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Rachel Sterne Vs. New York's Digital Bureaucracy

In January, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped Rachel Sterne to be the city's first chief digital officer—and ever since then, the 27-year-old (28 on Monday) has been on a tear, dragging New York into the 21st century. She's overhauled much of the city's communication with social media; launched NYC's Digital Road Map, a plan to transform New York into a high-tech metropolis; introduced smart and simple city solutions like adding QR codes to building permits; and held the city's first ever hackathon. Her goal is to make government more effective and transparent through technology, to make the Big Apple run more like Apple.

But the one element lacking in most of the buzz about her meteoric rise and even bigger ambitions is a way to prove it's all working. Until now.

As with all public sector initiatives, the onus is on her to prove she's not just wasting tax dollars building a new digital bureaucracy. While New York has increased its digital reach by more than 100,000 people since launching the Digital Road Map in May, the number of social media channels the city oversees has also ballooned to more than 200 feeds, with more than 100 individuals running them, a figure which can rise as high as 200 if you count interns. Sterne is weary of overreaching, though, and she's implementing metric- and results-based solutions to hold her digital initiatives accountable.

"The No. 1 thing we tell our agencies is: If you're starting a Facebook page for the sake of starting a Facebook page, you're going to fail," Sterne tells Fast Company. "Because that's not what this is about."

In the case of social media, Sterne says it's all about "speaking the language of our constituents." The city understands that residents are less likely to read a press release than a Twitter feed, or a government website than a Facebook page. That's why in addition to those platforms, New York has pushed agencies to start uploading videos on YouTube, adding photos to Flickr, and connecting with citizens on WordPress or Tumblr.

Many of these channels are showing signs of success, especially when delivering "seasonal or timely announcements quickly and effectively," as Sterne says. The city's feeds for snow updates and transportation news, for example, are convenient tools for New Yorkers; the city's 311 Twitter account boasts more than 18,000 followers. "With social media, you're engaging in these one-to-one interactions in public, and it starts to create a public record of what's happening," Sterne says. "Especially when compared to traditional modes of communication, there's an enormous amount of cost savings and return on investment for the amount of time put in."

Still, it's unclear whether that's the case for all the city's social media channels. Many departments and agencies run nearly a half-dozen feeds. Does the NYC department of human resources administration need a Facebook page, a Flickr page, a YouTube profile, and a Twitter account? Some agencies have several Facebook pages; some have several Twitter feeds. And at this point, it's not certain how effective these channels of communication are. New York's department for the aging, for example, has sent out more than 1,200 tweets, often posting multiple times a day, yet it has just 580 followers in a city of 8 million. Scouring the city's myriad YouTube pages, you'll be hard-pressed to find videos with more than a couple hundred views; many video view-counts number in the double- or even single-digits.

To create and maintain the city's social media channels takes time and resources, and it's not easy to track how much time and resources the city is investing in social media. "It would be really difficult to say that X number of man-hours are allocated to [social media] per week," Sterne says. "By and large, people are taking this on on top of their core responsibilities. People inside the city are often wearing multiple hats at once."

But Sterne acknowledges the agencies need to be held accountable. "Of course it would be insane for us to use all these platforms if they're not necessary—it would be ridiculous to use all these feeds just to use them," she says. "Part of our job is to look at them and ask, 'Where is this an effective use of our resources? Where is it not?'"

To deal with this issue, New York has launched SMART, the Social Media Advisory and Research Taskforce. The committee will act as a consulting body for agencies making the digital transition, providing feedback and streamlining social media strategy and policy. They're also highlighting best practices, and planning to hold crash courses and workshops for communication managers. "One of the first steps we're implementing is we're going to standardize the use of a centralized social media management platform like HootSuite," Sterne says. "Also tied to that is a centralized process for reporting—across the city, we will be able to compare, agency by agency, who is performing, and who is not—who is responding to requests, and who is not."

She is especially excited about using customer-relationship management tools to track the success of social media engagement. "You could call it constituent-relationship management," she says. "It's absolutely key to have this metric-based approach. Until you have that approach, it's all very subjective, and it's basically an emotional conversation. We want to take all of the subjectivity out of the process, and focus entirely on the metrics and numbers: Is it an effective use of the platform?"

She cites New York's department of health and mental hygiene as one of the city's most effective users of social media. By the numbers, she says, they boast some of the city's most popular pages—the NYC Condom Facebook page, for example, has more than 17,000 "Likes."

The success of other agencies on social media will undergo evaluation. If they're not performing, Sterne wants to know. "When we meet with agencies, the first thing we say is, 'What's the goal of your agency?' And then we work backwards from there," she says. "In some cases we might say that it's not the best idea for you to launch a Facebook page or Twitter feed right now. At a certain point, it might not make sense."

"You have to take this metric- and results-based approach because it's the only way we'll be successful," Sterne says. "It's important to look at social media just as you would any other channel: It needs to be done correctly and strategically. The truth is you have to look at it like any other investment."

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  • Brian Wilson

    Once again more tax money wasted. Social Media is by far not a fix for the slow, outdated and never on the same page system that is our city (and most of the states and government agencies using outdated computers, networks, databases etc. and insisting that paper and files are used to account for the jobs that people have). Kudos though to Rachel as I am sure she is having fun with the position. This is also a big trend now with small to large companies. Lets get a young person that knows how to tweet and post to Facebook and they will solve and fix everything. Ughh. Real leadership and the ability to implement change is what is needed and as long as all the city wide organizations want to stay separate and not collaborate and do their own thing I just see it another project that is wasting my tax money.

  • mabi

    Is social media really the answer? It just really seems like another example of society and government moving further and further towards catering to the selfish class of the wealthy, affluent, and connected. Don't cry jealousy, because I am part of that class, but essentially requiring an expensive phone with an expensive data plan and the knowledge or interest to use them is self-serving if it is not only a segment of a larger effort to improve the same capabilities off-line. All this is going to lead to is further insular, ignorant smugness. Things always look great when you only look at what is going on in your self-segregated, gated, guarded, and artificial world?

    Forcing a bunch of crusty bureaucrats to upload pictures and videos (which they would totally stop doing the second attention drifts) is cute but kind of a facade. QR codes on building permits is a decent idea, but not anything mind-bogglingly innovative or new as it is essentially just a new kind of bar-code. It's the processes, the culture, and the sense for and consequence for lack of accountability and responsibility that need revamping. All this social media stuff is just slapping some paint on a rickety house. Yes, I know you disagree because you have an iPhone and you are totally enthralled. The underlying human factor is still present, no matter the fancy new trend.

  • Ross P

    Personally, I really hope that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Getting the government on board with social media is all well and good, but I wouldn't call it a game changer. There are so many other ways in which the internet and modern technology can be harnessed to vastly improve the efficiency of government. What about online voting (it's being done in europe), what about real time metro timetables (easy to do: see One Bus Away in Seattle), what about smart power grids and intelligent lighting (see: Barcelona).

    I just really hope cities don't just make a facebook page and then say 'Look at how advanced we are'!

  • Sid Burgess

    Great article Austin.  I am glad to hear this story is more than just a story about how social media is changing NY.  The story and wisdom in Sterne's approach is to bring accountability to her methodology. Social media folks may cringe at this focus but it is going to be critical to gain acceptance in any bureaucracy.      

  • acarr

    Thanks, Sid. Me too. Glad this will actually make a difference -- and I love how serious Rachel and the city are approaching the topic. It's not just fluff.

  • Sheena Medina

    It's good that Sterne is laying the groundwork to hold herself accountable to every little initiative. It's needed when you're dealing with a behemoth like the City of New York. However I would say to focus "entirely on the metrics and numbers" isn't really what social media is about either. Yes, conversations can be "emotional" but at the heart, social media is about having conversations and building relationships. And I'm not quite sure anyone out there has invented a tool to measure the "success" of relationship building. You see the results every day based off what people are sharing and talking about. I think the larger task at hand for the city of New York is, how are you going to get people to care enough about what you're saying to have a conversation about it?