Government Social Media: Five Questions for 2011

I ask five “big questions” about government social media use to put technology, government, social engagement, citizens, and business together in a larger perspective: Who are the public faces of government agencies online?

The Federal government has made a good deal of progress toward being more transparent, collaborative, and participatory during the two years since President Obama took office. However, despite great strides, government practitioners’ use of social media is not very sophisticated, does not take advantage of the latest tactics and tools, and does not necessarily improve the dialogue around big issues citizens really care about — the economy, jobs, national security, health, and the environment. Meanwhile, the Government 2.0 / Open Government movement’s strategic thought leaders in many ways remain focused on internal foci like what certain words mean, or what should look like. Here, I ask five “big questions” about government social media use to put technology, government, social engagement, citizens, and business together in a larger perspective


Who are the public faces of government agencies online?

When you think of tech companies in Washington, DC interacting with the government, you can often think of a specific person who is the official or unofficial “face” of the company — both online and offline. They have some digital savvy in one way or another (they write, they tweet, there are online videos of their interviews, etc.) For Microsoft in DC, people often think of me or Lewis Shepherd (Microsoft Research’s liasion to government). Google has the father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, appear at functions and give talks. Facebook has Adam Conner. Twitter now has Adam Sharp.

And this is of course not limited to technology companies, nor to Washington, DC. Comcast had until recently Frank Eliason. Ford has Scott Monty. Back in the day, Microsoft had Robert Scoble in Redmond, WA. There are variations on this theme, but certainly many private sector brands are moving toward something like this (see: iJustine loves Junior Mints), on purpose or accidentally, and in many cases the benefits of authentic audience engagement outweigh the downside of it.

But it is much, much more difficult to think of who these people are for government agencies. Blogger Bob of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was an early example of a public-facing employee using social media in government to communicate with average citizens, and he was a good exemplar for others to follow. He participated online, and also made appearances in person at technology conferences and such. He did interviews about his job with bloggers. ByFederal government standards, he was a social media rockstar.

But that was in 2008. Bob still worksat TSAin much the same capacity as far as I can tell, buthis public profile/reputation/brand has not risen much since (think: Rick Sanchez), and the TSA Blog has not really changed much. But this is not to pick on the TSA. No one has really risen — in any agency — to join or surpass Bob as a “face” of the government, mostly online and somewhat offline. Who’s the face of the Department of Education? Of the FBI? Of the EPA? It is hard to name anybody, even in wonky circles.


These agencies have people who are perfectly capable of fulfilling this mission. Where are they? Do they not have the time, the tools, the ambition, the freedom? It is not clear from where I sit. Robert Scoble didn’t ask Bill Gates for permission; he just started blogging about what was happening at Microsoft using the tools he had available. And for a while, particularly in some circles, he was probably the most recognizable face of the company besides the CEO. And it probably helped humanize the brand at that time.

And TSA (among others) could sure use some positive word of mouth these days. During the body scanning fiasco, maybe they were doing something helpful online… but I didn’t see it. I didn’t see their “face” on TV, on the radio, I didn’t see retweets of their conversations, I didn’t see videos. So, maybe there are some examples out there, but if the ultimate goal is to change public opinion, or brand image, or push novel information, it doesn’t seem like it really happened.

If the government does social media but no one cares, did it really happen? If you’re in the government and interested in social media, ask: could a citizen with an interest in your agency’s work name a single employee from the agency? If not, your agency has failed at social media usage on some level. It is no longer useful to merely have stood up a Twitter account and a YouTube channel, published a moderate amount of medium-quality content, and checked off the social media box on an annual scorecard. People want to talk to people about interesting and useful things… everything else is noise.

Why is government social media organized around agencies and not topics?

Virtually all government social media channels and online sites, from Twitter accounts to YouTube channels to mobile apps to data sets to contest websites, are organized around agencies and not topics. There are too many of these to mention at any length, but the Facebook “fan page” of the Department of Labor can serve as an example. There are a modest number of fans, relatively low levels of engagement, and content which is close to 100% by and about the Department of Labor. It’s hard to find a title or description of a recent post that does not explicitly say “U.S. Department of Labor” in it. Am I being unfair here? The Air Force has one of the better Federal government Facebook pages, but it’s to a large extent just like the Labor Department one, just at a larger scale.


But why? Content creation and curation need not only be only about the organization making it. In fact, some of the best private sector engagements, from mainstream TV commercials to social media promotions, often do exactly the opposite — mislead the audience, draw one into a narrative, and then “reveal” who the messaging is from. Everyone knows the game… we just want to be tricked into playing it a bit. So why does the Labor Department page have to be about the Labor Department, the Air Force page about the Air Force? Why can’t the content be broadened to include information from a variety of sources about all aspects of jobs and the economy, or airplanes and national security? And why are they still in organizational silos — Could the Air Force not collaborate with the Navy and Army (all three of them own planes, even!)?

No one less than President Obama, in his 2011 State of the Union address, pointed out the juxtaposition of how agencies see issues, and how vexing such disorganization and bureaucracy can be for the average citizen:

“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater,” he quipped. “And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

Salmon is a great topic for a punchline, and this joke was memorable and resonated. But this is a serious issue that affects issues citizens actually care about: the economy, healthcare and medicine, environment among them. How many different government organizations have jurisdiction over parts of “the economy”? That’s an article in itself.

The point here is that in order to deliver a meaningful and consistent narrative to citizens who care about issues and not agencies, the branding needs to resonate. Who has the best Facebook “fan page” about salmon? Maybe the government should. If the point of open government is to better connect information with citizens, and the government can’t put that together with people working on this at Interior, Commerce, etc., what good is it all?

More seriously, why aren’t there giant social media efforts around national security, the economy, healthcare, etc. where two or more relevant government agencies pool money and talent and content creation/curation such that those channels are simply the very best information available for citizens on the Web? Is that not a valid goal? (If not, what is the “big goal”, to be a little bit better than before? I think that’s a low standard.)


We can find exceptions as answers to all these questions; for example, the EPA has set up a Facebook page called Water Is Worth It. It’s a start. But the larger point is that most agencies are not even experimenting in this general direction. The exceptions to the rule prove the rule.

What is the relationship between social media for government and things citizens care about?

An outside observer could be forgiven for not understanding what Government 2.0 (not strictly, but widely thought of as Web 2.0 + Government) is, given that the gurus leading the discussion about it spend so much time defining and debating it themselves. Alex Howard’s latest piece for GovFresh, “Building the Narrative of Gov 2.0 One Story at a Time,” is an exemplar of this. It isa perfectly fine blog post to read if you are interested in the nuances of Government 2.0 vs. Open Government vs. WeGovernment, or in what the Gov 2.0 movement looks like in Australia or Brazil, or if you know who Beth Novek is and what she does. And people do care about these things, and they areimportant and influential people.

Nevertheless, the people who are “Government 2.0 wonks” are a fairly narrow slice of the citizenry. While people like myself, Alex, and others can write super-wonky stuff for an inside-the-Beltway and Government 2.0 Club audience, what I have seen less of is “translation” of the wonky stuff in a medium and format with a person(s) that really resonates with a wider set of people and teaches them what’s happening but mainly focuses on the audience and their needs and desires. Citizens don’t care about how FEMA is organized, or about a website made in Drupal, or about XML formatted documents.


Thus, beyond saying things along the lines of, “open government is better for citizens because it’s more transparent,” what is not so obvious is how social media in government and related issues like Gov 2.0, open government, etc. truly and directly relates to big issues that citizens — average citizens, not elite wonks with advanced degrees living in Washington DC and Manhattan — really care about. According to a Pew Research survey in early 2011, Americans’ top priorities for President Obama are: improving the economy, creating more jobs, and keeping the nation safe from terrorist attacks.

In a recent Twitter exchange, long time Gov 2.0 participants Andrew Wilson and Alex Howard has a little back-and-forth which sums this up well. Alex tweeted his aforementioned “Building the Narrative of Gov 2.0 One Story at a Time piece, and Andrew replied that he “would argue that we REALLY need narratives that resonate w/ groups beyond those familiar with #gov20 — how this is relevant to EVERYBODY” (emphasis his).

I tend to agree with Andrew. While perhaps in this specific case it is Alex’s job as a journalist to cover the more wonky aspects of and interview the experts in Gov 2.0 (and he is not the only one… just the only one doing it on the Sunday I wrote this article), it is hard to point to how this ties back to average citizens and what they care about (economy, jobs, national security). Ultimately, that is how social media in government, Gov 2.0, open government, and related topics will provide value. Or they will fade away as an elite fad.

Is governmment prepared to interact with Citizen 2.0?

Putting aside some of the issues noted above (i.e., is government social media “good enough”?), there is the additional question of whether government is able to deal with increasingly technically-sophisticated citizenry at all. Certainly the private sector has trouble keeping up, and while they are making progress, they have thei proverbial hands a lot less tied than the government does. Consumer software is more and more powerful and accessible, and that leads to all kinds of possibilities, both good and bad, for engaging with audiences using technology.


In politics, campaigning is increasingly always-on-the-record, as outlined in this recent NY Times article anout Tim Pawlenty’s relatively under-the-radar campaign for President that is moving into a faster gear. I have previously written about the parallel of always-on-the-record government in2009 piece. What Would Always On the Record Government Look Like?

By [always-on-the-record government] I meant that the combination of (1) the proliferation of tech-savvy citizens with mobile camera/video devices, (2) the prevalence of wi-fi or other Web connections, (3) the massive number of people using social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, and (4) the great interest that people have right now in a number of controversial issues like our current wars, health care, and climate change that people could and probably would start documenting everything that government officials do and say, where they go, who they meet with, for how long, what their staffers eat for lunch and with whom, and so on.

And you don’t need to be a professional journalist to do this, or even to do it well. An entire site along the lines of could be started around this, in fact., anyone?

So what if 1% of U.S. citizens started doing this? Roughly there are 300 million people in the U.S., say half of them are adults, so we have 1% of 150 million as 1.5 million. Now, if everyone just did this at the state, local, or federal level one day a year, and generated one “amateur journalism piece” from that day, that’s about 4,100 videos/blog posts/tweet sets generated PER DAY. That’s a lot of government on-the-record.

Perhaps the notion that 1.5 million Americans will become consistent amateur journalists of government is unrealistic, but that’s not the point. The big question here is whether government is scaled up and prepared to deal with citizens as individual human beings at a massive scale, even if it’s just something relatively simple, like reading, analyzing, and understanding Twitter sentiment. I don’t think they are. Government social media (witness the Facebook pages mentioned above)is still mainly “push” and is largely impersonal, whereas companies are increasingly building sophisticated websites with backends using software like CRM (customer relationship management) to keep track of people, to automatically/mechanically understand the conversation around their brands, to direct employee workflows, etc.

Again, there are exceptions. The current Speaker of the House, John Boehner, launched the America Speaking Out website last year when Republicans were looking to gain a majority in the House of Representatives. It takes advantage of channels like Facebook and Twitter, but in itself is not completely reliant on them. America Speaking Out is not an experiment in social media, and it’s not a channel. It is a solution to a problem the Republicans had at the time: opening a channel with Americans to hear their ideas about the future, analyze them, and then use them. And there is a backend on the site which the owners can use to crunch the numbers, keep track of users, and so forth. This is a good example of how to scale up Government 2.0 conversations with citizens. But again, the exception proves the rule.


Where are the open government entrepreneurs?

Open government is often touted as being valuable. But to whom and how quickly? It is very difficult to find companies who have built legitimate, profitable business models around the rising level of free government data. Many people are enthusiastic about the topic, but few have taken the risk to go into business around it. As I wrote in September in an article called “What is the vision for open government entrepreneurship?”

The classic example of terrific public use of open government data isn’t very sexy, but you nevertheless probably take advantage of it nearly every day. Does the word Accuweather mean anything to you? The data that Accuweather and similar organizations use very often comes from the Federal government’s National Weather Service, operated by NOAA. The private sector weather market is worth roughly $1.5 billion — and it’s built on open government data stores.

Not every open government entrepreneur will turn their company into Accuweather, and that’s fine. But if you’re an entrepreneur, isn’ta long-lasting, successful, well-known company and trusted brandprecisely what you strive for as a goal?And yet, it’srare to hear a discussion among entrepreneurs who have that kind of vision in the government space. Everyone seems to be a consultant of some kind. There’s nothing wrong with consulting the government on open data, or social media, or whatever. But where are the MBA’s and VC’s?

To be sure, there are again some examples who are exceptions to this rule, and I mention them in my earlier article (PASSUR and BrightScope). But companies like this are hard to find, and not necessarily connected to the primary discussions, events, and social networks where open government gurus work and talk. Open government entrepreneurs should probably look more like “regular” entrepreneurs. From the same article, I take this to mean,


What’s a “regular entrepreneur” though? Let me know what you think, but I’ll take a stab at this — people who have started companies before, who read Entrepreneur and Inc. and have a business plan, who perhaps even have an MBA or another advanced degree and some hardcore corporate experience. Maybe they’re not Millenials and “digital kids” swimming in THE FACEBOOK but rather Gen Xers with a decade of real-world training under their belts — not just in programming, but in finance, government, education, and other activities.

Seems to me that if a resource is valuable, then the consumers of that resource will want it, and indeed, compete for access to it. This is a basic law of ecology. So, in the open government space, is the data being provided (“opened up”) valuable? Are consumers rushing to it? Are entrepreneurs competing to monetize it or otherwise use it in meaningful ways? And if not, why not?

Reprinted from

Dr. Mark Drapeau is the Director of U.S. Public Sector Social Engagement at Microsoft, and the editor of SECTOR: PUBLIC, a new online magazine about how science,technology, and innovation are affecting the public sector, public service, and civic improvement. You can follow him on Twitter at @cheeky_geeky.