Communication channels have evolved over time, and this has put pressure on governments to remain agile with their communications strategies.
New platforms, an increase in public interest and the necessary expansion of regulatory frameworks require state and local agencies to monitor their communications closer than ever, including on social media and elsewhere online.
In this episode, the In Case You Missed It crew put a button on the latest GovTech 100 news and interviewed Ray Carey, CEO of Optimere, about how public records are changing, what his company is doing to help agencies remain in compliance and where government communications could go in the future.
The following interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity:
A: Ive been involved in technology for 25 years, for my whole career as a banker and investor and manager. Im now the lucky CEO and janitor of Optimere. And I came to Optimere as the CEO of ArchiveSocial.
This is my third assignment in the CEO and janitor role. My last company was called Amplify, and I helped some of the worlds largest brands like McDonalds or General Mills or Estee Lauder harness the data in their customer communications. And that data was moving from traditional communications, think email and phone, over to social. So that should sound familiar to a powerhouse company.
Now [Amplify has] about 1,000 employees and continues to sort of help those global folks. But ArchiveSocial allowed me to get back to kind of a mission-driven company, which was cool.
Before that I had a company called Neo Nova and we were helping roll out rural broadband from Alaska to Key West and, you know, it felt really good to tell my mom that I was helping the rural broadband program. So Amplify was great, but its nice to get back to a company that, you know, you brag to your mom about.
Q: Optimere was recently formed out of ArchiveSocial, NextRequest and Monsido as a public records powerhouse. Can you share more about the vision for this new company?
A: Our mission here is to try to help government communicators build trust in digital communications. All of our communicators know they do their job because great communication is totally key to having a great community. If you dont have great communication, you have a hard time building that community and engaging the citizens in the way that you want.
But its really hard to do. There are so many rules and regulations that our customers government communicators are subject to, it can sometimes be paralyzing. I just want to talk about, you know, the issue of the day, the landslide that happened or whats going on with COVID, but Im paralyzed by all these regulations around data retention, or [Americans with Disabilities Act] ADA or [Freedom of Information Act] FOIA requests or data privacy laws. And so thats why we brought together these three great companies, so that our customers can focus on the message and we focus on them.
Q: How does Optimere work with government agencies right now to modernize the way they manage public records and communications?
A: Back to this idea that we help them build trust, because theres all these regulations and rules. And theres a reason those rules are there. In my mind its to drive compliance. And too often they drive liability.
Its kind of like saying we have speed limits for safety, not so that we can give people tickets. And so we believe it takes sort of a holistic approach to your communications social-web workflow. So thats ArchiveSocial-Monsido-NextRequest: social-web workflow.
And the issue in social, the biggest issue that people have, is one of record capture. So unlike other forms of communication where I send it to you the chain of custody is really clear with an email, per se, you have it the chain of custody on social media is really murky. It sits on servers, cloud servers, as weve talked about at Facebook, at Twitter, and if its gone, its gone. Oftentimes, they wont give it to you, even if youre the White House.
Weve looked in the archive and 1 in 12 records is edited or deleted within a year in the archive. And so if you dont have a real-time version of those, you are missing a fundamental record of your government communication. So we work with folks on social to make sure that they have a permanent record of the communication that they have.
On the web, theres lots of issues on the web, you have to comply with your policy. But the biggest issue that were working with folks (about) on the web is accessibility. Nobody would build a government building and in the parking lot not have parking spots for folks that have placards and need access. But we build websites that are not accessible to millions of folks all the time. And so we have to have that same mindset that what we do in the physical world, we have to be doing that in the digital world.
And if you get those two right youre creating this massive volume of digital records and you have to be able to produce those things without bankrupting your agency. And so we work with folks on automating their workflows. We work with them to handle time-intensive tasks like redaction. And then one thing that weve seen, particularly in the public records production spaces, is theres lots of, we call them oopsies, where people produce confidential information. And so we scan all these records ahead of time and give them risk scores to keep you from accidentally maybe producing something that has Social Security numbers or, you know, private citizen data. And unfortunately, that happens at times. So thats one of the great things about using technology to correct for what can be human process and human process errors.
Q: Now, weve seen a general trend that citizens are having shifting expectations, and they have greater expectations now in the public sector. No longer do they say, Oh, thats government, you know, theyre old school. They have much greater expectations on government to deliver services differently. And so those old ways of doing things are no longer accepted. How are you seeing this in the way that this is impacting agencies and how they should think about the record and communication aspects of what they do?
A: Yeah, I think in many ways government is very unique and different. But in some ways, its the same as the rest of industry. And people that want to communicate with their citizens, with their customers, with their constituents, you have to communicate in ... the place where your citizens live. And thats increasingly Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and social media. You have to communicate, particularly in a post-COVID world, in a digital, sort of accessible way. And that means on the web.
Were seeing this massive growth in social media communications. One of our largest folks in the archive is the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC. So just think about how much the CDC was putting out on Facebook two years ago, and whats going on right now.
If I look back three years ago, our average public agency had about four accounts. So think one agency, four accounts that might be two contributors on Facebook and Twitter. Right now, thats tripled, thats 12 accounts on average.
The number of records per agency over the last three years is up 300 percent. That archive today has around 3,500 agencies in it, and it just crossed over half a billion records. So what is happening is government is engaging its citizens where they live. Thats major.
Another big change were seeing is in the records space. Transparency has always been at the core of public records law, sunshine laws, you know, (the) Freedom of Information Act. Were seeing citizens want transparency in the record production process, not just for the records: Where does my request sit? How many days? Whos approving this?
So you need a system fundamentally to be able to not only be transparent as a government, but to be transparent in the way you are being transparent, to sort of stretch the analogy. Were certainly seeing those two big, big trends, with citizens demanding that from their public officials.
Q: I want to come back to something you mentioned earlier, and thats accessibility. How is Optimere approaching making records and communications more accessible to the country?
A: Each of our solutions can go together, but they each solve a very specific problem. And the problem on the web is you need something to monitor your sites and domain. So that is Monsido. There is more than one demand letter per day in a public agency threatening lawsuits for inaccessible websites, right? So it is a place that theres a significant risk factor with financial implications for folks.
But if you get past that money thing, it is just the right thing to do. Everybody communicates. Everybody wants to communicate in a way that is accessible to all folks. I havent met one of our customers whos trying to build websites that cant be digested by people with disabilities.
And so we are monitoring the websites across the board. If you look at your big agencies, they may have hundreds of people producing content on websites, hundreds of folks, and one misstep can really get them into trouble. So you need some automation to monitor those sites and domains. Are they complying with the policy? Are they complying with [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines]?
A little example of this is every single image needs to have whats called alt text that describes what that image is. So somebody whos visually impaired, their reader can read that website. So we scan the website for all of these potential violations, these potential risk factors. And then they can be scored, prioritized, and then dealt with.
Q: Im glad that you mentioned the theme of compliance, because thats something that continues to evolve. What are some of the macro trends that youre seeing impact record and communication compliance, that agencies need to take note of? And then second, how are you responding to these changes?
A: Theres more records. Theres more lawsuits. Theres more of these demand letters around accessibility. But theres one new threat vector that started coming up about six or seven months ago that I really wanted to draw peoples attention to. And that is the issue of social media blocking, and viewpoint discrimination.
Weve been working with folks for years to archive their social media. But we started seeing this pop up where agencies were being sued because somebody was blocking users and didnt have a good reason why they were blocking users. And recently there was one in Colorado state: $25,000 for a Senate president. A city in Rhode Island: $7,000, for blocked comments. Were seeing dozens of these every single month.
And if you looked at the policy, most every agency says we dont block anybody. I looked in the archive and 80 percent of public agencies are blocking folks, and no ones writing down why. And were starting to see records requests asking to show everyone that was blocked on Facebook. And were going to go through and say there are eight specific sort of exclusions to free speech. And you better have a reason why you blocked those folks, that is a sort of constitutionally valid reason, or youre going to have an issue with viewpoint discrimination.
So specific compliance with free speech and First Amendment violations is something really new and active that we see growing. And so we built into the system, on the back of the APIs for Facebook and Twitter, the ability to see everyone who youve blocked and then create metadata to write down the reason for this specific violation.
So when someone comes to you and says you blocked me, you can say either No, I didnt definitively, or you can say I did, because you violated our policy in this specific way. Heres everyone else we blocked. And it wasnt because they were of a political affiliation, or they said something about the mayors spouse that the mayor didnt like.
And so this is a new real threat vector for folks, because our communicators and our [public information officers] PIOs are usually doing a great job. They have people that get access to their social media that may not be as trained. They might be an elected official that goes a little haywire and puts their agency at risk.
Q: Whats on your radar for the year ahead? Whats next for Optimere?
A: So weve spent a lot of time in data privacy. We have a pretty big operation in Copenhagen, in the UK and [General Data Protection Regulation] GDPR. And data privacy, and how you handle consumer information, is very robust.
That is coming with CCNA in California. Theres laws in Vermont. Raise your hand if youve been assaulted by cookie banners popping up on websites in the last six months. That is directly related to law and regulation changes around data privacy.
Weve just introduced a product called ConsentManager, which is the first accessibility-driven cookie banner. Imagine you spend all this time in your website, making sure your website is compliant and accessible, and you get a third-party cookie banner that doesnt have that same rigor that the rest of your website has.
So I think 2022 is going to be a year of continued growth in data privacy, both in regulations and in solutions from us.
We have, in alpha, a new product called ArchiveChat. We are seeing modern collaboration communications, like Slack, and others get used in government. And that has the same duty of care that email and social media has. And so were working diligently on that.
And then, you know, were growing. We add about 150 public agencies a month. We added 1,500 public agency customers last year alone across the three companies. And so we need to hire optimists (thats the official word for an employee at Optimere). And we got a bunch of hiring to do this year. I love it.
Follow Optimere here: LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram
Until then, watch the previous episode announcing the GovTech 100 with special guests.
In Case You Missed It is Government Technologys weekly news roundup and interview live show featuring e.Republic* Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler, Deputy Chief Innovation Officer Joe Morris and Gov Tech Assistant News Editor Jed Pressgrove as they bring their analysis and insight to the weeks most important stories in state and local government.
Follow along live each Friday at 12 p.m. PST on LinkedIn and YouTube.
*e.Republic is Government Technologys parent company.
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