatives
at the national call center answer questions
or refer callers in an average of 180 seconds.

Have these e-government initiatives
succeeded in changing the government's
brand? A December 2002 study by The Pew
Internet and American Life Project reports
that 42 million Americans have used
government Web sites to research public
policy issues, 14 million have researched
government sites to guide voting decisions
and 13 million have participated in online
lobbying campaigns.

Government efforts to "unify and simplify"
are having a measurable effect. GSA's
E-Gov initiative generated a score of 79 in
the 2003 American Customer Satisfaction
Index, based on a University of Michigan
survey. GSA's score was more than eight
points higher than the governmentwide
average of 70.9 and six points higher than
the survey average for private sector scores.

In 2003, USA Services activities generated
209 million contacts, including 202 million
Web site page views, 1.7 million toll-free calls,
6 million requests for publications and
60,300 e-mails. About 225 million contacts
are projected for 2004. And the Grants.gov
site received more than 1.1 million hits
during one week in March 2004.

Some of the results are intangible. "The
feedback has been very heartening," says
Havekost, speaking of Grants.gov. "For
years, grantees have been burdened by the
many different processes among agencies,
and they applaud our unification efforts."

Rebuilding and rebranding government
requires vision, technology and a change in
processes. "For years, the government has
been using a bureaucracy-centric presentation
of what it has to offer," says Ronald Miller,
SBA program executive officer for
e-government. "But e-government is
about using 21st century delivery models and
a customer-centric approach to services."

CHINA REACHES OUT TO ITS CITIZENS

The Internet wave that forever changed the way people interact with
their government in the United States, the United Kingdom and other
countries is now splashing onto Chinese shores. Like the countries that
preceded it onto the Web, China is moving forward with e-government
initiatives to cut bureaucratic delays and make it easier to do business
with the government.

In Shanghai, e-government advances have eliminated the need for
some official approvals. The country's tax department now replies to
online citizen inquiries within three days instead of three weeks. And
the Shenzhen legislature in southeastern China asked citizens to
contribute online suggestions about an upcoming legislative agenda.

China's national government is also striving to open the lines of
communication with its approximately 68 million citizens who have
Internet access. To date, government agencies have established more
than 3,000 Web sites.

Such efforts are creating a positive impact on the political culture.
According to a two-year study by the Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences, about 70 percent of the 4,000 people interviewed said
Internet use would improve their political knowledge and give the
government a better understanding of its citizens' views.

"After the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, the China
brand was a single man standing in front of a tank," says Yuan Peng, a
visiting fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in
Washington. "Today, it's about being responsive, constructive and
moderate."

Dec 31 2009

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