Skip to main content

Dorris Addresses Microsoft Search Conference

As prepared for delivery

Remarks by
Martha Dorris
Deputy Associate Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration
Office of Citizen Services and Communications
Microsoft Search Conference
Washington, DC
March 21, 2007

 

Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be with so many colleagues who, like all of us at GSA, are committed to using technology to make our agencies more efficient, effective, and valuable to the public. I believe the work we’re doing is strengthening the relationship between Americans and their government.

My goal this morning is to give you a clear vision of one of the brightest success stories at GSA – a presidential e-gov initiative called USA Services. By explaining the role of USA Services, I think you’ll see just how we are:

- Creatively using technology to increase the federal government’s value to the citizen;
- And meeting President Bush’s longstanding call to champion citizen-centered electronic government.

So, with spring down the block and last year’s hurricane season officially and – thank heaven - safely behind us, I’d ask you to return with me to 2005 … late August … weather forecasters are giving tropical depression number 12 -- a darkening storm we would come to know as Katrina – a 5 percent chance dropping in on New Orleans.

Let me say that again: on August 25, 2005 -- four days before Katrina’s storm surge would breech the levees and unleash untold chaos, there was only a 5 percent probability her eye would pass over the big easy.

Over at 18th and F Streets, NW, at the GSA National Headquarters, we didn’t play the odds. We got moving, because at its core, USA Services exists to help citizens get timely, accurate, and relevant information from their government.

While citizens need, expect and deserve superior service every day, our work becomes especially critical during times of crisis.

First up were our teams at Firstgov.gov (now USA.gov) and 1-800-FED-INFO. As after 9-11, the London bombings and the Indian Ocean Tsunami, these folks and the resources they provide would become invaluable in the days to come.

For anyone who doesn’t know, USA.gov is the Federal Government’s Official Web Portal; 1-800-FED-INFO is the government’s telephone hotline to give you all the answers about federal programs, benefits, and services. Our other delivery channels are email and print. All are integrated, meaning visitors find the same information no matter which on-ramp they use to enter the system.

The beauty of the technology is that it lets us move quickly … though we didn’t create the technology, we can address almost any need we can identify. It’s an interesting dynamic. The person who invents the technology isn’t the same one who best envisions its most creative application. Think of it this way: anyone who likes classical music knows the great violinist Vivaldi, but it was a man named Amati who invented the instrument. Alexander Cartwright came up with the baseball diamond, but Babe Ruth made it our national pastime. And Nikola Telsa invented the radio, but Ed Murrow and Jack Benny figured out how to use the technology to inform and entertain.

Our teams have their own Vivaldis, Ruths and Murrows. In the aftermath of Katrina, they rolled up their sleeves and:

- Created a hurricane recovery page, with answers to frequently asked questions, links to finding loved ones, and links to other agencies’ information.

- The national contact center expanded operations to 24/7 and doubled its pre-disaster monthly call rates to 278,000 during the recovery period.

A bit further behind the scenes, we broke out something called Firstcontact. I know – First Contact Contract – what a mouthful!  But it works! This vehicle allows agencies to quickly acquire state-of-the-art contact center services from five pre-qualified vendors.  By eliminating the need for a full-scale procurement, Firstcontact lets an agency get an outsourced contact center in place -- with thousands of customer service reps answering calls – within weeks.

FEMA, besieged with questions from an anxious and weary public, turned to Firstcontact to ease the load. They needed not hundreds, but thousands more trained agents. GSA issued a $45 million task order to get FEMA the help within four business days of Katrina’s arrival on August 29, 2005.  The contractor began answering calls within a week. They eventually opened six locations across the country, all with trained information agents.

By the time Hurricane Rita struck the Texas-Louisiana border on September 24th, the FEMA contact centers had 3,200 agents in place and 135,000 calls under its belt.  By September 29th, the centers had 4,000 agents in place in six locations across the country.  They answered nearly 60,000 calls that day.  Nearly 780,000 calls had been handled by the time Hurricane Wilma hit on October 23rd, and the FEMA call center was prepared for the 30 percent spike in call volume.  A month later, the centers closed -- two days after Thanksgiving.

All told, our Firstcontact Contract enabled the handling of more than 1.5 million calls and emails.

You might want to know what they were calling about. Most were looking for friends and relatives. Others needed information about:

  • Disaster assistance and how to monitor a claim;
  • How to find housing and other housing-related issues;
  • How to host hurricane victims;
  • How to claim a victim’s body;
  • How to get tax relief; and how to get a job. 

They wanted to know the economic impact of the hurricanes; the impact from state to state; how pets and animals were getting along; and the full range of services the government offered. 

They got their answers. The call center reps were able to provide accurate and consistent information—the same info offered on Firstgov.gov—by referring to a single database of information that was constantly updated.

So that’s the backdrop … if another disaster hit in ’06, we would have reacted the same way. If one hits this year, we’ll be even better prepared, because USA Services is a living, evolving venture, not a static enterprise.

And it’s managed by GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications.

• Our mission is to provide citizens with easy access to accurate, consistent and timely government information;
• We provide direct service to citizens through every major type of channel, including:
o Websites - such as USA.gov, Gobiernousa.gov, Pueblo.gsa.gov, Kids.gov and Consumeraction.gov,
o Web chat,
o RSS feeds and email alerts,
o E-mail,
o Telephone – such as 1 800 fed info, and
o Print publications through our Pueblo, Colorado distribution center.
• We provide assistance through working agreements with 40 agencies;
• We had over 133 million interactions with citizens last year, including over 84 million USA.gov page views.

I highlight USA.gov and its Spanish-language counterpart, gobiernousa.gov, because they’re the flagships, the source of official federal, state and local government information – and tribal and territorial information as well -- in English and Spanish.

Best of all, these sites let you cut the line. No waiting. No worries about where to park. We don’t care if you you’re chewing gum, smoking a pipe or didn’t bother to shower after your six-mile run. If you work late and can’t get to us ’til midnight, no problem; we’re open. If you need access at 4 a.m., our light is always on!

So go ahead:

  • Renew your license,
  • Apply for a passport;
  • Replace your Medicare card;
  • Get weather for your hometown;
  • Tap into countless RSS feeds and podcast libraries …

Make our day!

A few more words about gobiernousa.gov … Hispanics are our fastest-growing demographic group, and our fastest-growing online group. Gobiernousa.gov serves some 43 million Hispanic-Americans.

The 2000 census told us that eight million Hispanics in the U.S. have some trouble with English. Gobiernousa.gov is helping to break down the language barrier so that these folks can have equal access and participate fully in American society. We changed to this name, by the way, because users told us that Gobiernousa.gov provided assurance that users were on a government site.

The Spanish version isn’t a direct translation of USA.gov, but both sites will offer a toggle feature between similar English and Spanish pages. Gobiernousa offers many of the same features in Spanish as in English, such as:

  • The ability to e-mail a page they like to a friend, or sign up for e-mail alerts for website updates;
  • Content-specific topics for various audiences, including visitors and newcomers to the U.S.;
  • Telephone assistance from 1 (800) FED INFO – in English and Spanish;
  • And e-mail assistance from the national contact center – in English and Spanish.

Both sites take advantage of a search engine we launched in January 2006 with Vivisimo and Microsoft. I’ll humbly note that this is the government’s most powerful search engine. Through it:

- Citizens can access 50 million government documents, 12 million images, and lots of other features;
- Information is easier to find because it’s clustered by topic, audience, sources;
- And search results include links, clusters and FAQs.

Why is it good to have a government search engine?

- No ads;
- Search results aren’t based on paid advertising;
- When you search for Myrtle Beach – you don’t get every golf course and hotel in Myrtle Beach (unless that’s what you’re looking for!);
- And relevancy can be tweaked by our staff based on government needs.

I’ll leave you with a look forward.

Churchill said, to improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.

In January, based on research and user feedback, we changed the name from Firstgov.gov to USA.gov.  And it has proven to be the right decision.

This spring, USA.gov will get a new look and feel. Three rounds of usability testing have helped produce design changes that will:

  • Strengthen USA.gov’s branding and recognition as the official U.S. Government web portal;
  • Further simplify navigation to make it easier for the public to find government information and services;
  • And even allow users to increase font size.

Also coming in the near future are a government blog, improved search features, online tutorials on how to find government information, and RSS feeds in Spanish.

For 2007 and beyond, we’ll also continue to promote web best practices throughout the federal web community. The goal here is to improve all U.S. Government websites.

• Our web best practices team manages Web Manager University, which offers practical and affordable training for web managers of federal, state, and local government websites.

• Our best practices team also hosts and maintains the Webcontent.gov Website.  This site is essentially a practical guide to help government web managers manage their agency's website/

Bottom line:

We know our customers – who they are and what they want from their government.

What they want is:

  • Easy access through whatever channel they choose;
  • Information without aggravation;
  • Fast, consistent, reliable service; and
  • Immediate engagement with the government.

What I want is a bucket-full of testimonials like the one we got from Cynthia Rosser, reference librarian and the Waco-McClellan Library in Waco, Texas.

Cynthia wrote:  I like the name change because it’s easier to remember and much more intuitive.  Extra points to whoever thought that up!  I like the compactness of the site with almost everything visible on the screen.

I know from students doing research – if they don’t see what they want immediately, they think the information isn’t there.

They like the search function on the site.  Particularly I like the clustering search software and the image search function which is really useful for my students doing research.  I recommend the site to many library patrons.

Another librarian – I like the ability to separate results by agency which other search engines don’t permit.

Tell me that doesn’t make you proud to be a public servant.
Stan Wagner, Director of the Human Trafficking Program at HHS.

Stan wrote us: we could not be more pleased with the entire procurement process and the quality of the agents who are answering the calls on the hotline. The people who answer the phones do so with the sensitivity and the urgency that is required to help the callers escape from an inhumane existence. We know that, through this hotline, we are helping to mend lives.

The first time I read Stan’s email, I thought, boy, if you need more reward than that, you shouldn’t be a public servant.

Thank you very much.