Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why Government Should Focus More on Content Sharing & Less on Social Media

Today I attended a GovDelivery conference on public outreach using social media tools (and of course its platform).*


The conference featured a talk by Adam Conner of Facebook. He advised that content is king. Context is right there beside it – you can’t just post stuff without explaining. And in response to a request for professional usernames as versus having to always post as yourself, a firm "No." Basically the idea was that Facebook stands for something – we’re not gonna change just cause you, in government, want to have a professional versus a personal identity. Which Mark Zuckerberg considers hypocritical. (Uneasiness in the room.)


David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, spoke on a panel and suggested that national government might be “vestigial” since the public can largely handle things on their own.


(Good Lord, I thought, he’s just proclaimed himself an anarchist. One more word on that and I think he might have gotten tossed by one of the military folks.)


The audience offered questions. How do you push the message out? Wording I dislike but I know what was meant. How do you ameliorate the effects of users who take over the site and won’t let you communicate?


There weren’t easy answers. These were social media questions and it was a vendor conference. To them the stuff they think is “so 2008,” is still very problematic for government today.


At one point it was suggested that government tries to control the message – and therefore has trouble with social media and transparency - because releasing it means giving away power. While of course CYA is an inevitable part of human and organizational nature, I thought that was too simplistic an explanation, for five reasons:


1. Like all large organizations, government is high-context, with an intricate web of meaning that is often only decipherable to people who work there. Pure data doesn’t tell the story – it needs to be explained.


2. Government operates in a mistrustful environment where one of the most fun games people play is “gotcha.” So simply letting go and not trying to control the message plays into the fear – not totally unfounded – that data will be distorted to tell a negative story when it is actually neutral.


3. Government employees are normally extraordinarily concerned with providing factual information to the public. When they release information they do so with tremendous care that it is not misinterpreted. Social media requires an immediacy that is the total opposite that government employees put into their communications, which are after all permanent and public record.


4. The code of ethics and professionalism governing employee behavior is not fully in sync with the contemporary social media environment, which I think leaves government employees confused. Example: Recently a Google employee’s anti-Google+ rant was inadvertently released to the public and Google just shrugged its shoulders. Which led people like me to like and trust Google even more. In the government, that employee would likely have been reprimanded for just the opposite - undermining public trust by directly attacking the operations of the organization.


Another example on #4: the use of one’s organization in social media posts. While the government discourages this because they think people will take it to imply endorsement by the agency, in a social media world to avoid saying where you work is to risk being seen as an “astroturfer” secretly placing government PR on a site. Similarly, recently on GovLoop a Gen Y employee was advised to be careful what he blogged for fear that his supervisor would sideline or reprimand him. Culturally, we aren’t there yet in terms of having a comfort zone with full transparency either on an agency or personal level.


5. Government people tend to worry that maybe we'll be tossed out the window by the public as easy scapegoats (look at how we're targeted now as "lazy bureaucrats.") Occupy Wall Street/the Tea Party bring this fear to the forefront, leading to concerns about social media fueling our own demise. However, if you look at things objectively, it's an unnecessary and exaggerated fear caused by our own inability to adapt. 

The reality is, precisely because our technology has far outpaced our ability to adapt culturally, we need smart and confident government leaders who can guide the transition effectively. Meaning people who can encourage productive discussions that can result in better citizen service. Even sometimes to take the hit when the feedback is bad. This is a completely different model of public affairs because it is driven NOT by what we decide the message is, but by what the public wants to learn more about.


What I wanted to say, but didn’t have the opportunity to, is that content sharing may be a good way for agencies to get out of the “push the message” vs. “be the victim of trolls” conundrum.


If agencies were to focus on producing fantastic content – meaning easy-to-understand, timely and relevant – on an easily navigable website, then made it easy for people to share it, I think we would be most of the way there. Whether people subscribe to updates or find the site organically or through paid search, what you want to do is give them good information that they can chew over, share, and discuss with others later on. Which is what they do anyway, except maybe not from our websites because they think our content is propagandistic or confusing.


In the world of marketing the most important thing you can do is get people talking about your product. In a participatory democracy it is exactly the same. You want to get people talking about your agency, what it’s doing, how it makes a difference in their lives, how they can help. Over the long term, you build a trusting relationship that promotes compliance with the law and productive social behaviors. And make it possible for people to point problems out way before they blow up into huge disasters. All of which is good for citizen morale, community engagement, public health, safety and security.


The hullaballoo over social media is really overblown. It’s happening anyway and there’s not a thing we can do about it. Without a single action on the government’s part it will proceed, change form, and evolve into mechanisms we can’t even imagine today.


The constant issue for us has always been the content. How can we balance the public’s right and need to know, with the dangers of fraudulent and malicious misinterpretation of the data? How can we build mechanisms that ensure leaders can develop the trusting relationships they need to navigate complex and sensitive waters, while also maintaining sufficient transparency that the public has input into the laws, regulations and policies that affect their lives?


On the one hand you have those who would like to live-tweet every serious meeting. On the other hand are those who hope the whole “social media thing” will just “blow over.”


Somewhere in the middle is sanity.


Will we still be “so 2008” in 2012? Only time will tell. In any case, I appreciated the opportunity to attend the conference and hope this brief-out is useful to others in the government community.




*Disclaimer:  GovDelivery provides services to many government agencies including my own. GovDelivery owns GovLoop, one of the sites where my personal blogs go. This post is offered as an evaluative brief-out to other interested government employees. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency.