OTTAWA — Attracting government online users and retaining them isn’t easy at the best of times, but possible solutions are as wide-ranging as the countries they come from, according to pubic sector IT executives.

Free advertising, fostering partnerships or even giving away gifts to lure

more government GOL users were a few of the dozens of ideas thrown Wednesday for the second and final day of the Government Online 2002 International Congress. The conference featured GOL presentations and participants from around the to discuss effective ways the federal government can, in a user-friendly fashion, get all of its essential services online by its 2005 target.

Many of the approximately 40 speakers and federal government delegates were on hand for a presentation by Panneer Selvan, head of the Managing for Excellence office with the Singapore ministry of finance. Selvan said his government “tries to move beyond just publishing information on its site to interacting and transacting with online users.”

The Singapore government is trying to take customer service to the next level by offering gifts like free long distance minutes to GOL customers quick to file their income tax returns.

“Our research showed that people on the Internet were more likely to complete their government business online if there were incentives, while also doing their business in a much more timely manner,” Selvan said. Free gifts can be an expensive incentive, but Selvan said it also saves a lot of government resources and frees up staff by moving citizens away from customer service counters and government offices. Selvan said that by the end of this year, around 20 per cent of government services will only be accessible online, giving citizens yet another reason to be a GOL user.

But there are cheaper options for IT managers and government departments with limited budgets, without losing customer drawing power, said Michael Messinger, director of marketing and communications for FirstGov.gov, an all-access Web site of U.S. federal government services and information. Launched in September 2000 with a staff of three people and a $100,000 budget, FirstGov.gov has blossomed into a GOL user favourite in the U.S., averaging around six million hits a month.

“All the statistics tell us the best form of advertising is word of mouth, so you have to reach out to the citizens on a personal basis and let them know you’re there to help,” Messinger said.

To spread the good word about FirstGov.gov, Messinger says it’s important to target what he calls “multipliers,” – people who help get more people online and hopefully using government services. One of his major targets were librarians, because public libraries are often the only place where many people can access the Internet.

“Beyond allowing people to use our services, libraries were given a great deal of feedback by its Internet users, and that helped us organize our priorities to what people were looking for,”” he said.

Messinger said he finds pop-up surveys to be a much more accurate way of monitoring user feedback than surveys customers find on their own, because, “if someone goes looking for a survey, they often have something to

complain about.”

Yet, the road to a happy GOL user often means IT managers must form partnerships on the information highway in hopes of providing superior services on their Web sites. Without a strong partnership, it’s difficult to produce effective and efficient Web services, said Joan Kinnie, executive director of GOL for Health Canada.

“Learn from the lessons learned by your partners and continue to keep your ears open,” Kinnie said. “We don’t have time to start from the beginning, so don’t try to reinvent the wheel.”

Kinnie has been a key player in starting the Canada Health Portal, a GOL site launched in April, offering health information and services for Canadian residents. Health Canada doesn’t produce any of the information on the site, rather, it gets it from other government agencies at both the federal and provincial level, making it crucial to find the right partner.

To do so, Kinnie suggests interviewing your potential partner early and often in the process to see if there are competing interests and priorities. Once that hurdle is cleared, she says it’s useful to create a flexible memorandum of understanding (MOU), so partners know the general team vision, but can still have their say in formatting informative and accurate Web content.

“We need to take a very concentrated and deliberate approach to the Health Portal,” Kinnie said. “We have to be careful with our partners because users need reliable information. There’s no disputing that.”

The Government Online 2002 International Congress wrapped up Wednesday.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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