Re-Charging Consumer Outreach at Energy.gov
NOTE: This project reflects my experience while working as a federal employee at the Department of Energy.
Before founding Emerald Strategies, Inc. I was recruited to open a Consumer Affairs office at the Department of Energy. In March, 1999, Secretary Bill Richardson charged me with helping make a better connection between the public and his agency.
He believed too many people didn’t know what the Department did or how it was relevant to them, and he wanted this breach healed. He believed attention to a consumer agenda would help, and gave me wide latitude to attack the problem and forge a solution.
When I arrived, the site name was www.doe.gov and the information architecture largely followed the organizational chart of the agency. Frustrated content providers within the agency’s multiple sub-units had retreated to the comfort of operating their own Web sites and had little if any interaction with each other or the owner of the agency’s home page.
I began my mission by validating the assumptions made by my boss. I led focus group research, and new analysis of existing data, that examined the opinions of three core audiences – the average citizen, energy professionals and the “neighbors” of DOE facilities.
This research verified that Secretary Richardson was correct. Contrary to the critics who said the problem was that DOE wasn’t relevant and did not produce information that the American people cared about, I found that key audiences told me the agency was in fact producing a lot of useful and interesting consumer information. The barrier to the bigger audience the Secretary sought was that the information was too hard to find. Our mission came into focus: we needed to create better delivery systems
I spearheaded a cross-cutting team of Web publishers to create the first generation of www.energy.gov. At our prototype site, information a consumer-friendly topical navigation replaced the government-centric voice of the site. In consultation with the stakeholder team, I created a new information architecture and content strategy. The key to the project was a content inventory across websites operated by the agency’s business, which allowed me to selectively identify the content that was the most relevant to a wider audience.
At every stage of the next generation Web project the Web forum participated in decisions: from choosing a design and navigation system to identifying content and designing the information architecture. By the time we were ready to vet the final website, the 25-member Web Forum grew to 80 senior managers at the Department weighted in on the look, feel and content of the final product.
Users tested the new design, layout, navigation and content structure. The project team and Departmental leadership reviewed the site and provided their inputs before the new consumer portal website launched. Shortly afterwards, Internet traffic from doe.gov was redirected to the new energy.gov giving the agency a new front door on the web.
To cement the results of the project, I negotiated a new way of managing the department’s Web resources with the Chief Information Officer and the Public Affairs Officer. This document, called the “Web Council Charter”, had wide acceptance across the agency’s sub-units at the time of the negotiation because it replaced a closed vertical management system with an open horizontal management system.
The Web Council revolutionized Web site management by creating a re-engineered process that empowered front line workers to create a vibrant site. At the same time it put the power to create systems-wide standards for our content and governance in the hands of the Web Council.
The Web project occurred in parallel with a first of its kind Management Review of the agency’s departmental document clearinghouses and toll-free hotlines and call centers. The review’s goal was to build a foundation for integrating one-stop-shop access to consumer resources. One outcome of the review was the launch 1-800-dial-DOE. This new toll-free line gave the agency an easy consumer gateway to the most popular clearinghouses at DOE.
Once the site launched, the work of marketing the cyber destination started in earnest. A creative marketing campaign featured a humorous PSA about energy efficiency and posters that appeared in mass transit systems in ten major cities.
The core theme of the Web site and the marketing effort was the tag line: “put energy.gov to work for you.” The story we told addressed perceptions that the agency was irrelevant to people’s lives and failing to function properly.
The PSA ad campaign included three spots and had a nationwide distribution. Today the PSA can be viewed via the YouTube (see below). The video begins with two spots focused on power outage awareness, the first of which is in Spanish. The last spot features Norm the “helpful energy guy” with energy-saving tips. The feel of these PSA ads was fun, relevant and friendly.
Before the launch of energy.gov most of the in-bound traffic at the agency was from government servers. After – the dot com traffic quadrupled, showing in-bound traffic being mostly from the public. By re-charging the Department of Energy site with a usability focus, we succeeded in promoting better delivery of existing services to a bigger audience at a reduced cost.
The site won two prestigious awards. This included being named one of 20 “Best Feds on the Web” by Government Executive Magazine in November, 2000. It was the only cabinet level site recognized that year. In addition, I received a reward that recognized my leadership on the project from the Association for Federal Information Resource Managers (AFFIRM).