Direct messaging: Rebecca Woodbury

Local gov content strategist

Headshot of Rebecca Woodbury

Photo: Christine Foster

  • Rebecca Woodbury
  • Founder, Department of Civic Things

December 06, 2022

You worked in local government for 12 years before recently starting a company, Department of Civic Things. What inspired you to do this?

I wanted to create a company where I could focus on doing the work I love most - government content and websites.

I’ve always been inspired by the open source nature of public sector work - sharing and learning from each other in ways that lift us all up.

I’m inspired by the digital content that’s being created by some of the larger cities, like San Francisco, and want to scale those practices to smaller cities.

What is content design, and why is it so important to government service delivery?

Content design is more than writing. It’s how someone finds information and if they can easily understand it. It’s if that information helps them do something they want to do.

Poorly designed content leads to inequities and inefficiencies. It leads to distrust. Governments often think they are being transparent by telling the public everything they could possibly want to know about a program. But this can have the opposite effect if it’s hard to understand and obfuscates important information.

What does a content design engagement with Department of Civic Things entail?

We work with local governments to develop in-house content skills. This involves learning about plain language, accessibility, and search engine optimization. We help governments figure out how to prioritize this work and set up practical methods for continuous improvement.

What tools and resources do you lean on most for your work?

I love the Hemingway App and the Federal plain language guidelines. I often reference the SF.gov style guide. The Good Services Scale is another amazing tool to help governments pinpoint specific ways to improve their content.

How has your content design work with governments impacted the cultural aspects of the organization?

Government website projects that embrace content design can be a trojan horse for so much change. My favorite part of this work is empowering public servants to blow the dust off their PDFs, ask questions, and try delivering their services in new ways.

You’ve been a government employee and now you’re ‘industry,’ as they say. What’s your vendor advice to government folks?

Don’t let archaic procurement practices ruin everything! If you make it easy for vendors to work with you, you’ll increase your options. Rigid and silly procurement practices often stifle competition.

You end up picking between the chicken, the chicken, and the chicken. They are all dry, and two of them are going to give you salmonella.

Your process should help you find vendors that understand and share your mission. Don’t settle for mediocrity - the public deserves better.

And your government advice to vendors?

You probably have no idea what it’s like to walk a day in a public servant’s shoes. They are juggling a ridiculous amount of competing priorities while navigating silly hierarchical structures and egos.

Practice patience and be practical with your recommendations.

What have you learned – about yourself and/or business – in starting Department of Civic Things?

I’ve learned a lot about what brings me joy and what I need to thrive. My confidence has grown immensely - I finally feel my real value.

Any parting last digital government thoughts you can leave us with?

Next time you want a boost of serotonin, just find a wall of text and:

  • Break up the long sentences
  • Add some descriptive headings and bullets
  • Use ‘find and replace’ on some of these complex words

There you go. You made something better today.

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