Bringing content strategy to the public sector
On the Content in Practice podcast, Sophia Hoosein (LinkedIn) and Jessica MacQueen (LinkedIn), who both work for the Government of Alberta, talk about bringing content strategy to the public sector where bureaucracy and politics are the norm. Produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, theme music by Lee Rosevere.
A transcript of the podcast, edited for clarity, is below. Music used in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions.
Download this episode [34:34]
- Design & Content Conference
- Description of DCC presentation, The Institutional Killjoy and the Transformation of Public Sector Content
- Government of Alberta
- Sara Ahmed
- Living a Feminist Life
- Tara Codrington
Content in Practice: The content operations podcast is produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, and presented by Content Strategy Inc. Theme music by Lee Rosevere, Happy Puppy Records.
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Sophia Hoosein and Jessica MacQueen work for the Government of Alberta, one of Canada’s provinces. At the latest Design & Content conference, they presented some original research about how public service employees work with content, and the two have also partnered to establish a digital community of practice for their organization. They spoke with me from Edmonton, and because they are government employees, our conversation began with a disclaimer. Here’s Sophia.
Sophia Hoosein: Jessica and I are not on the podcast today in an official capacity as representatives on behalf of our organization. We’re here today to talk about our experiences as content practitioners, advocating for systemic transformation and human centered content in the public sector. So the views and opinions expressed by us today are our own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the organization that employs us.
Jessica MacQueen: And I would say that given that this is going to be a conversation about public sector content, that disclaimer is an example of how the work that we do is a little bit different than a private industry.
And while Hoosein and MacQueen share an employer, they actually have very different roles.
Jessica: My official title is web content strategist, and I am the strategist for the entire Ministry of Advanced Education. And what that means is I plan for the creation, delivery, and maintenance of all of our ministries’ public facing websites. And that’s about seven websites right now.
This is a pretty unique role in the Government of Alberta because like a lot of different jurisdictions, we have undergone recent centralization of a lot of our communications and web teams. We are also part of this effort to migrate government web content to a single central website. Amidst that context, I have a unique role because I wasn’t sucked up into the migration or sucked up into the centralization. So, I do work in a ministry outside of that central comms body. And that means that my role is one of connecting between communications central and the needs of my ministry in a day.
I could be doing a few different things. My work kind of fits in a few different buckets. I might be doing user research, which is something that I’m trying to instill in the foundations of the work that I do. I might be doing content creation. I’m working on a few different projects right now where I’m trying to clean up existing content on our microsites.
I might actually be doing some of the writing or the revisions. I could also be working on content maintenance where I’m responding to service requests from staff who want to change content or, you know, performing quality assurance checks, or I could be doing sort of high level content strategy where I zoom out and I look at our entire content ecosystem and try to make strategic decisions on how to better align what we do.
Blaine Kyllo: Sophia, I’m going to get to you in a second, but I’m really curious to know how the Ministry of Education managed to escape being vacuumed up into the rest.
Jessica: It’s the Ministry of Advanced Education.
Blaine: Thank you for clarifying.
Jessica: It’s not that we managed to avoid getting sucked up by the vacuum of centralization. It’s actually because I am not a comms practitioner, so I don’t work in communications and neither does Sophia. We are program services staff. So when that centralization vacuum rode down government, I was missed because I didn’t have a traditional comms job anyways. And then when that central comms body realized, “Oh, you know, you actually do web work,” I actually came to them with a proposition.
I said, “You know, I think that I can do a better job of improving the content issues that my ministry faces if I’m close to the business areas.” And so I had to sort of negotiate the arrangement that I have today, but I think I did a pretty good job of convincing all parties involved that I would have a better chance of building the relationships that I needed to build and having the connections that I needed to, to influence positive change.
Blaine: You’ve created your own hybrid governance model. That’s very cool. Okay, Sophia, your turn. What do you do for the Alberta government?
Sophia: My current role is technically called a “senior business analyst responsible for user engagement” with the Alberta Health Ministry, but there is so much more that I do in my role that this title doesn’t accurately reflect the scope of my duties. So, I wear many different hats. Sometimes most of my day involves issues management and responding to public inquiries or preparing executive briefings. Other days, especially as of late, I write a lot of UX content for our digital service tools.
I’ve made it a big part of my job to advocate for accessible and usable digital products and content. You know, sometimes I can do usability testing. I like to do that whenever we can. And then some days there’s some traditional business analyst type work around requirements gathering and testing. Sometimes I have to wear a product management hat and sometimes my day is actually comprised of more traditional communications work like drafting and delivering key messages on certain initiatives or some of our products.
I have done a lot of content work in my roles, but when I was doing content work it was always a under the guise of a generalist title, like senior business analyst or like web project coordinator, web project specialist, those kinds of roles, which is actually quite common in government.
Blaine: If you’re doing sort of communications content type work, Sophia, do you fall under the purview of this consolidated communications approach that Jessica was talking about? Or are you, is your department, likewise excluded from that?
Sophia: Well, it depends on the type of communication that we’re talking about. So, if it’s anything that has to go to the public, we definitely have to go through our centralized communications and public engagement departments with their specific communications advisors assigned to health that we would go through.
But when it’s things like UX content in our digital public facing health centered web tools or things like that, that primarily falls on, on the program area that I work in to produce that content.
Blaine: Right. So each of you actually has a completely different working arrangement when it comes to doing the work of content in your role.
Jessica: Yeah, it’s, it’s quite weird the way government works because government produces so many different types of content, whether it’s, you know, politically sensitive or strategic content or programs and services content.
In my role, I focus mostly on program and services content. So I don’t have to interface as much with communications to deal with that sensitive material. But usually if you’re tackling something that has some sort of political weight around it, you’re going to be integrating with that central comms body.
Blaine: Now, each of you are working for different ministries and you’re doing very different roles. Tell me how the two of you came together to collaborate on trying to improve the way content work has done.
Sophia: We actually met through a mutual colleague that I had actually met through Edmonton’s local product management meet-up group. I was talking to this colleague about how I was trying to move the needle on things like content design and user experience. This colleague asked if I knew Jessica because Jessica was – and still is doing what would be considered progressive work with content – progressive for government.
And so we got introduced and we met, and we started talking about some of the mutual experiences that we had and I guess, barriers that we’d faced and what wins looked like.
Jessica: I think, Sophia, the thing that I’ve noticed a lot is that in government, I think there’s a lot of people out there who are trying to make change in their little pockets or their little corners of bureaucracy. And so I think it’s almost a survival mechanism to try to like seek out other change agents across the organization so that you can feel a little bit of reassurance that when you’re trying to push this giant boulder, someone else’s trying to do the same thing. So I think that’s really how Sophia and I connected. We, I think both, we’re always putting our feelers out, trying to find other likeminded public servants so that we didn’t feel alone.
Blaine: You have each teased that there are unique content problems that are part of working in the public sector. Can you be more specific as much as you can about what some of those problems are?
Jessica: We have a long laundry list, I’m sure, but I will maybe put out there the first one, the big one that I think we both talk to each other about a lot is that government isn’t very well versed in human centered or inclusive design. So it’s not the way that government has traditionally worked.
Government develops content traditionally in a very sort of business-oriented way. You know, “What do we want to tell the public?” So for us as content practitioners it can be challenging to even address the basic tenets of content design. So even just saying, “Hey, we should do user research to understand user needs.” Sometimes that premise in itself can take a lot of effort to just push forward.
So at the very root, the work is not easily transitioned to be human centered.
Sophia: I would also say that just framing government content, generally, it it’s important to remember that it is a different beast.
A lot of the content that we work on either internally or externally has to connect people with a program or service that can really make a difference in their life, or it has to clearly convey operational or public facing information related to policies and legislation.
Governments are in the unique situation of delivering these programs and services, and the content, that intersects with many situations that arise throughout our lifespan. You know, births, deaths, marriages, name changes, property taxes, government IDs.
So it’s inevitable, therefore, that citizens of all ages need to access information on government programs and services, and therefore interact with government content at various points throughout their lives.
It is very interesting, I guess, that there’s resistance or even difficulty in doing things like discovery work or user research, or to create the content that we need to create to successfully connect people to these programs and services and help them move through these programs and services as smoothly as possible.
Jessica: Well, and I think Sophia, you bring up a good point, which is that government content directs people to services that they need.
And so I think for us as practitioners, we feel the weight of this work because it has a huge impact on, you know, the public good. I think that makes the challenges of doing this work feel even frustrating at times. For instance, like everybody knows bureaucracy is slow. So doing content work, you know, amidst this scaffolding of bureaucracy that we have to navigate, it can be painstaking.
Sometimes you feel a bit like a plumber. You’re just like trying to unstick things or, you know, remove blockages just to try to make things move through the system. And because of the weight of some of this work, it can feel extra frustrating when you experienced those inevitable barriers that come with just a large organization.
Sophia: And that really also touches on the governance issue in that oftentimes government content touches multiple areas. And so every area that it touches needs to have a say in what gets put forth and that can also impede efficiency, which is a struggle.
Blaine: I was going to ask about that because it is true that so many of these programs and services that are being delivered by government connect, especially when there are potential jobs and re-elections and things like that that are tied to those programs and services. Of course, everybody wants to make sure that it’s being said in the right way.
Jessica: Yeah. That’s the interesting thing, especially about content that becomes highly politicized. So, you know, it’s one thing to work on programs and services content, and to be sort of refining workflows and processes being very clear on what the approval chain looks like and what those timelines are.
But as soon as a piece of content or a program or a topic gets politically sensitive, it becomes a whole new ball game. All of a sudden there’s a different level of messaging and layers of approvals that, that content sort of gets removed from a standardized content development process and has to move into more of like a communications shop.
Sometimes that results in content that’s no longer being designed for users, but is instead being designed with like a carefully crafted sort of political message
Sophia: Right. And then there’s also that double sided coin to maintain there’s political sensitivity on one side and neutrality and impartiality on the other side.
Another interesting thing about government content is that we’re always subject to having members of the public contact, their elected representative, such as their MLA, or if you’re an Ontario, your MPP, or even a minister [federal government representatives], if they have issues with something that has been put forth by the government,
Blaine: You’ve both talked about having processes in place to do this work, how formalized are those processes? And do you have variants that you have articulated explicitly to deal with these kinds of situations? “Oh goodness, this is now super political issue. We have to kick a different process into play here because we know there are another levels of approval.”
Jessica: Sophia, how is the content maturity of your organization?
Sophia: Well, you know, the moment something politically sensitive comes around, as Jessica mentioned, this is when we actively engage our communications and public engagement team to help craft and create messaging. They work closely with higher levels of government. Like just as an example, they might be in close contact with the minister’s office, or like with COVID for example, they might be in close contact with Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. And so they have that understanding that strategic understanding of what that official needs to deliver to the public in terms of messaging.
Jessica: But I would say, you know, when there is something politically sensitive, there is absolutely an official communications process that that content gets locked into. But for, at least in my experience for our ministry, what I saw when I came into my current role and when my scope had expanded to sort of look at all of our public facing content was something that really troubled me.
It was that we lacked consistency of process. We had, as you’d often do in large organizations, we had folks working in silos. We had different levels of resources put towards different websites. So, you know, one website might have a dedicated web team. Another might just be something that people are doing off the side of their desks.
What I saw was a real lack of consistency with the way content was developed and maintained. And so part of my job now is to sort of build up those processes and that governance structure that we don’t have at the moment.
Sophia: Often a struggle, I think, is that content work is often done by folks who don’t specialize in content. Like it is a specialized skill. It’s a discipline. I don’t know that beyond a communications role, that content as, as a, as a specialty is really recognized. And oftentimes you will produce content that goes up the approval system and is vetted and approved by those who aren’t in that specialty.
Jessica: That’s one of the interesting challenges about the many layers of approval is that some interesting phenomenon that we’ve heard from a lot of folks that we’ve been talking to lately who do content work is. “It’s funny. Everybody thinks that they know how to do content too. It’s like I can write emails and I read the internet. So therefore I probably know a thing or two about how to write things for a website.”
So it’s one of those fields where sometimes folks have a hard time recognizing that there may be, is a skill set involved, which can make it challenging when you’re trying to develop clear processes and clear roles and responsibilities of who does what up the approval chain. Some people just really like to copyedit.
Sophia: I think a big part of the role of a content designer or a content strategist in government or the public sector involves advocacy and discovery work and promoting the understanding that content is all about solving problems and helping humans to meet their goals. It is often the backbone of government products, services, and programs.
We need strategies in place to effectively deliver and maintain this content, but we also need properly skilled professionals. I mean skilled in a different way than those who work in communications and issues management apply their understanding to content.
Jessica: I think that was one of the sort of unique challenges that I identified that I face in my work is there can be a lot of confusion around, you know, the role of a content practitioner and the role of communications. And that work is very different.
So communications is going to look at all content from, you know, a risk lens and a political messaging lens, but they’re, they’re not going to be as invested in, you know, conducting user research and identifying user needs and building a comprehensive content strategy that, you know, seamlessly tracks a user through an experience of all of the different services and products that we offer.
But comms deals with words and words are content. And so sometimes it can be difficult to explain to decision makers or different business areas in government, that there are different types of roles associated with the work of content.
These tensions with how the various public service departments do the work of content led Hoosein and MacQueen to explore ways they could effect change. They started, logically enough, by doing research.
Jessica: Okay, so the reason that we wanted to do this research project is because we wanted to understand if our experience doing public sector content was shared by practitioners and other jurisdictions. We talked to about 15 people across Canada who were in varying levels of government, senior and junior practitioners. And we wanted to get at what is the lived experience of doing this work? And at the same time that we were doing these this research, we were also trying to see if a particular thesis that we had would bear out.
We were working with a theorist called Sara Ahmed [www.saranahmed.com], who has put forward this idea of the institutional killjoy, someone who is trying to transform an institution or a bureaucracy from the inside. And we felt as change agents in government, that we were sort of operating as institutional kill joys.
And we thought maybe this is the experience of doing content and design work in government. And so that was what we were trying to figure out as we were connecting with folks across Canada.
But I think, I mean, Sophia, what would you think about this? I sort of feel like in a way, this project was a little bit of a collaborative attempt to build like a life raft for ourselves, because, you know, I think we were asking our peers, how do you do this? How do you keep doing this when it gets hard?
Because we look around us and we see really brilliant, bright practitioners who maybe they burn out or maybe they decide to jump ship and head to private industry because they’re not seeing the change that they’re fighting for. And I think for us, it was maybe a little bit of an attempt to say, “Okay, if we’re going to stick this out, if we’re going to keep doing this work, maybe we need to find some more like-minded folks to help us be motivated.”
Sophia: I think that one of the things that also prompted it for me was we would go to these events and there would be these wonderful, useful takeaways. And we couldn’t come back into our roles and realistically apply all of those takeaways. So that, to me, said, “Maybe it’s just the nature of this work in government. Maybe this role just looks very different.” So what does it look like in governments in the public sector?
Jessica: You make a good point, Sophia. I think for a few years I sort of felt like, “Am I really a content strategist? If I’m still at the stage where I’m having to advocate for why user research matters?”
I dig my hands in and do the work I want to do, because I’m still trying to get my organization on board with doing things differently. So I think doing this research and speaking with other practitioners was really helpful because we were able to see that the challenges that we face, as you said, Sophia, part of that is just the nature of translating this work into government.
Sophia: Just as an example, like where for a lot of us, you know, in the thick of bureaucracy proper, we’re not yet at the point where it’s just an easy everyday thing to go out and do discovery work and user research to, as we build the content.
So we have to find workarounds. What can we do? So perhaps that’s, you know, calling out participants in the, in the broader government, in the organization that are outside of your ministry that don’t have that intimate understanding of your work, that those inside your unit or inside your ministry have. Is it perfect? No, but is it something? Yes.
Or perhaps it involves talking to the people that talk to your users. Is there a call center that deals with your program? Become friends with them, build a relationship with them, because if you can’t directly talk to your users, it is critical that you’re talking to the people who talk to your users and to understand their frustrations firsthand.
Blaine: So the killjoy then is the person that ruins the fun for everybody else in the organization, because they’re trying to make it different. Have I got that right?
Jessica: Sort of. I would encourage you to read Sarah Ahmed’s book, Living a Feminist Life, because there’s a lot of nuance to her theory. But essentially she talks about how, growing up as a feminist she would sit around the dinner table and, with her family she would have these really difficult conversations about injustices in the world. And they would do this thing where they would roll their eyes and say, “Oh, not again, here she goes.”
And that is sort of like what content practitioners can get in bureaucracy. If you are the person who’s constantly like, “Guys, we really need to do some user research.” For me, the thing that really people’s back up is, “No new content until everything is fixed.” That is the mantra that I’ve been on for the past year.
And so when you are taking this institution, that’s been like barreling ahead at full speed, pumping out content like crazy. And you take all of that inertia and you try to slow it down and scale it back. I think that’s maybe at least in my experience where the institutional killjoy comes out.
It’s calling attention to a lack of foundations in user research or in principles of accessibility. It’s calling attention to the fact that we don’t have clear workflows and approval processes. It’s calling attention to the fact that our content doesn’t meet good standards for appropriate reading level or just basic content design best practices.
So it’s trying to call attention to what the institution is doing that is currently failing our users. Um, yeah. That can tend to kill some joy.
Sophia: It’s asking to build a well-researched and usable service. So you don’t have to publish that dreaded FAQ.
Jessica: If you’re telling people that there is, you know, a different way to work. I think the reason that, that, that is a killjoy move in bureaucracy is because you’re saying, “Hey, I know you’ve been doing this this way for 10 years, but I’m here to say there is a better way.”
And there are folks who will get on board with you and to them you’re not a killjoy. You know, this is exciting and they’re all on board with rescaling or learning something new. But in general, to the institution, you’re sort of challenging the way that things have always been done. And that doesn’t always go over well.
Sophia: You’re challenging practices that have been in place for, for literally decades.
Jessica: And you’re not just saying, “Hey, can we write our content differently? Can we use a different CMS? Can we follow new guidelines?” You’re saying fundamentally, “Can we look at the root of how we determine what content to even develop? Can we actually look at the full user journey? Can we talk about user experience?” So, so you’re asking some big questions about the way the organization does business.
One of the ways that Hoosein and McQueen have tried to address the varied approaches to content happening within the government of Alberta is by creating a digital community of practice.
Sophia: In the last year, we’ve developed a digital community of practice within the Government of Alberta because our goal was to cultivate broad organizational capacity, from the ground up, for digital practitioners to successfully engage in designing and implementing an understanding what human centred work is and how to do it effectively and how to produce user-friendly and human centered content and products and services for both the Albertans and the staff that we serve.
Staff are often forgotten in the equation as a consumer of content and services, but they’re very important to the equation. There also wasn’t a unified collective of digital practitioners across the organization. So with this community of practice, we’re striving to facilitate the creation and exchange of knowledge, teaching, and best practices to solve those problems through innovation and human-centred approaches.
Jessica: At the moment, Sophia and I co-chair this, and we really wanted it to be a grassroots, practitioner-driven group because that’s where we do our work. W’re not here to influence executive with this community of practice. This is really a community of practitioners.
We are very fortunate. We also have our colleague Tara Codrington. She sits on our sort of organization committee, and it’s the three of us working with all of the membership to bring ourselves events. We see practitioners in a range of different fields, but of course, title isn’t going to tell you what people actually do.
So we have folks that do content work, folks that do design work. I think there might be some policy people included as well. One of our, actually our first event was a workshop where we got our members together and we asked them what they were interested in learning about through the community of practice. And that was really cool because we got to see where people’s interests overlapped.
The topics that we came up with through that workshop, they kind of fall into five streams.
- We want to talk about tools and methods. So how are digital practitioners doing their work and what can they be using to work smarter?
- People are also interested in teams and people. So what does a digital team in our organization look like today? And what could it look like in the future?
- People are really interested in digital leadership. So questions about how we brief up, how we advocate for best practices, how do we navigate those challenges inherit from bureaucracy?
- The fourth topic area is policy and standards. So people in our organization are really keen to understand what are the rules that we should be following? This is where we talk about things like accessibility, ethics, privacy security.
- And lastly, a big topic area is content and design because our organization produces a lot of digital content. There are people doing content work and design work across the organization.
We want to sort of start to elevate the conversation amongst those practitioners and sync them up together so that we’re sharing best practices and ways of working.
Blaine: It makes sense though, in the same way that the two of you came together and because of a shared interest in trying to do this work more efficiently and in a better way, there are going to be others out there who share that vision.
Jessica: Absolutely. And it’s so exciting, you know, when you connect with someone in your organization in the far stretches of the bureaucracy, when you find another person who understands what you’re saying. It’s a breath of fresh air because sometimes when we’re stuck in our little ministry bubbles, when we’re chipping away at our particular problems that we face, it can be hard to remember that there are people trying to shift the organization forward at varying levels and in different parts of the organization.
So having a community of practice like this that goes across the entire organization, it can help boost morale and remind those people, trying to bring change to the organization, that there are others out there.
Sophia: One of the side benefits is we’ve started to build relationships with other jurisdictions and other public servants. And there seems to be this general mentality among the public services to want to help each other so that we all end up having the skills and the tools and the knowledge that we need to deliver better services in the end.
Jessica: For our digital accessibility symposium, we actually had some speakers come in from Government of B.C. who are, I would say, leaps and bounds ahead of us in terms of their accessibility policy and the work that they do to ensure their content is accessible. And it was really inspiring to hear from another provincial government that has identified accessibility as a priority and taken very clear steps to integrate that into their content work. Seeing other jurisdictions have success and then getting to hear from them is quite inspiring.