Federal public affairs officers – and I’ve been dealing with them for 20 years – occasionally seem to forget the “P” in PAO. They sometimes stand as walls between what’s going on in the agency and the public. On the other hand, the sharp ones can really make things happen and actively participate in agency strategy.
And in one case, a PAO “graduated” to a true mission role, partnering with the CIO for serious, technology-based public outreach.
Stephen Buckner is director of the Center for New Media and Promotions at the Census Bureau. The title sounds like something Disney World would have. But in fact the center has a serious mission, two really. It teams with the Census CIO directorate to thoroughly modernize the bureau’s web site. And it uses a variety of public affairs-type activities to maintain awareness of the Census Bureau and its mission. That awareness is more than a nice thing to have. High awareness can help response rates to the bureau’s yearly surveys and its Constitutionally-mandated decennial count.
“Our pain points were search and navigation,” Buckner said of the site he’s working to re-engineer. “We’re hoping near year-end to have revamped, thematic navigation” and not a site organized around the Census Bureau’s organizational chart.
Buckner said the site should more closely reflect Census’ core mission as a statistical agency. So it will appeal to people looking for specific information, say, the population and demographics of their county or town without having the know how to navigate the complexities of large data sets. Now, a Google search for your locale will usually turn up a link to an easy-to-decipher Census table within the top two or three hits.
The site must also make it easier for professional researchers and the industry of Census data users to obtain whole data sets with all of the geographic tagging, Buckner said.
By the end of June, Buckner said, the Center will publish an application programming interface (API) for developers to use for writing apps using Census data. This precedes, but ties in nicely with, the Digital Government strategy that just came out from Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel (see FedInsider #104).
“We’re beta testing the API. Invitations are going out to external groups now. A lot of developers have expressed interest,” Buckner said. “So far it’s performed very well.” Census’ own app for testing the API lets users determine populations of specific age groups, and not be confined to standard age ranges used in data sets, such as 18-25, 24-54 and so forth. An app user could find people 37-43 years old or 72-99 – any custom range. Using American Community Survey data, the app can find the information down to the county or zip code level.
Each yearly survey produces 11 billion estimates, Buckner said. That, coupled with the API, means the potential for limitless apps concerning demographics…
And then, of course, there is social media.
Buckner said, “We are pushing the envelope with social media, beyond Facebook and Twitter.” Other sites and online services are emerging that attract people who might also be interested in Census activities. Plus, Buckner said, there is value in doing more than simply building up followers.
“Twitter is fantastic,” he said, “but are we following them?” Ditto for bloggers. Via the Center, Census staff will try to become value-added contributors to the discussions that occur in these media, he said.
Meanwhile, the Center also “coordinates, develops, and implements integrated campaigns about Census in traditional and new media,” Buckner said. Now is a relatively quiet period for the bureau. But by 2017, Buckner said, Census will have chosen advertising and research contractors who will get the country aware of the 2020 count.
“There is a strong correlation between awareness and response rates,” he said.
Buckner said that the 2010 count, despite its highly publicized problems with mobile device technology, was a turning point for Census. Under his direction (and before the bureau stood up the Center for New Media and Promotions), it used paid advertising in 20 languages to boost awareness of and trust in the count process. The bureau could no longer rely on the public service ads of the past. Buckner said that the count had to overcome a variety of challenges, such as the housing bust that left many properties vacant but others containing multiple families that had to be counted. Immigrants feared coming out for the count would snare them in enforcement.
Also, “It was post-9/11. There was more mistrust of government. And people were busier, less civically engaged.” Nevertheless, in part because of the advertising and social media work, Census got the count done accurately and on time, while managing to turn $1.9 billion back to the Treasury.
Buckner joined Census in 1998 after several years in the public relations business in Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1993. Working in PR, he developed media contacts statewide, which made him an attractive candidate to Census. His first federal duty station was Tallahassee, where in the private sector he helped with the public launch of the state’s SunPass system for automobile toll-paying. He moved to headquarters in 2000 in time to participate in the advertising and outreach campaign for that count. By then, Buckner had acquired a master’s degree in public administration.
Buckner tries to get in some golf and mountain biking when he’s not working. But as the father of four daughters under the age of 14, Buckner said his time is pretty much dominated by swim meets, soccer games and lacrosse matches. A family like that is sort of like working for Census – one is always thinking about both today’s challenges and the long range goals.