Interview With Bev Godwin Of GSA: “We Can’t Expect Citizens To Come To Our Websites, We Have To Be Where They Are”

Bev Godwin, GSA

Bev Godwin, Director of the Federal Citizen Information Center at GSA, sat down with WashingtonExec to discuss current projects and initiatives at GSA. We asked Godwin about her most recent venture, Publications.USA.gov, as well as how the federal government is utilizing social media to get its message across. We also learned about Godwin’s recent trip to Turkey as a GSA representative, where she reconnected with her study abroad host family from college.

WashingtonExec:  Could you give us a brief background of what you do at GSA and how you got there?

Bev Godwin: My position at GSA is Director of the Federal Citizen Information Center which is one of the offices within GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.  The mission of our office is to provide government information to the public; when, where and how they want it. I came into the government a long time ago at the Department of Health and Human Services.  I have worked at the White House twice but I came to GSA when  USA.gov came to GSA.  I was the Director of USA.gov for many years before going to the White House and also starting GSA’s Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement. I started this job just a little over a year ago.

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We can’t expect citizens to come to our websites; we have to be where they are. I think government is ahead of the private sector in this area in the amount of communicating and interaction they are doing through social media.

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WashingtonExec:  How do you think social media has changed the way the government interacts with the public?

Bev Godwin: I love that question because it has changed so dramatically.  We can’t expect citizens to come to our websites; we have to be where they are. I think government is ahead of the private sector in this area in the amount of communicating and interaction they are doing through social media.  It used to be one-way communication – we pushed out information.  In general consumers don’t just want to be pushed information, they want to comment on information.  They want to share information with their friends.  They want to know what their friends like.  They want to vote whether they like it or they don’t like it.  They want to edit it.  Just the whole way the public consumes content has changed and we have had to change along with it.

WashingtonExec: What are some things that you are excited about pursuing this year at GSA?

Bev Godwin: We started with print and then moved to phone and then we moved to email and we moved to the web and then web chat and we moved to social media. This past year we moved all of the publications to Publications.USA.gov which is a new part of USA.gov and we have over 700 consumer related publications there.  In support of GSA’s zero environmental footprint initiative we’ve added a section on “going green” that features more than 50 online publications to help citizens adopt ways that they can save energy and reduce waste.  According to the PEW Research Center tablet and e-reader ownership nearly doubled over the holidays and so Publications.USA.gov is giving this new generation of tablet and e-reader users’ information they can trust in the format that they want.

WashingtonExec: What is a frustration that you face at GSA?

Bev Godwin: Your readers will understand completely my answer – the acquisition process takes way too long.  It is particularly hard to work with some of the newer start ups who don’t have any government schedules.

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There is no real good tools on the market to analyze that data in a way that is useful when you get a million comments.

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WashingtonExec:  In a perfect world what product or tool do you need that would allow you to interact with the public better?

Bev Godwin: There is a whole suit of new tools out there to engage the public in dialogues. There is not much out there in analyzing the input that you get.  When you are as big as USA.gov or WhiteHouse.gov you get a lot of input when you do one of these public dialogues.  The tools help a little bit;  the community is helping you bring things to the top through categorization that you put up front you can help, as can the public voting up and down.  There is no real good tools on the market to analyze that data in a way that is useful when you get a million comments.

WashingtonExec:  How do you balance between pumping out too much information or over saturation through social media channels or not giving enough information?

Bev Godwin: On USA.gov we include federal, state and local and territorial information because people don’t know how government is organized, they don’t want to know and they shouldn’t have to know. We try to focus on top tasks in terms of what are the public coming to the government for, what are they trying to do.  They don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll visit a government website today.”  They wake up and think they have to renew their passport or they wonder at what age they can get Medicare or whatever their question is.  We want to be able to quickly and easily get them that information.  The tagline for USA.gov is “Government Made Easy”. Your question is so good because it is almost our whole job – how do you make it usable, how do we make government easy.

photo by CNN Turk

Bev Godwin: This past December I recently had an experience that was a highlight for both professional and personal life.  Just to give you some background when I was in high school I was an exchange student to Turkey.  I learned Turkish and over the years I have kept up with that. This December I was invited to speak in Ankara, Turkey on behalf of GSA and I spoke at the Parliament about open government.  I also spoke at Govcamp Turkey about USA.gov and social media, and I was interviewed by CNN Turk . . . these were a highlight of my professional career and I opened all of my presentations in Turkish and people just immediately started applauding because they couldn’t believe an American spoke Turkish.  In addition, I reconnected with the family that I lived with 30 years ago.  I’m still on a high about that.  I also got to see the beautiful country of Turkey and eat their fabulous food again.  It was fabulous.

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