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Today we start a three part series that focuses on usability, social collaboration and mobility needs of the Federal government. For the next three weeks, we’ll examine the trends and challenges affecting how agencies engage with the public and with each other. Over the past three years, there’s been a more concerted effort to make Federal agencies more transparent and their services more user-friendly. However, significant changes take time to implement and seep into the culture of any organization, never mind an entire government infrastructure.

Within the Capital Beltway, the Federal agencies are known by their name’s acronyms, from the well-known FBI and CIA to the lesser known EPA, USDA, FCC and FTC, among others. While their offices may be populated by those within the metropolitan Washington DC area, their impact is far reaching and their services are widely used. 


You Can’t Manage What You Can’t Measure


To help these organizations better serve American citizens the White House released a report in May which laid out a ten-point strategic plan to help Federal agencies improve their digital presence over the next twelve months. Starting in December 2012, Federal agencies will be required to use data-driven user analytics to track site performance and user satisfaction.

To help us better understand the ins and outs of the report, we spoke to Don Bruns, Managing Director, Federal Practice at Navigation Arts, a northern Virginia-based company that provides web and application design and development services to many prominent non-profit and government organizations. 

Becoming more data-driven isn't new, but it isn't necessarily the first thing you think of when you think of the Federal web. While they don't necessarily have customers per se, but they do have a commitment to providing information that is user-friendly and easy to find. Sure, usability is just good manners, but it's also good for business. The easier information is to find, the less time users spend emailing or calling to ask questions, which saves time and money on the back end so staff can focus on delivering information. 

Why has data driven analytics caught the government's attention now? According to the State of the Federal Web Report, only 10% of the 24 major federal agencies use the same performance metrics to consistently evaluate websites agency-wide. The new plan calls for open web analytics for all .gov websites, requiring all agencies to use analytics and customer satisfaction measurement tools on all .gov websites within 6 months.  

Achieving a User-Centered State

To help them meet these demands, some government agencies have turned to Navigation Arts. The State Department for example was able to streamline their security clearance processes via data-driven analytics. Bruns presented about their success during Info360 this year. His presentation outlined the bold challenge  -- to transform the way they investigate, adjudicate, and manage security clearances -- and reduce the amount of time from 75 days down to 35 days. 

By using a user-centered design process, Navigation Arts was able to integrate complex business logic so that case managers could access one portal to interact with seven different systems, which hadn't previously been able to communicate with each other and extended the clearance process unnecessarily. Additionally, users are able complete complex tasks through a series of intuitive interfaces that minimize data entry, provide decision support and reduce the risk of human error, as well as dashboards that provide a central workspace for users to complete tasks, receive messages and run reports. 

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Numbers Alone Can't Bring Success

Bruns and his team are ready to help government agencies embrace consistent data-driven analytics, but admit that quantitative data is only the start. Anyone can collect data, but not everyone understands how to effectively see the story that it tells, which is why they are equally as focused on qualitative data to help web managers understand the motives, expectations and pain points of their end users. 

And there lies one of the challenges in carrying out the goals of the White House's report -- even if you effectively gather consistent web metrics, optimize search engine logs and implement customer feedback surveys, you still need to spend time understanding what it all means. This isn't to say that the the White House initiative to require Federal web managers to start using quantitative user analytics isn't a good first step. Bruns, however, strongly encourages Federal web managers to commit to user research as part of their user analytics program to help them get the complete  picture of their users. 

NEXT WEEK: Social Collaboration and the Federal Government