Using technology to improve government’s interaction with the public


(Sam Kittner/Kittner.com)
August 27, 2013

Martha Dorris has been a driving force behind the use of technology to help citizens more easily and quickly obtain government services and information, whether the contact comes through a website, email, telephone calls or social media.

As deputy associate administrator for citizen services at the General Services Administration (GSA), Dorris created a brand and a following for USA.gov and the Spanish-language version, GobiernoUSA.gov, the most comprehensive federal web portals for government information and services. These sites received 50 million visits in fiscal 2012.

Dorris also has overseen the creation of Challenge.gov, a crowdsourcing platform that helps agencies solve problems, and launched USASearch, a powerful, commercial-grade Internet search engine used on agency websites. USASearch enables users to search an agency’s information in one place, including documents, images and social media sites. USASearch answers eight million questions a month, displaying government-centric results.

In addition, Dorris has played a key role in consolidating government information channels and moving them to the cloud to save money on equipment and maintenance.

“The way people are going to expect government to deliver services is changing and we have to change with it,” said Dan Tangherlini, the administrator of GSA. “Martha is helping citizens connect directly with the services they need. When they write the history of that change, she will be one of the founding people.”

The improvements have come quickly and at a low cost, said Dave McClure, associate GSA administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. “Martha is almost the citizens’ ombudsman for positive and fruitful interactions with government.”

The USA.gov home page is frequently updated with seasonal and popular topics. For example, the site might offer cherry blossom and tax information in the spring or highlight vital information on how to respond to a wildfire or other national emergency as it is happening.

Links and information on the portal’s frequently asked questions page help answer the top 10 questions from the public, such as how small businesses can find resources, how to look for a job and how to get or replace a Social Security card.

“USA.gov continues to innovate by providing key content and showcasing a new face of government to the world,” said Dan Chenok, director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

Under Dorris’ leadership, GSA created Challenge.gov, providing a kind of “competitions central.”

“It is a way to unearth innovation and new thinking from people you can’t normally get in touch with or don’t have access to through the normal contracting process,” said Dorris.

It also is a method for getting low-cost assistance for agencies’ marketing and outreach efforts. For example, the recent Federal Trade Commission plan designed to block illegal robocalls came from Challenge.gov.

Through another challenge, the Department of Agriculture awarded $60,000 for ideas to keep kids healthy, challenging software developers, game designers, students and others to create tools and games that encourage children to eat better and stay physically active. The first place winner, an interactive computer game called Pick Chow, helps parents and children learn about healthy meals as they drag and drop food onto a virtual plate and get rated on their choices.

About 50 agencies have taken advantage of the site, leading to more than 200 challenges.

“Martha recruits a great team so we can take on these great ideas like Challenge.gov, which is a tremendous way to engage the broader citizenry,” said Tangherlini. “She is one of those people who represent the best of a public service manager.”

Dorris’ push for a top-quality search engine led to another major achievement, McClure said. “This platform delivers uncanny results in a fraction of the time of a commercial search engine,” he said. “It is currently in place in over half of the Cabinet agencies and they cannot believe the quality of the search.”

Not every service that Dorris oversees relies on new technology. GSA runs a National Contact Center during emergencies such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan and Superstorm Sandy. Callers to 1-800-FED-INFO get timely, accurate information from a GSA call center that fields calls at all hours during crises, including from citizens overseas.

With the unlocking of government data for public use, programmers are creating innovative applications, including one that provides Spanish-language tweets that appear on multiple agencies’ Twitter accounts. Two others consolidate and deliver business-related information and U.S embassy news.

“Martha is the vanguard of people who are coming up with those services delivering more for less in a technological environment,” Tangherlini said. “She helps people connect directly with the services they need.”

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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