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Digital Experience Government Must #3: Privacy and Personalization

Personalization of user experience will be the next major paradigm shift in government IT.

Imagine a strong hurricane is about to affect your region. You, like many people, are not as prepared as you could be. The storm is projected to make landfall within the next week and you start to go into panic mode about your lack of preparation. You have questions, too, about your flood insurance, FEMA, evacuation, and your children and pets. The TV news suggests online resources like Ready.gov, and you take some time on your lunch break surfing around the site for information. Later in the day you go back to the site, and even when you take your laptop home, you open your browser again to get more information.

Would you want your experience on Ready.gov to be tailored to your geographic region, the fact that you are a homeowner with kids and pets, and to be presenting you the kind of relevant, specific disaster preparedness information you have already shown interest in through your past browsing activity? I certainly would. Otherwise I would waste time clicking through all sorts of stuff I wasn’t interested in just to find relevant information every time I visited the site.

It’s not difficult to extend this type of scenario across many use cases:

  • Veterans and their families having improved access to relevant benefits and services (think mental health vs. survivors benefits)
  • Business owners being guided through the maze of licensing, permits, and other regulatory affairs (restaurateur vs. daycare provider)
  • New residents and visitors to a region looking for information on activities and services (sports fanatics vs. families with small children)

Being able to tailor an experience that personally addresses the needs of the end user is not a new idea, and in fact most users are accustomed to personalization in their everyday lives. In a day and age when people can get what they need, when they need it, through whichever channel they desire, and with relative ease -- government agencies must offer comparable experiences, or risk becoming irrelevant.

Today you are YOU, that is TRUER than true. There is no one alive, that is YOUER than you. -Dr. Seuss

That said, government organizations are finally realizing the power and importance of implementing a personalization strategy. Basic personalization techniques like targeting and testing are simple enough to implement, and can educate and inform your team for future success. Leveraging personalization technology such as Acquia Lift enables governments to stop making assumptions about who their users are and how they will behave, and instead let their actual behavior and attributes inform the experience.

People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be. -Don Draper

Privacy and Personalization

A common objection to implementing personalization technology in government is privacy concerns. In reality, there is no current legislation or policy that says a government agency cannot provide personalized experiences to users. Governments can provide personalized experiences. What policy says is that governments must not abuse PII (personally identifiable information), must clearly communicate to users what they are doing, and must give users a way to opt out.

In the US federal government, OMB Policy M-10-22 is the current definitive reference on personalization technology:

The central goal is to respect and safeguard the privacy of the American public while also increasing the Federal Government’s ability to serve the public by improving and modernizing its activities online. Any use of such technologies must be respectful of privacy, open, and transparent, and solely for the purposes of improving the Federal Government’s services and activities online.

The policy goes on to define inappropriate use and usage tiers of personalization technology. Acquia’s personalization technology encompasses tiers 1 and 2:

Tier 1 – single session. This tier encompasses any use of single session web measurement and customization technologies.
Tier 2 – multi-session without PII. This tier encompasses any use of multi-session web measurement and customization technologies when no PII is collected (including when the agency is unable to identify an individual as a result of its use of such technologies).

Finally the policy outlines what agencies need to provide for opt-out, documented privacy policies, and approvals:

Privacy policies must explain in detail usages and opt in/opt out procedures. For Tier 1 and 2, no additional approvals are needed, but they should provide opt out (either agency side or providing instructions/means for client side). “So long as the agencies (1) are in compliance with this Memorandum and all other relevant policies; (2) provide clear and conspicuous notice in their online Privacy Policy citing the use of such technologies, as specified in Attachment 3; and (3) comply with their internal policies governing the use of such technologies.

Governments commonly use technologies (such as Google Analytics) that fit into these tier definitions. Acquia Lift uses similar tier 1 and 2 tracking and allows anonymous personalization with absolutely zero tracking or storage of PII (Personally Identifiable Information).

While it’s true that agencies are asked to walk a very thin line with their personalization strategies, the benefits far outweigh the concerns. When implementing personalization technologies, agencies should choose a flexible solution that has the ability to provide personalized content while following even the strictest of privacy policies.

In my next post in this series, I’ll explain how governments can start to implement personalization.

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