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Dorris Addresses Excellence.Gov Awards Ceremony

As prepared for delivery.

Remarks By
Martha Dorris
Acting Associate Administrator
Office of Citizen Services and Communications
U.S. General Services Administration
Excellence.Gov Awards
Washington, DC
April 14, 2009

It is a special honor for me to be here this afternoon, as the Excellence.gov Awards celebrate the best in government IT.

Looking around at all my friends and colleagues, I am humbled by the sheer brain power in this room.  After lunch, we will put the 21 finalists out of their misery and announce the winners of these awards.  I’m very excited to see that three initiatives are from GSA. 

But no matter which names are called, everyone is a winner.    You certainly validate the term “best practices” and demonstrate true leadership in government IT.  I think you all deserve a round of applause.

What’s most exciting to me is the relevance of this year’s awards theme – The Power of Transparency and Citizen Engagement. 

When President Obama, as one of his first acts, signed a memorandum about transparency and open government, I couldn’t help but smile.  With the stroke of a pen, he made it very clear just how important our jobs are and solidified the huge responsibility at our feet. 

There’s a massive task ahead of us, and yet it’s incredibly motivating.  There is probably no more exciting time to be a public servant than today.  How can you go wrong - working to better serve our citizens.

  • This is why we’re in the business of creating innovative solutions. 
  • This is why it’s important to learn to think differently about the tasks we have ahead of us. 

Last month, Vivek Kundra spoke at FOSE where he laid out his vision: 

  • He didn’t talk about U.S. Citizens in the abstract…as mere taxpayers on whom we rely to pay our salaries.
  • On the contrary, he kept referring to “We the People.”  Indeed, WE are of the same people we are entrusted to serve.
  • He spoke of transparency as a key tenet and of allowing people to participate in the civic process…to see where their money is going and how it’s being spent. 
  • The people will hold us accountable.
  • He spoke of engaging citizens as a core White House principle.

Citizens are truly driving the government today – unlike ever before.  They are also more in need of high quality services from their government than every before. 

Technology has been and will continue to be a key enabler of citizen empowerment. 

Using technology and innovation, the citizens elected  Barrack Obama as our 44th president.  Their voice was heard and it is their wish that it remain that way.  In fact, this election may have done more to change the way citizens want to interact with government than ever before.

The economy is being driven by citizen empowerment … what you buy – or don’t buy – today affects another’s’ job tomorrow.

As we take this journey to stimulate the economy, we are building in the capacity to allow the citizens to help guide our decisions and take an active role in monitoring the use of those funds.

Most of us here today are part of the technology community.  Given that technology and innovation are vital to enabling transparency and citizen engagement, each of us has important contributions to take us down this path.  Government is better able to serve the people when it makes its decisions based on extensive citizen input.

Technology makes that possible. 

For example Information is disseminated through multiple channels, allowing citizens to receive it where and when they want it:

  • Just think how you receive information today…via the Internet and on your Blackberry or PDA…at your home, office, on the Metro. 
  • Soon you’ll have instant access in your car and even on airplanes.
  • Technology is enabling you to receive information unfiltered by the media … just look at the success of the White House’s recent online town hall.

Likewise, citizens can instantly respond and provide input in a variety of ways, again unfiltered by the media.

From our experiences at GSA, we’ve seen this power: 

  • USA.gov, the federal government’s one-stop-shop for information, received more than 116 million visits and search queries in Fiscal Year 2008. 
  • We also had more than 18 million visits to other GSA websites.
  • Search analytics tell us what’s on the minds of our citizens…we know what they want.

We have all heard this a million times - it’s not technology for technology sake – Technology merely enables our mission:

  • Remember, there are still hundreds of thousands of Americans who want to receive information the “old-fashioned” way.
  • Our National Contact Center handled nearly two million phone calls and e-mail requests in FY2008.
  • We distributed more than 28 million pieces of print materials from the Federal Citizen Information Center in Pueblo, Colorado.

While some of these numbers are staggering, even more important are the speeds at which we’re all operating.

A huge benefit of this kind of speed is the ability to try new things, respond quickly to citizen feedback, and change or adopt new ideas as necessary. 

Note that is not the way things have traditionally been done in government!

Recently, at GSA we were handed an unprecedented opportunity during the president’s inauguration … an opportunity to blog from several of the events:

  • Our bloggers witnessed and wrote about the inauguration events from a perspective only those on-site could experience; and from a perspective you wouldn’t get from CNN;
  • They were on the Mall, at the concerts, and at the parties, sharing their thoughts, their photos and their videos through new media – giving access to citizens who couldn’t be there in person.

This was a first for GSA.  Yet it was a natural extension of what we do every day – simplifying citizen access to government information and services:

  • The inauguration stories were posted on our GovGab website.
  • Real-time experiences and perspective from the events were also posted on Twitter. 

The goal was simply to establish a live, real time conversation with citizens about the events surrounding the inauguration with conversational posts about everything from the speeches, to the crowds, to the weather and music.

Going into this, we didn’t know what to expect or what we might achieve.  And yet, we thought, what the hell.  Let’s give it a try and see what we can learn from the experience, and share what we learn with others.

This didn’t take months of planning.  We took a good idea and ran with it in the span of a couple of weeks – and we didn’t get in trouble! 

Today, we are learning to think differently. 

The days of developing massive agency-focused IT infrastructure projects are long gone. 

Trying new things and new ways of setting up capabilities is upon us:

  • One of the benefits of awards programs like these is the opportunity to share best practices, learn what others are doing, and develop relationships we can use to further our mutual goals.
  • We don’t have to figure it out on our own, when all we need to do is phone or email a colleague for some insight.  In fact, we use this approach all the time – whether it’s contacting the CIOs from other nations, web managers or contact center leaders across government, or officials from other governments.
  • Often, the solution already exists and is readily available.

One of the benefits of working for GSA is that a key part of our mission is to help other federal agencies achieve their business goals, particularly as it relates to technology.

For example, we have worked closely with OMB to launch Recovery.gov:

  • This was a real team effort across GSA.
  • The site was launched on February 17, and I’m proud to say that its had more than 5 million visits through the end of March.

We’ve been providing leadership in the adoption of new media:

  • We’ve known for a long time that information needs to be accessible where people are, not where you want them to be.
  • Where new media was once the purview of young people, baby boomers are quickly becoming the primary audience.
  • Seven thousand feds have been trained through our Web Manager University.
  • We provide links on USA.gov to government podcasts, blogs, videos and RSS feeds. 

Working with several other agencies, GSA recently signed terms of service agreements with Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, and blip.tv.  These agreements are for use by GSA but can be a starting point if you want to use these tools within your agency.

Simple, no and low cost tools such as these will increase our collective ability to act quickly to bring information to our citizens and hear back from them in realtime … further enhancing transparency and increasing citizen participation in government:

  • As infrastructure collapses through cloud computing and other innovative ideas, velocity will increase while costs will decrease.
  • We’ve all got tight budgets; what could be better?

I am confident that government will be leading the next wave of citizen empowerment because it is what our citizens want and need.

But it is critically important that each and every one of us remembers that technology is not driving this revolution – technology is ENABLING all of us to improve the lives of Americans and helping us address our country’s most pressing priorities.

In his book “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” political campaign manager Joe Trippi wrote:

  • “When people know they are being heard, they will speak up, and when they speak up, they will offer ideas that never occurred to you.”
  • He also urged: “Have some faith in the American people again.  Democracy is based on the principle that if we give the citizens control over their common future, they will choose the best path.”

The bottom line is that government serves people better when it makes decisions based on citizen input:

  • Everything we do must be focused toward that end goal.
  • Everything we do must enable citizens to be part of the process.

We are well on our way, as evidenced by these awards today. 

I congratulate you, again, on your outstanding achievements on behalf of our citizens.

Thank you.