Search This Blog

What The Public Wants From A Government Twitter Account

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the average citizen feels like they don't know what the hell is going on in Washington.

I feel fairly confident in drawing this conclusion because every time, or nearly every time I talk to someone outside the Beltway they say something like this to me:

"Well I don't know what the hell is going on over there in Washington, maybe you can explain it to me."

And most of the time when I talk to people inside the Beltway, who don't work in my agency, my office, or my division I hear the same thing, well sorta:

"What exactly do you guys do over there?"

And then we start talking and...MEGO (my eyes glazeth over).

It's not like we government people don't try to explain. We do. But it's hard to do, and when we try to say it simply while also balancing the things we can and can't say, the result is usually less than compelling.

But the truth is that government work is fascinating, as we employees find ourselves: 
  • Navigating myriad layers of oversight - laws, regulations, guidelines, policies and rules to follow, plus organizational politics and culture. 
  • Struggling to simplify and clarify one's purpose - while answering to multiple audiences with varying kinds of interest in the mission and different levels of sophistication. 
  • Retaining stability in a chaotic environment - what was high-priority one day may disappear off the radar the next.  
So why can't we tell that story? Why can't the public simply ask their questions and get the information they want?

Here's a "top 10" list of reasons that come to mind.

1. We can't tell them, and we don't explain why.

2. We can tell them, but we think we can't, because we're ignorant.

3. We promote "chain of command" thinking, in which mindset the customer has no choice but to take what we give them.

4. We prioritize operations over customer service.

5. We feel queasy about the kind of free social media tools that can help, because they raise uncomfortable questions.

6. We lack an accurate radar for the kinds of communication that are more versus less important.

7. We underfund the communication function.

8. We don't sufficiently empower and encourage subject matter experts to speak directly.

9. We are fearful of making an error in judgment or issuing inaccurate data.

10. We take so long to decide what to say, or how to say it, that people stop caring. (There is inevitably a vast gap between "what we meant to say" and "what actually gets said" --> once the Committee of All Relevant Parties is done with it.)

It is in this context that a government Twitter account becomes a valuable source of timely, relevant, understandable and accessible information for the public.

There are five kinds of Tweets that seem to generate the most impact:

1. Genuinely meaningful real-time status update

2. Direct quote that sheds light on what an influencer is thinking or planning.

3. Inspiring quote that sheds light on an influencer's vision

4. Statistic relevant to public policy 

5. A visual that makes plain why an effort, initiative, or idea is important

A Twitter account can and should be used to tell the public what's going on, in real time. We have found that when we post cute pictures we get some retweets, but the number of follows and retweets explodes when we satisfy the public's true thirst. 

The people want information that helps them to be informed citizens.

It is true that people get angry at government even in the best of scenarios. They're angry at corruption, they're angry at lack of accountability, they're angry at fraud, waste and abuse.

They are angry at lying.

But there is so much information that the public has a right to know, that can be shared, that would convey the sensitivity and the complexity of government work and actually promote engagement with government.

When we don't even bother to tell that story, in a way that people want to hear it, we are virtually guaranteed that citizens will, in thinking of the government, favor their worst fears.

Twitter is a revolutionary tool. We ought to take advantage of it, and of other free and low-cost technology platforms. 

We should share as much information as we can.

Make sure it's marked clearly as originating from the government.

Invite others to share on our platforms.

Make clear the limits of our communication.

We should overall prioritize transparency and accountability to the fullest. Even when it makes us look bad.

The public may never love the government. But at the very least they should trust that government is working on its behalf.

Social media can help.

All opinions my own. Photo of spectator by Stefano Corso via Flickr. Photo of televisions by Adriel Hampton via Flickr. Photo of graffiti by PhilosophyGeek via Flickr.

A personal comment on - content and process

It is an amazing achievement that we have this now. We can see which websites are popular - needed and useful - and which aren't. 

Unfortunately the headline on Drudge was: "Obama Admin Tracking Visitors To Government Websites." It links to NextGov, headline: "New Dashboard Tracks Which Federal Sites You're On, And How You Got There."

I think the problem here is twofold:

* Government was lost in congratulating itself rather than thinking about/being sensitive to how the public perceives (mistrusts) government

* The visual that went with the NextGov article (which was based on the 3/19 White House blog post) didn't convey the intended message. The intention was to show a data-driven improvement in customer service. But the unintended consequence, given the context, was to make it look like the government is invading people's privacy with Orwellian-style monitoring.

This comment is NOT to rain on the parade at all. It is to suggest a way to improve government communication. Most obviously, before releasing news, it helps to think about two things:

* The CONTENT - what they're trying to achieve in terms of a technical, explanatory or process advance

* The CONTEXT - how people perceive government + communications and the two of those concepts together

After releasing news, if it's taken badly, it never hurts to do a "Myths vs. Facts" type post where you clear up the distortions and inaccuracies.

With that in mind - here is a SAMPLE (not official, not real, purely conceptual) straightforward-type blog post government communicators ought to write more of, and quickly, as needed. When people are suspicious, they have a right to be; when they are concerned, they need answers. 

Often I get the impression that professionals think it's somehow "beneath" them to respond to the "trash" that people say. That responding will actually validate false accusations. 

But the opposite is true. For the sake of public trust, it is the job of the federal communicator to respond to negative public perceptions of positive things. Quickly.

So here is a sample post. Please don't go out and reprint it as though it were a real government blog.

# # # BEGIN SAMPLE # # #  

"What We Do & Don't Track About Your Visits To Government Websites, And Why"

Some people think the government has nothing better to do than track public visits to websites, just so that we can spy on people. While we do want to know if you're visiting us so that we can improve customer service, we are totally NOT interested in finding out who you are. Not only would it be a total waste of our time, but it wouldn't even be legal.

Here are a couple of myths vs. facts about how and why we track visits to our websites:

Myth: The government is using website visitor tracking to spy on people.
Fact: We are trying to improve our customer service, which you've repeatedly told us is not great. (INSERT STAT). We're doing it by using a commercial, off-the-shelf, free product to improve our customer service - which benefits taxpayers by telling the government which websites to focus on and which may not be as useful as they seem. If you have a blog and you use Google Analytics or any basic analytics, you have the same tools we do.

Myth: This kind of tracking is invasive of citizens' privacy.
Fact: Google Analytics doesn't track individuals; individual IP addresses are anonymized. We get three kinds of information: The popularity of a given page (number of visits), the device being used to access the pages (which tells us the optimal way to design our sites), and what operating system is being used (same usefulness as knowing the device).

Myth: The government is spending more and more time and money spying on its own citizens.
Fact: We look for national security threats. When we need to go after someone we suspect, here are the rules we follow (VERY GENERAL SUMMARY). Obviously we're not going to tell you how we do everything we do, but it has to be legal.

Myth: The government disregards the law. It does whatever it wants.
Fact: We've got some pretty strict attorneys.Yes, bad things happen - mistakes, poor judgment, and sometimes, but not usually, corruption.

Myth: The government is the opposite of transparent.
Fact: The government has taken a number of steps toward greater transparency just over the past (X NUMBER) of years. That doesn't mean we're perfect; issues remain around human error, the high number of requests vs. the technology and human resources available to process them, and (ADD ANY OTHERS).

# # #  END SAMPLE POST # # #

Links referenced in this post:


All opinions my own. Not representative of any government agency or entity. Rohrschach test image via Wikipedia.

What Is So Shocking...

Have you ever noticed that some people tend to find things "shocking?"

* That outfit - "shocking."

* That opinion - "shocking."

* The way things went at that (insert occasion) - "shocking, shocking, indeed!"

And yet there are others who never seem shocked at all. No matter what happens, no matter what you throw at them. Always calm, cool and collected.

What is the difference between the two?

In my experience, the "shockable" types tend to fall into one or more of these categories:

- Easily angered
- Insecure 
- Dramatic
- Passionate about their "cause"
- Power-oriented
- Highly engaged
- Intuitive, sensitive
- Traditional values
- Literal, black-and-white thinking style 
- Change-averse

Super-calm types, on the other hand, tend toward any or all of the following characteristics:

- Tolerant
- Diplomatic
- Disengaged
- Laid-back
- Politically savvy
- Emotionally intelligent
- Astute observer
- Analytical, rational
- Highly educated
- Experienced, mature

Ultimately, neither is better or worse than the other. But they are each distinct, and sometimes the misunderstandings on both sides can cause conflict.

Often it's not possible to resolve personality differences. But if you stand back and look at things objectively, you can see that most traits simply are what they are. 

We're much better off accepting people, and if we can, celebrating their uniqueness.

Of course the ideal is to figure out what people do best, and then give them a way to do it.

All opinions my own. Image via Wikipedia.

On The Use of Memes In Government Communication

We begin with the assumption that government communication should be as good or better than private-sector communication, for three reasons:

     - The public relies on the government as a trustworthy source of information

     - Many are misinformed or under-informed about what the government does and the services it offers

     - Trust in the government by the public is extraordinarily low

This is not only a bad situation, it is a dangerous one. 

From that perspective, using the communication tools that are popular among ordinary citizens has the capacity to build trust. Whereas using highfalutin language - the equivalent of standing on a soapbox and preaching -builds mistrust.

Memes are a popular way to communicate in the age of social media. However, there are a couple of concerns that government rightfully has about them. This article aims to address them.

Issue #1: Copyright 

A meme is a derivative work based on an original piece of art. At issue is whether the meme is a form of free speech, or an illegitimate commercialization of someone else's work.

To make a determination about whether the use is OK, the courts apply the doctrine of "fair use." They consider: "the purpose and character of the use (e.g., was it for profit?); the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion of the work used in relationship to the whole work; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work." This is sometimes known as the "four-factor test."

The U.S. Copyright Office offers some examples of fair use, and an entry in Wikipedia sums them up: "Commentary, search engines, criticism, parody, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship." Let's look at how government memes stack up:

     1 - They are clearly for education, not profit

   2 - They are derivative works for the purpose of parody, to engage and educate the public. As the Copyright Office notes - "Copyright protects the particular way authors have expressed themselves. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in a work."

     3 - Normally they represent a minimal use of the material, because they are single images.

     4 - Memes tend to boost the market for copyrighted work because they get traffic.

Issue #2: Good Taste

If copyright law is murky, the issue of taste is even murkier. Cutting-edge communication normally pushes the boundaries in order to get attention. Whether this boundary-pushing is desirable depends on at least the following three factors:

     1 - The urgency of the need to communicate - if there is a crisis of some kind

     2 - The feedback from the public - whether it's well-received

     3 - The cultural environment of the agency itself

What is OK in one agency or at one time may not be OK in another. The answer is always "it depends."

What Can You Do With Memes As A Government Communicator?

New things present new challenges and memes are definitely new. They are in many ways the essence of social media, subverting the "official voice" with one's reaction to it. They are a game-changer.

Here are some strategies for using memes. They're based on a review of the literature as well as informal discussion and collaboration. They are intended as a starting point for your own work, not as official advice or legal counsel:

     1 - Don't rely on "cat pictures" - develop an approach in which the visuals are substantively educational

     2 - Use memes sparingly - balance them with words that inform

     3 - Humor is tricky, and can offend - use with caution

     4 - Make images that are very clear in their meaning - different people can have wildly different interpretations 

     5 - Develop your own innocuous meme - a great case study is Home Depot's "Richard the Cat"


All opinions are my own. Image by Denise Krebs. For further reference:

Steal This Idea - "The Closet"

So I have this idea but am not gonna do it. Steal it and make some dough.

Basically - it's a brand franchise that lets people rent fashionable clothes on a membership basis. 

You pay your monthly fee, go to "The Closet," pick out your clothes, dry clean and return them.

A way to look good without investing in designer price tags.

Possibly part of a larger franchise - fitness club, quick healthy food, yoga and meditation, plus the clothes.

All opinions my own. Photo of me by Rebecca Blumenthal.