How to Build a Great Digital Strategy for Government Clients

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Given how quickly technology changes, building a digital strategy ain’t easy but it’s even more challenging when working in certain markets. Like other markets, the Federal government is going through a digital transformation and is in need of strategic consulting. However, unlike other markets, digital projects in the Federal government operate in a highly regulated market with multiple stakeholders and tight budgets. How’s a digital strategist to survive in such a strict environment? We’ve laid out an 8 easy ways for creating a great digital strategy, regardless of where in the Federal government you operate.

 

1. Source the Authority, Vision, and Mission

When working in the Federal government compliance is king, so it’s important to find out what the authority of your initiative is. In contrast with tech companies, which might be risk-takers, stakeholders in the Federal government tend to be risk-adverse. If you’ve been brought on to a digital outreach project, you want to put in your due diligence and find out the authority needed to do the work and the scope. It might be as simple as finding a Performance Work Statement (PWS) or it might involve finding an Executive Order. If you need help with this, speak with a contracting officer to find out what’s appropriate and what’s not. Additionally, considering researching the vision and mission of the department or agency you are working with. The reason why vision and mission are important is to ensure that the project is aligned with the rest of the department of agency. This will make it easier to onboard stakeholders who can easily see where this project fits in with the countless other programs they are running. When communicating with leadership, be sure to site authority, vision, and mission in any presentations.

 

2. Touch Base with Stakeholders and Signoffs Early On

From the get-go, you need to identify who your stakeholders and signoffs are. Stakeholders are users that will interact with the system either directly or indirectly. The signoffs are usually a single point of contact that authorizes either all project deliverable or it can be multiple people who must approve a specific part of the project.

 

The stakeholders are rarely accessible and are most likely spread across multiple teams and agencies. The worst thing you can do is spend months or years on a project and get it to completion, only to find out that your deployment date has to get pushed back because it requires additional approvals. A general list of stakeholders should include government users, citizen users, industry users, intra-agencies/departments, inter-agencies/departments, and other branches of government (such as Congress or the President). For each stakeholder, identify what their pain and pleasure points are via surveys and focus groups. Nothing works better than creating a simple organizational chart or network map to easily visualize who all the stakeholders are.

 

Signoffs may include your project manager, a program manager, and a contracting officer. However, for certain parts of the project, the signoff might be someone else in the department or the agency. For example, any part of the project that is public facing will usually require the approval of the communications director or the Public Affairs office. Opening a line of communication with signoffs early on in the project will help keep its trajectory in the right direction.

 

3. Resource Your Dream Team Properly

In the tech world, we tend to move fast and break thing — tools, products, and platforms are deployed at breathtaking speeds while tolerating a certain level of risks and mistakes along the way. The only way to do that in the Federal sector is by resourcing your team properly. In addition to designers, developers, and copywriters, you will need a solid business analyst, project manager, and policy expert on your team. Even if you develop your project according to agile, most government agencies still follow waterfall and will expect detailed requirements, so a business analyst is needed. Government clients also care about projects being on time and budget, so having a qualified project manager is also needed. Lastly, part of your team should include policy specialists who can advise you on what is and is not required on your project. The key to success here is to have a cross-sectional team and one that is well-adapted to navigating the government landscape.

 

4. Design for the End User

When it comes to design, everyone will have an opinion. What may look cool and cutting edge to one stakeholder may actually create a pain point for another stakeholder. While style is subjective and UX is more of an art than science, it’s still important to follow best practices for the end user. Given that the Federal government is your client, they are still not the end user of the platform. At the end of the day, the success of your project will not be based on the feelings of one or two individuals but delivering the project on time and on budget and having an impact. The metrics that matter should drive the design of the platform, not the subjective choices of people. One way to do this is by using focus groups and surveys to gather user feedback. Given the sensitive nature of this issue, refer to best practices documents from the industry to establish a baseline in design and development. 18f has a great example of lean product design that you can use as a baseline. (“Lean Product Design” by 18f)

 

5. Grab Your Website by the Horns

Usually, the centerpiece of any digital strategy is to draw users to some sort of centralized platform such as a website or mobile application. From a technical angle, updating a website may seem like a pretty straightforward task. But government websites are typically managed by multiple groups. One group may be responsible for managing the domain, another might be responsible for hosting, another may be responsible for managing the CMS, another the actual content. Additionally, depending on the agency, Federal government websites have basic cybersecurity and accessibility compliance requirements. Knowing who all these players are, how to get approval for changes, and how long it will take to get approval are all necessary steps in streamlining the web development project. This may sound like a lot of work, but it’s better to find out you can’t code a website in wordpress when you first start a project rather than when you’ve already coded, tested, and deployed it only to get a notification from another agency informing you that you can’t do so.

 

6. Content Calendars and Inventories Are Your Friend

Compelling content distributed via social media is a powerful way to get users to your platform. In a Federal market, messaging usually requires approval internally from your client but might also involve getting approval from a public affairs office. Developing a content calendar for the entire year and submitting content for review on a regular basis will speed up this process. Additionally, spending a little time and doing a content inventory will at best help you repurpose existing content and at worse help you avoid duplicating efforts from the past.

 

7. Capture Analytics Wherever You Can

Getting user data will be by far the biggest challenge when developing your digital strategy from both a technical perspective and also a policy perspective. From a technical perspective, you may be restricted from using javascript which will preclude you from using Analytics platforms such as Google Analytics. From a policy perspective, you may not be allowed to use cookies or capture information from a user beyond their name and email. Consulting the stakeholders and signoffs you’ve identified in step 2 will help you navigate this landscape. In terms of what analytics to capture, you want to know how people got to your website (direct, referrals, social media, search) and how they are using your website (heatmaps, goal tracking, bounce rates, and user flows). In addition to data capture, you may also focus on other indicators such as time/cost savings, streamlining user experience, and mobile responsiveness.

 

8. Build to Last

Unfortunately, the Federal market is replete with unscrupulous contractors that build legacy systems that require years of dependency on them by the government, wasting taxpayer dollars in the process. Build something that lasts. Use a CMS rather than hard-coding, train government contractors and/or employees on how to use your platform and attract users to it, and document as you go so the requirements are all available for future teams.

 

Conclusion

These are the basics of putting together a digital strategy for the Federal government. If you have questions or comments, feel free to reach out to us. We’d be more than happy to answer any questions you might have.

Khuram Zaman

Khuram Zaman is the CEO of Fifth Tribe, a leading digital agency serving the Washington DC Metropolitan Area based out of the 1776 Startup Accelerator. Upon graduating from Widener University School of Law in Delaware, he went on to work in the non-profit sector where he raised almost a million dollars online for various charitable causes involving donors and volunteers from over 80 countries. In his professional capacity, he has provided digital marketing services to clients as diverse as the Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, Aetna Innovation Health, Kaiser Permanente, Silatech, Oxfam, and The Hult Prize. His writing has been featured in Entrepreneur.com, Business2Community, and Forbes.