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Interview with GovGab

GovGab has been recognized by Juggle as one of the top government blogs on the web. Below you'll find an interview with Tonya Beres of the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

What was the impetus behind launching GovGab? What were some of the initial goals?

We decided to launch GovGab because we knew there were massive amounts of government information out there, but we realized people didn’t know how government information applied to their everyday lives. People didn’t think they had any exposure to the government, except for taxes once a year and the delivery of their mail. We wanted to show people how helpful and practical government information can be. We decided on a blog because it is personal, casual, and reaches a different audience than some of our other communication channels, like our TV and print Public Service Announcements.

GovGab is run by the Office of Citizen Services and Communications; what are the responsibilities of this particular?

Our office has a new name and we’ve added a new component. We are now the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. We have the GovGab blog, a family of websites (including USA.gov and gobiernousa.gov), a toll-free federal information line (800-FED INFO), and consumer publication distribution through Pueblo, CO. All of these outlets are ways to get government information out to U.S. citizens. Under our Innovative Technologies side, we are taking a leadership role in identifying and applying new technologies to government operations and service.

The bloggers contributing to GovGab (Joanne, Jess, Colleen, Jake, Ginger, Stephanie and Leilani) appear to maintain creative freedom with their writing which gives them an opportunity to create a personalized style and feel to GovGab. For instance, Joanne once blogged about having been a victim of fraud; on another occasion, Jess described her “flexitarian” diet. The personalized writing style enhances the content and presents a friendly face for the US government. The style is clearly less formal than most traditional forms of government communication. Do you see all forms of government adopting this approach moving forward?

You’re right, the bloggers do have a lot of autonomy. I’m glad you like the style and friendly voices. There is a definite movement to turn away from using heavy, formal communication and, instead, to use plain, direct language. For instance, we found that although the government was using “H1N1” this past fall, the public was still saying “swine flu”, so we had to modify our message. I doubt most agencies will be quite as casual as our blog, but we do see evidence of the tide turning. And, as the government adopts more social media tools, such as Twitter and outbound SMS messaging, agencies will be forced to constrict their messages and use the abbreviations that are commonly used in those channels.

Does the blog team work together to form a weekly or monthly editorial agenda and then divvy out the writing responsibilities, or has a freestyle approach been adopted whereby the content of each day’s post features a particular hot topic?

We use a combination of those two approaches. One member of our team sends a monthly calendar of all Federal observances and possible topics, such as big White House or Agency initiative. Each blogger is free to choose from one of those topics, from a current event, or something important to them on that day. We have few restrictions, so long as the blogger can tie the topic into how the Government is relevant in their lives.

Your bloggers rotate their posts Monday through Friday - has this always been the format of the blog? What led you to this posting schedule?

We chose this schedule to be sure that a new post was available every weekday. It helps the bloggers plan their workload to know that they are responsible for a new post every Monday or every Friday. All the bloggers have their main jobs (media/outreach, web content development, contract oversight, etc.) and the blog is a side duty.

The GovGab blog highlights government website resources covering every topic from health, energy, taxes, travel and shopping. What kinds of sources do the GovGab bloggers use to locate interesting topics to cover in the blog?

See our answer above about our two approaches. The bloggers also use the Frequently Asked Questions from USA.gov and 1-800-FED INFO, major media outlets, other blogs, and suggestions from other staffers. In addition, many of the bloggers are on email mailing lists for other agencies’ press releases, so they're aware of big agency promotions and initiatives.

Realizing GovGab's broad reach and its uniqueness as a communication channel, do Federal agencies and organizations proactively communicate with you to promote coverage of their programs or causes?

Yes, sometimes we do have agencies approach us about their programs. We have been lucky enough to have several agencies produce Guest Blogs for us on subjects such as Earth Dayand the launch of the new FTC blog.

You currently have 7 bloggers, but several have come and gone over the past few years (including Colleen, who sadly wrote her last post today); from where do you typically draw your bloggers, and for how long do they typically stay with GovGab?

All of the bloggers are members of our staff. We look for folks who are strong writers, creative, and enthusiastic. Typically, the bloggers write for about two years before they decide it’s time for a fresh voice.

What kind of feedback have you received from your readers? What has been the most inspiring or interesting story or comment one of your readers has shared in regards to one on GovGab's articles?

We have received all kinds of feedback from our readers – from heartfelt thanks, to criticism, to suggestions on new topics. In response to Ginger’s post last August “Protecting Your Child from Predators”, several commenters shared their stories of abuse and even offered tips for parents to deal with this problem. It was amazing to see people open-up and share their experiences with us. Jess’ post on Banning Flavored Cigarettessparked a lively discussion on the role of government and whether some laws are too intrusive.

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