Expanding digital access to government information and services

Advocate, ambassador and evangelist are all hats Sheila Campbell wears at the General Services Administration (GSA) as she leads the effort to reimagine government as a digital powerhouse that takes full advantage of the strengths of the Web and social media.

Campbell, director of GSA’s Center for Digital Excellence, provides agencies with best practices, training, shared services and examples of what forward-thinking agencies are using to help them carry out the Obama administration’s Digital Government Strategy, announced last May.

(Sheila Campbell) - Sheila Campbell of the General Services Administration.

Who is Sheila Campbell?

POSITION: Director, Center for Excellence in Digital Government

RESIDENCE: Washington, D.C.

AGE: 46

EDUCATION: University of California, Berkeley B.A., French and political science

AWARDS: Fed100 award; Tech Titan, Washingtonian magazine

HOBBIES: Backpacking, travel, photography, going to Washington Nationals games

VOLUNTEER WORK: Peace Corps volunteer for two years in Togo

“That’s the value GSA brings,” she said. “We have a birds-eye view and make those connections with people doing innovative things in different areas so they can take advantage of the good work being done.”

The strategy aims to give digital access to government information and services anytime on any device; help government buy and manage devices and applications better; and unlock government data to spur innovation and improve service quality.

This year, Campbell’s office has been offering a common measurement tool to assess federal websites’ performance, such as how many people visit, what content they were most interested in and how many people return. Metrics on agencies’ social media sites also are important so managers can assess which is content is most compelling and make better decisions, set priorities and figure out the best ways to reach customers.

For example, when meteorites rained down on Russia in February, the center saw a tremendous spike in traffic to NASA’s website, much of it from Russia. That was a surprise, Campbell said, and intriguing information for NASA. “It’s interesting to see where people are going and what is resonating the most,” she said

The data is important for spotting trends, learning what people want from agencies and predicting events, she said. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey invites the public to tweet when they’re feeling an earthquake to provide early information as a supplement to what instruments pick up.

“Sheila has an extraordinary vision of how to harness the power of digital technology and how to deliver service to citizens,” said Kathy Conrad, principal deputy associate administrator in GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

“She has done a terrific job of identifying the tools and tactics for agencies to take advantage of,” she said, along with knowing how to put them into operation.

Campbell also leads the Federal Web Managers Council, an interagency group of senior web managers who share challenges, ideas and best practices.

Since technology evolves so quickly, and one person “can’t possibly keep up to speed on what’s happening,” sharing information and spreading the word on innovations is vital, she said.

Campbell’s office also manages, along with the council, HowTo.gov, the go-to website for all things digital in government. And her office supports Challenge.gov — a government website for agencies to promote contests and competitions — helping negotiate federal-friendly terms-of-service agreements with social media sites.

The newest technology wrinkle is the unlocking of government data for use in applications that allow users to find — all in one place — information on topics that agencies have posted originally on disparate social media sites.

Through the use of API’s — application programming interfaces — applications have been developed, for example, allowing Spanish speakers to read one Spanish-language Twitter feed containing Spanish-language tweets from various agencies’ Twitter accounts.

GSA also provides widgets — small software applications — that anyone can embed on their website for real-time information. So, for example, a Spanish television network could choose to place the Spanish-language Twitter widget on its website, free of charge. Other widgets available include Twitter feeds on business issues, U.S. embassies and federal agencies.

GSA started with Twitter, but widgets for other social media sites are being developed.

The ability to gather, group and deliver information to specific audiences leads to more effective government, Campbell said. “This is the future of government information,” she said. “This is really it, a completely reimagined way of having government open up their content and making it 100 times more accessible and usable for citizens, and for agencies to manage their information and assets.”

These innovations even got the government mentioned on Mashable, an Internet news blog covering social media that is read by millions of technology devotees, many of them capable of using API’s to build new applications.

The digital path forward is not without challenges. It’s tough in government to bring on board new people who can help with initiatives and infuse agencies with fresh ideas, Campbell said. And program managers often view digital activities as an IT function rather than part of the mission.

But she remains hopeful, viewing the possibilities as endless. “We really are at the tip of the iceberg, just at the beginning of the potential to transform government,” Campbell said. “The next few years are going to be really exciting, and it’s the digital strategy that set us on this path.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org/nominate to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

 
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