Higher Logic Blog

How Government-Owned Online Communities Engage the Public [Transcript]

Written by Joshua Paul | August 26, 2012 at 12:30 PM

In episode #7 of our social business podcast, ProCommunity, I spoke with Joseph Porcelli, the Director of Engagement Services at GovDelivery and founder of NeighborsforNeighbors.org, the country's first neighborhood-centric urban social network. We discussed how government agencies are using online communities to empower citizens.

The conversation also included how to get your audience to work together, successful approaches to social network adoption, and measuring ROI for online communities.

ProCommunity #7 Transcript: How to Build a More Social Government Using Owned Online Communities

Josh: Welcome to episode # 7 of ProCommunity - the show where online community meets business performance. I'm Josh Paul. I'm very pleased to have with me today, Joseph Porcelli, Director of Engagement Services at GovDelivery, a really interesting firm that helps government agencies connect with the public in more expansive and valuable ways, and we're going to get into a lot of that during this episode. Joseph also founded NeighborsForNeighbors.org - the nation's first neighborhood-centric, urban social network. Welcome, Joseph.

Joseph: Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Josh: Thanks for being here. So, let's get right into this because there's a lot of information that we want to cover. Why is government doing this? Why are government agencies building communities and engaging constituents in online communities?

Joseph: I think it comes down to some basic needs, actually. It's that there's greater demand for services, there are less resources to fund and execute those services, and people have expectations now that, with social media, that they can get access to information and help that they want, in newer ways that are faster and more, I guess, in line with what they expect and how they're used to. So tools like social networking or collaboration platforms for government help government achieve those three things.

Josh: So, most people are most familiar with online communities in the context of business or membership organizations - where the line to sales or member attention are a lot more straightforward, but with government it's really about changing a behavior with a massive audience. How is that possible? And did I get that right?

Joseph: Yeah, I think you're pretty darn close. Government really cares about some basic things. They want people to be safe, they want them to be healthy, they want them to have shelter, they want them to have education, they want them to be able to prosper and grow and contribute to the greater good. So, there are lots of different tools and different ways to do that, but something that gets lost is really what are we trying to accomplish? What matters? What is the mission and what are the mission objectives? So, here at GovDelivery and our social network that we operate called govloop.com, we work to help connect and empower government to execute their mission effectively and efficiently.

Josh: You're not only empowering government. People on different sides of the issue may look at a government-sponsored online community and say "I don't need more government", but in talking to you and learning about GovDelivery, you're really not only empowering government but you're empowering the public. A big part of what you do is getting the public to learn something and share it with other constituents. Is that correct?

Joseph: It is, and I think really what it comes down to is flirting and exploring with the role of what can a citizen do. What impacts can citizens make to make a difference in their daily lives and those of their neighbors, those they may work with, study with, or worship with. So if we think about engagement and we think about the typical definition: people think civic engagement means going to the polls and voting, super important, it's great, but as we're faced with dwindling resources and we're faced with increases for demand of government services, the role of citizen, in my opinion, and what we're starting to see is that it's increasing. And we have an engagement funnel, and the last phase of the engagement funnel we call leadership.

What we're really looking to do with these online communities is to expand the role of citizen to co-create, co-organize, or act in partnership with government, to take that message or to encourage people to change their behavior; or join the CERT program. For example, with FEMA, an assist emergency responders during emergencies or whenever they're needed, so it's a very interesting and fun opportunity to work on. Because if you think about all of the folks who volunteer in the country and all of the skill and the resources that we have as citizens, there's a lot we can do. I have this, I call it the perimeter of community, and it's something that everyone can think about. So, if you think about your community or the immediate folks that you care about or may be in service of, you think of your family, right? You may think of your spouse, or your immediate friends, or whatever it is; but what we're really working on is expanding that perimeter out past your dwelling unit; your home, or your apartment, or wherever you are, out to your neighbors. Then out past your immediate neighbors to the end of your block, or to the end of your road if you live on a farm, or wherever that is, right?

So, it's an exciting time because we're not only seeing more and more people want to take this on, they're pulling it, and there's lots of great social innovation with open data where people are taking information that the government has and doing awesome things with it. Like helping people find when the next bus is coming, which for me helps a lot. So that's a long, expanded answer to your question, but it really comes down to what else can we do together; and government really sees itself not as a solution but a platform. It facilitates inspiring and providing people with the tools and the data to make contributions to improve their daily lives.

Josh: So an important element in a successful government online community is to really think about it as citizen-centric, rather than government-centric.

Joseph: That is a very good way to put it. There are a couple projects that I worked on, really part of the internal objectives are to reduce the distance from what Washington thinks is important, to what the community knows the impact really needs to be and bridge that gap and have there be real-time collaboration and feedback. So, the knowledge is shepherded, it's asked of the public, shepherded back inside the agency and their systems can be changed, or tweaked, or reinvented to accommodate, to actually get the mission objective done; based on the feedback of the what the citizens say, "No, actually this is what we need."

Josh: How did you get involved in helping state and federal government build communities and engage the public? So let's back up a minute.

Joseph: Sure. Totally by accident. If you asked me, in my last career I was an ACT certified consultant, you know ACT database, and this was back in 2004. What happened was I was walking home and one of my neighbors came up to me and said, "Hey man, I just got mugged at gunpoint, and I saw some other guy get pistol whipped." I'm like, "What?" and this is just down the street from my house. I was freaked out, I'm a big guy, he was a big guy, I thought I didn't have anything to worry about, but apparently I did. So, I did a bunch of research and found out that people were getting mugged walking home from the "T" all the time, this is the "T" or the Metro in Boston, where I was living. People weren't communicating.

They weren't communicating with each other and they weren't communicating with the police department and it turned out the same couple folks were mugging multiple people time and time again because people weren't communicating and I'm like "that's dumb" So let's do something about it. So, I just started organizing events in my neighborhood, bringing neighbors together where they would meet at neighborhood socials, and then we started doing organizing events where neighbors would create community service projects and social activities based on their interests, and they would stay together over time. Through that organizing, I created a problem where I actually couldn't keep up with all the interest and the enthusiasm the community showed. And, this is really before, this is 2004-2005, so technology hadn't really caught up to all this interest yet, right?

So, I wound up, through a number of trial and error and different platforms building this social network for the city of Boston, neighborsforneighbors.org that connected neighbors to each other and their civil servants, so they can work together.

What I really looked to was remove myself as the bottleneck. I was willing to do this work, and I was doing this for fun, but I knew that I was a limitation. So I looked at technology to facilitate that, so it'd be more effective, more efficient, and would increase engagement which would mean people were safer and people had more exercise together and more volunteers to local non-profits and the police department could reach thousands of people instantly to mobilize them to take action.

So essentially what happened there, I wound up being recruited to Boston police and worked there as a community organizer for a number of years; and worked on some special technology projects. I had a technology background, so I like to think of myself as an organizer with a technology problem.

So, I just tried lots of different things there and then wound up working on the service nation campaign, which was all about service if you remember during the last election resulted in the passage of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which was an awesome experience. And then I worked on sharing the story of neighbors for neighbors for about a year, all around the country. Telling different cities and federal agencies what it is they could do with social networking, and then had the great fortune to work on a project for Secretary Napolitano and Commissioner Bersin at CBP at the time for a social network on border affairs.

Then about a year later, the stars aligned and I got to work with my friend Steve Ressler, who founded Govloop.com, and we've been supporting each other - as we're both kind of on the forefront of this realm, if you will, and then joined the GovDelivery team.

So now I not only get to work on one or two projects, there are multiple. It's lots of fun, and I get to work with really inspiring folks who are very committed to public service and help build these tools and platforms, that really empower and bring government together to work inter-agency, but also with the public; to make a difference in people's lives every day. It's awesome.

Josh: It's a great story, and I think it's interesting that your background comes from building communities in communities, rather than coming from the enterprise 2.0 world, and trying to apply it to communities. You really came from solving a problem, and finding a solution to a problem.

Joseph: Yeah. That's a very good way to put it, There are a lot of online communities that come together and serve a very important purpose and are very good at it, but there's something I remind folks of all the time, that time together face to face, there's nothing like it. Scott Heffernan, who is the CEO of meetup.com, a friend and mentor, says we use Meetup online to get together offline.

You and I met face to face, and we had a great conversation. I remember meeting you, and there's an experience you have when you're face to face that nothing digital can ever replicate. But, since we can't be together face to face, because of time or because of distance, this is the second best alternative that allows people to communicate and collaborate to get things done.

Josh: So what role do online communities and sharing and collaboration play in how governments communicate with the public? Can you give me some examples of the over-arching themes that you're seeing?

Joseph: Sure. Again, it really comes down to changing behaviors, and it comes down to trying to make the United States a better place for its citizens, and folks around the world. So, I'll share a couple examples with you. The first one I'll share is community.fema.gov. That's a project that we're working on right now. It is the online home for the National Preparedness Coalition and folks are using it to empower themselves to prepare, but also to share resources and best practices so that they can influence the community who trust them or they have access to, if you will, to coordinate preparedness events all around the country.

So, FEMA's very smart about this. They know that when people learn about preparedness at work they take it back home with them and they take what they've learned and they prepare their families and they share with their neighbors and their friends, and they take it to church if they go to church and they share it with folks in their congregation.

So, there's a lot of good science behind it, but up to this point there really hasn't been a way where FEMA can take the expansive reach that it has and, through its different government partners, bring everybody together in one community, where they can share their message. Where the folks who have done the work before can help those who are just starting, share their knowledge, share their experiences. What's really cool is we start to see discussions where people say this is really helpful and I didn't know so many people care about this, I didn't know there was so much knowledge, there was so much activity.

So there becomes a great sense of pride and camaraderie among the members that really motivates them and sustains them, and builds upon the diversity of the base that's doing this. So, if you talk to folks who have run volunteer programs before, the challenge is to keep bringing new folks in, to keep that spirit alive, and to reward and acknowledge which, unfortunately gets undermined, folks who have been committed for a really long time. So, it just keeps the momentum and the inspiration and the knowledge shared and brewing among everybody. So, that's one example.

Another project we're working on is if you go to connect.mep.com, it's the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, of NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and that community is being used by a number of different programs, and what they're doing is to share what it is that each of these manufacturing extension partnership centers are doing all around the country. And, they're made up of government, academic, manufacturing cohorts, and they're sharing their knowledge. Because when they share their knowledge what works best here, can also work great somewhere else.

That means that there's more innovation, which means there's more demand for products, which means there are more jobs and the economy does better. So, it's really neat the way this can be used. Did you have a question?

Josh: No. I like the way when you're talking about online communities and government, you're talking about connecting it to, it's not just an online place to collaborate and share. You're connecting it to other programs and other opportunities for people. Something I hear you talk about a lot is allowing people to work together to solve problems, but also, to take advantage of opportunities. So there's an awareness-building component in here to offline and other online programs.

Joseph: Yeah. So FEMA is all about helping people prepare so we're safer and more resilient. MEP is about increasing innovation, jobs, and boosting the economy. So, there are very serious, very important programs that government is using technology to do this. One thing I do want to underscore too, it's not just about the platform.

There are lots of great platforms out there, but it really has a lot to do with the strategy. Is the strategy align with real-world environments? Do people really want to do this? Is there a buy-in? What do people care about? How do we motivate them? So, those are all really important questions to ask. I just wanted to underscore that for a second. That has to be built into the strategy, has to be built into the tone of how the community's managed, and has to be something community members experience and are proud of, or at least they're aware that this is how things are working; because that creates workability within the community itself.

Josh: I agree, we always say in technology, the platform is about 50% of the equation. There's a lot more that goes into it to make it a successful, thriving community that helps people solve the right problems.

Joseph: That's right.

Josh: And I just want to underscore, again, that awareness building of taking advantage of opportunities through social sharing. Do you have any examples of that happening, in the wild?

Joseph: Well, I actually have a great example. There's a community called Navy for Moms, and a friend of mine runs that community. It's really cool. The problem was the Navy was having a hard time recruiting folks to join the Navy and they found out that moms were the biggest barrier for people to join. So, the Navy did something really spectacularly cool. They created a community that is run by and governed by moms, and the Navy can't actually intervene or put information there. So the moms are actually communicating, "Here's my experience, here's what happened," and it's so authentic, and the moms actually talk to each other online and offline, that recruiting was actually increased. They were able to bring in more folks to participate in the work that Army does for the number of positions that they had available. So it was a very progressive, very, very cool way to solve a problem that the Navy needed to deal with.

Josh: That's a great example, and it also highlights what you just said about strategy, and the importance of the platform. They probably select the right platform, but that wouldn't have been successful without that strategic thinking and that creativity, in the case of Navy for Moms.

Joseph: Absolutely. Again it relies on the passion of the community. People are not a commodity, and if you begin to treat them as a commodity, like they're just going to do this action thing for us, it's just not going to work. If it does work, it'll happen for just a very short period of time, and then it won't. You really need to respect, you need to trust, and you need to treat your community members as leaders and co-facilitators. They have to be seen that way and they need to see each other that way, more importantly.

Josh: I agree. So, let's get into some of the biggest challenges government agencies have in building online communities. What are you seeing out there?

Joseph: So, the biggest thing for government is there is a lot of policy out there. It's taken a number of years to make progress here, but the biggest one is the communities need to meet their privacy standards, which are pretty darn stringent, along with their security standards. So GovDelivery in our collaboration solution, we meet all those requirements. So government can actually use our SaaS software. So that's probably one of the bigger challenges, and then you need to have terms of service agreements for some of the social software. Which they're caught up to speed and you can actually go to howto.gov if you're interested in learning more about that.

There's a lot of great information about that, but those are some of the challenges. And, then it's the same challenges that many organizations face. What are we supposed to do? I want 100,000 followers. Why? I don't know, because I do. If that's your strategy, you're not going to get there, and if you do your followers are going to have a horrible experience; and that's not going to work out for anybody. So, the same challenges that everybody else faces.

Josh: That makes sense, and that piece translates to what we see in the for-profit association, and user group world. If an executive comes back from a conference and says "we need an online community", that's a red flag right there. There are a lot of questions that need to be asked. What are we trying to solve for our customers? What are we trying to solve for our organization? Can you talk for a second about some successful approaches to adoption and growing the community?

We've covered why collaboration and building community is important, why engaging the public is important, some of the risks and challenges that people face. So you have the community. What are some tips for growing the community and building adoption?

Joseph: Sure, I would say the first thing is a community needs to see itself as leadership, as leaders. So when folks see themselves leading they feel proud. They know there are results and accountability there, and so folks will share and tell other folks who might be interested to join. That, I think, is very effective. You need to have that authenticity there.

The other thing that we have as an organization that has been very effective is we have a service called outreach acceleration, so the GovDelivery collaboration solution is one of our three products. Another product is called the digital communication management product. Which is what government uses to reach the public, so there are over 35 million subscribers to this platform.

They receive e-mail and text-based communication, and it manages all the metrics and the social sharing for these agencies. So, because government's mission is so aligned, we can help facilitate partnerships and execute communication campaigns on behalf of one agency with another which can drive membership very quickly to online communities or e-mail subscriptions to another agency, because we know there are 3 million subscribers who are interested this particular topic. So, it's a really powerful and efficient, effective way for agencies to get the word out through their partners to folks who have already said they're interested in preparedness, or emergencies, or disasters in FEMA's case for example.

Josh: You bring up a good point. Why is it so important to build on what the community has already done, or what the agency has in place? The relationships they have with other parts of government and the outreach they've already done with the public, why is that important in building an online community?

Joseph: Sure. I think there are a couple things here. What I care about as a citizen, I'm going to step out of my role here, is I really do want government to be effective and very efficient. So, if there's someone out there that's interested in, they run a neighborhood association or they're a pastor at a church, or they're responsible for emergency preparedness at work; this individual or that group of individuals is looking for government to tell them what to do, like "how do I do this? I'm not sure, I need your help".

So, if we think about having an online community where government can reach these folks or being able to communicate out to them, imagine all the time and money can be saved by program coordinators or program managers if there's one place to go where there are folks who've said, "Yes, hello, I'll take these actions, you just need to tell me what to do." So, if there are ten programs that can serve one person and they're in one place, that's a ton of savings for government and they can put the money into the programs that need additional funding, to deliver the services to the citizens.

Josh: I think that that makes sense. Let's talk for a second about employees of the government and employees of certain agencies. How does strengthening the connections between the agency and the public benefit government employees, and the agencies that they work for? So we talked about how it helps the public, how does it help the agency and the people who run the agency?

Joseph: Well, I'll tell you one of the most satisfying parts of my job is that the folks who work in government are really committed and passionate about the work that they do, and it's hard. There's typically been a lot of bureaucracy, and it's hard for them to really move the needle in the programs where they've been working really hard and are passionate about.

It's wonderful to see a client see the community just taking off, and people having a very positive experience, thanking each other, and giving the agency good feedback. I think it's a huge morale boost. It really helps them execute on their mission and in their particular program. So, it's a morale booster, and I think it also helps create a further sense of meaning and value in their job. Folks who are working in government chose to be in government because they really want to serve the public and our software helps to reach the public and helps the public work together on behalf of government to get stuff done.

Josh: There isn't a technology or an initiative or strategy out there that can be a game changer, the way an online community can be a game changer. Both for the organization, the people who run the organization, as well as the customers. Putting in a new e-mail marketing system's not going to change the game, but building a community and just the potential it has for current initiatives and future initiatives is unparalleled.

Joseph: Yeah, I think it's definitely a mix of tools. You need to be able to reach the public, you need to be able to have a place for the community to realize and work together, and kind of act on your behalf. I think things are coming together and it's a very exciting time for government and for citizens to be able to accelerate, and to execute on their mission effectively and efficiently.

Josh: So, if I'm the head of a government agency or the head of technology for a state agency or federal agency, what kind of return on investment metrics can I expect?

Joseph: That's a great question. There are some simple things. Like, if you digitize, if you don't have to send out paper statements for your utility bills, or you don't have to send out paper statements for certain notifications, how much money can you save? I have a calculator that I actually use, and it's unbelievably, it's awesome how much money they can save converting from paper to digital. That's just straight numbers, just do the math.

The other thing is, I think there's a return on investment around expectations. Citizens expect government to be able to communicate with them, when they need to be communicated with. If there's a tornado coming, I want to know that there's a tornado coming. That's your job, tell me when it's coming. So, when people are notified they feel great, government has done their job. So there are around those expectations which are important.

Then I would also say it really comes down to the mission objectives again, are we making people safe? Are more people healthy? Are people getting their flu shot, for example. Do students who are looking to go to school get access to apply to loans and get the information they need? That is a return on investment. So if you can show that 10% more students applied for a particular loan, you know that's a huge return on investment because typically the costs associated with those increments have been very high. Often, the costs go down, but the value goes up when you use digital technologies to communicate and collaborate with the public.

Josh: I think that really hits home, just the importance of maximizing engagement.

Joseph: Absolutely.

Josh: It's not a one-time campaign, it's not a one-time strategy. It evolves over time, the more you learn about how your public would like to engage, the community strategy for the agency evolves, as well.

Joseph: That's right. It's an ongoing process, and there's a lot of talk about the social business. This is really, we're seeing this. It's awesomely powerful, it's producing great results. I think it's definitely raising the bar on service level, on motivation, on pride of service if you will, for the government. So it's very cool.

Josh: Now, consumer engagement over social channels really influences the way that constituents expect to interact with government.

Joseph: Yes.

Josh: Talk about some of the risks that government runs, if they don't engage their community.

Joseph: Sure. First of all, the conversation's already happening. I would say some of the biggest risks that government needs to mitigate are misinformation. Folks hear things, they start tweeting things, it's all over Facebook, it may or may not be accurate, and when it comes to safety or health government really needs to make sure that that information is accurate and needs to participate in those channels and interact with folks in a way that provides a clear message but also builds trust. Because if you want folks to interact on your behalf you need to have trust; you also need to be human.

TSA has a heck of a job doing this, and if you look at blog.tsa.gov you'll see that they use humor, they use facts, and they have a terrific job, and so much that they have to deal every day. But I think they do it pretty well over there. And their team certainly mitigates those risks in a very effective way. I know the folks over there, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for what they get done very day for the public.

Josh: So, do you recommend that an agency who's looking at engaging the public in a more expansive way; do you recommend a wholesale change in the way they do business? Are there some small steps that agencies can take to build community?

Joseph: I would say that there are small steps you can take. If you look at what we recommend folks is if you're not using an outbound system of delivery, digital communication management to reach the public, I wouldn't look at that in terms of what you're going to get but what you're going to save. You're going to reach, we have some agencies like the state of Indiana, for example, has something like 1.3 million subscribers. It's 15% of the population or something like that, that's awesome.

They can reach so many people so quickly and get the information out which is really fantastic. But for an agency that's just looking to get in the game, there's just so much money they can save and communication really is the backbone of the operation if you're dealing with citizens.

Citizens want information, you can change their behavior, you can offer them value, and with some of the automation that our system has. I think the biggest fear that agencies have is how many hours is this going to take, how many people do we have to assign to this, but we have automation built into the system that watches webpages for changes and automatically takes on an alert. There's all kinds of great efficiencies in that, so that it will save them money. You can reach more people and save money at the same time.

Josh: That's outstanding. So it really takes government out of the software business and in the people business, where they should be.

Joseph: Yup.

Josh: So, you're a rising star in the Washington D.C. area, and you're often asked to speak to an agency about how they can increase engagement. If you're speaking to a room full of government employees, government officials, high-ranking people in federal and state agencies, about how to build community and how to engage the public; what is the one takeaway you'd want them to leave the room with?

Joseph: That's a great question. I'm going to break it into two parts, I'm going to cheat. So, the first part of the one takeaway I would really say is you don't have to solve world peace at one thing. You can take a step and start with a pilot, and see how it goes and learn from that. Those are very important wins, and I think sometimes we think too big, and we need to just start with something that's digestible that we have time to do that we can do a proof of concept, if you will.

The second part of my one answer to your question would be, really focus on what it is the community wants and needs and build that into your plan. That shouldn't be what you ask afterward, those should be the first questions you start with.

Josh: Well, Joseph, I really appreciate your time today, in giving us this well-rounded view of some of the strategies that government can use to engage the public. Before we go, where can people find you on the web?

Joseph: Sure. So, you can find me on Twitter. I'm @JosephPorcelli, my last name is spelled P-O-R-C-E-L-L-I. You can also find me blogging on reachthepublic.com, which is our company blog. I also blog at josephporcelli.com.

Josh: Great. For people who are interested in neighbors for neighbors, is that still expanding, or is it really just in the Massachusetts area?

Joseph: So, it's just in the Boston area, and it's neigbhorsforneighbors.org, and it's F-O-R, and both neighbors have an 's' on the end.

Josh: Great. Well, Joseph, again, I want to thank you again, thank you for your time today, and have a great day.

Joseph: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me, and thanks for letting me tell the story about all the awesome work folks are doing in government, really appreciate it.

Josh: Keep it up. It's really exciting.

Joseph: Thank you.