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3 Steps to Agile Communications


In the digital age, agility is what makes the world go round. With any product or service your agency or organization provides, you have to be able to meet changing customer demands and expectations. Sometimes that means altering the approach you use to reach your audience, whose feedback will help you figure out how best to adapt products and services and deliver the best customer experience possible.

Software developers know this well. They update their products constantly, fixing bugs and making upgrades. This is known as agile software development.

At the Census Bureau, we took a page from their agile playbook, using this sort of iterative or adaptive approach in our communications with employees, data users and other key stakeholders. That means we review our annual communications plan regularly and adapt tactics based on the following:

  • How well each tactic worked with its intended audience, which we can gauge from things like Web analytics and survey response rates.
  • Changes in the environment at our agency or in the world at large (a change in leadership, for example, or new direction from Congress).
  • Customer or employee feedback that suggests certain outreach needs to be rethought or modes of communication need to be changed.

This approach to communication is a sea change from the way many government agencies used to conduct outreach. In the past, there were set communications plans. If something in a plan wasn’t working, there wasn’t necessarily means to quickly change course. So agencies were cemented to that plan until there was an opportunity to change it — months or more down the road. Now, thanks in part to digital advancements, agencies have the ability to make changes or add a new approach almost as soon as they get feedback that suggests they need to do things differently.

Want to try agile communications at your agency or organization? Here are some steps to take:

  1. Decide if it’s the right fit. At the Census Bureau, the iterative approach has been an incredible improvement from the traditional “waterfall” method — a direct and deliberate plan that leaves little room for flexibility. However, a flexible, changeable approach may not work everywhere. Iterative communication may work for you if
  • Your work does not need to follow time-consuming protocols.
  • You have the resources to gather analytics and feedback and act on them.
  • You have a product or service that could benefit from continuous or frequent outreach and improvements.
  1. Build a feedback loop. You can’t adapt if you don’t put your ear to the ground. Throughout the Census Bureau’s digital transformation, we have received a huge amount of feedback from customers and employees. Through social media, call centers, and our data dissemination specialists’ interactions with customers, we’ve been able to gain direct feedback on how users interact with Census Bureau data. Internally, our employees submit their input via email, an intranet feedback tool, and check-in meetings. We also use Web, email and app analytics to tell us when communications are hitting the mark with the public, and when they’re not.
  1. Decide what to change. The challenge with an iterative communications method is deciding what sort of adaptation is needed. With all the feedback coming from employees and customers, there’s a great deal to be selective about. Generally, we tend to take on a suggestion for a change if we’ve been hearing the same type of feedback from a lot of people. For example, many customers told us the search function on our website was hard to navigate. We were getting that feedback so often that it made sense to integrate a more user-friendly search function into our next digital upgrade. We might also make an iterative change to correct something that was blocking customers from responding to a survey or getting the information they needed. We might also choose to make a minor change that could be easily implemented and would result in a better customer or staff experience.

As I discussed in my previous post, sometimes messages get distorted. By adapting your communication methods as you go along using an agile approach, you can make sure everyone is on the same page.

Stephen L. Buckner is a senior executive at the U.S. Census Bureau serving as the assistant director of communications. This blog post was originally published on GovLoop.com.