Content 2017 review: Putting constituents and services first

Reframing how we talk about government services was a major part of the work Digital Services did in 2017. We wanted to make constituent-first language the norm, and left behind the agency-first site architecture that legacy Mass.gov relied on. Up with plain language, down with acronyms.

Working in the public sector means you know the ins and outs of how it’s structured, and how it works. It’s part of your subconscious, which means it can seep into your writing. A government employee might know what “ANF,” “DPH,” or “facilitating cross-agency collaboration” mean, but many members of the public don’t. Training authors on how to migrate content and use a new content management system was the perfect opportunity to promote this cultural shift.

Scaling content by the numbers

In 2017, we trained more than 300 content authors from more than 50 state organizations. We did this by holding a series of 9 webinars to coach authors on drafting and publishing content, developing more than 70 blog and video resources, and providing regular updates via weekly newsletters. Our team of content strategists also held more than 250 hours of one-on-one support sessions we called “office hours.” This work facilitated the creation of more than 4,000 pieces of content, all while promoting the service and constituent-first model.

What we learned

As is the case with any big effort, there were wins and losses. The positives were encouraging, but the challenges we faced provided us with lessons and opportunities on how to develop the best content possible.

  • Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize: We took the Pareto Principle to heart in 2017. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it states that 80 percent of value comes from 20 percent of your work or effort. When we looked at the data, we saw that 10 percent of our legacy pages generated 89 percent of traffic. We kicked off the project by migrating that top content, and we worked with partner organizations to encourage them to conduct a similar audit of their own content. We’re still using this approach to plan what’s next.
  • Channel diversity is your friend: People learn and retain information in different ways. With more than 500 content authors now on Mass.gov, it’s important to give authors a variety of training resources. Our initial webinar training sessions included having 4 Mass.gov team members on hand to provide support. To supplement the webinars, we released video and written resources authors could use to recap lessons. Leveraging these channels, as well as an email newsletter with important updates, we established a useful self-service model for our partners. We continue to iterate, add to, edit, and create new resources as necessary.
Information on how service and how-to pages work together, presented in different channels. Video and blog copy (left) and newsletter copy (right).
  • Don’t confuse questions with resistance: Changes to process and workflow are difficult for any team. The questions we were getting from authors were related to why a new plain-language, service-focused approach to writing was beneficial. You need to be ready to address reasonable questions and back up your approach with logic and data. Play devil’s advocate early and often, and make sure you’re prepared to defend what you’re selling. If you can’t, it’s probably a sign that your idea is bad or needs work.
  • Value proposition is key: It’s easier to get someone on board if you outline the benefits from the start. We knew that strategically redirecting legacy site URLs to the new Mass.gov would be a big, complex task for our authors. Before we even developed a resource on how to redirect pages, we created one that outlined why redirects are important.
  • Be patient: Part of the ethos of being constituent centric is putting yourself in the shoes of a specific person. Do the same with your content authors. They have unique circumstances that can prevent them from rapidly publishing quality content. Listen to your authors about the challenges they are facing. Conducting surveys, organizing open meetings, and hopping on several calls a day might slow things down in the short term, but it does a world of good to work through specific roadblocks. Your partners will appreciate the effort, too.
  • Show, don’t tell: Lastly, you need to give authors some proof that the strategy you champion makes a difference. We’re currently working on a robust suite of dashboards that will provide page-level grades to help authors understand content performance. If our content strategy team suggests changing word choice, structure, or any other aspects of a page, we’ll be able to see when the change was made and if it improved performance.