Government enters the blogosphere

Getting started

Are you ready to leave the sidelines and try Web 2.0 communication and collaboration tools? If so, you might still find it difficult to know where to start. Which tools do you use? Who at the agency should be involved?

Those are important questions, said Frank DiGiamarino, vice president of strategic initiatives at the National Academy of Public Administration. But before answering them, he said, keep in mind three suggestions.

1. Have a notion. Just because it seems like everyone else is doing it is not a valid reason to plunge into Web 2.0. “You need to focus on the business problem and the specific community you need to engage to solve that problem,” DiGiamarino said. If a blog or a wiki is the best mechanism to get input or start a discussion, then go for it.

2. Just do it. Staging a test project is often a prudent choice when dealing with traditional technology projects, but that’s not so when it comes to many Web 2.0 applications. “You can’t pilot an interactive Web community,” DiGiamarino said. “Once it’s out there and it gets going, you’ll find it hard to take it away.” The better choice is to start with a smaller, lower-profile project but one that’s nevertheless the real deal.

3. Tap your organization’s inner Web 2.0. Think you don’t have in-house Web 2.0 experts? Of course you do. They are the department managers and frontline workers who wrestle with your organization’s toughest challenges every day, DiGiamarino said. That is what makes their participation in interactive Web applications so valuable. “Creating new silos to manage this process is a big mistake,” he said.

— John Zyskowski

A Transportation Security Administration security officer who contributes regularly to an agency blog recently spotted some rumblings in cyberspace about TSA denying travel to owners of certain types of Apple computers.

The traveler wrote about the encounter on his personal blog. According to his account, he tried to bring his new MacBook Air laptop PC through airport security but missed the flight after TSA officers pulled the super-thin computer aside for a closer look. The traveler, a software programmer named Michael Nygard, speculated that the laptop’s solid-state storage perplexed TSA officers, who didn’t see the expected hard drive on an X-ray of the machine.

The traveler didn’t criticize TSA, but his post set off a storm of comments from others in the blogosphere about the agency’s ineffectiveness and its officers’ incompetence, plus a few conspiracy theories about government fear-mongering thrown in. 

Strong reactions to government policies are not new, but the rise of Internet-based public forums, such as blogs and social networks, means that such sentiments can spread quickly and dominate online conversations.  

An agency in this situation has two choices: It can sit back in silence and absorb the blows or it can fight back.

TSA officials have chosen to fight back and — like their colleagues at a growing number of government agencies — have dipped into the toolbox of Web 2.0 applications, a collective term for the blogs, wikis, audio and video podcasts, virtual worlds, and social-networking sites that people use to communicate and collaborate online.

The TSA blog’s response to the MacBook Air posting and the ensuing online discussion helped the agency counter the negativity and use the situation as a teachable moment for what the agency does and why.

“One of our goals seven years after 9/11 — when the public has gotten a little complacent — is to try and get the public back on our side and engaged,” said Ellen Howe, assistant administrator of strategic communications and public affairs at TSA. “The blog is a way to admit that we’re not perfect and acknowledge that there is frustration out there. It was like a valve opening up when we gave people this forum to talk back to us and tell us about their experiences and thoughts.”

Helping put out public relations fires is not the only — or even primary — government application of Web 2.0 tools, which some people call social media or interactive Web applications. Agencies also use interactive Web applications to build support for policies, educate people about government missions, collaborate better and more broadly with stakeholders, and inspire the next generation of civil service employees.  

However, a hasty plunge into Web 2.0 world can be risky. Agencies with an early start have learned to challenge old notions of openness and accountability and understand that new and often different sets of rules apply. Here are some of the lessons they have learned.

Be real
Blogs are probably the single most important interactive Web application that agencies can use to manage their online reputation because they let the blogger communicate directly with an audience, said Andy Beal, an Internet marketing consultant at Marketing Pilgrim and co-author of “Radically Transparent — Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online.”
However, that give and take will not matter if the blogger is not open and authentic, two essential qualities for a successful blog. On the basis of those two qualities, TSA’s Evolution of Security deserves high marks, Beal said. “It’s the poster child for how to do a government blog right.”
The MacBook Air incident provides a good example of the transparency for which government bloggers should aim, Beal said.
After seeing the MacBook Air storm brewing elsewhere on the Web, Bob — TSA bloggers use only their first names — acknowledged the dust-up in a post and promised to find out why it happened and suggest corrections to keep it from recurring.
Bob’s initial post prompted a response the next day on the TSA blog from Nygard. He wrote that some people had misinterpreted his story as an attack on TSA and were “reacting to secondhand information instead of reading the original post.” The tide was starting to turn.
A week later, Bob followed up with a new post explaining that he ran a MacBook Air through an X-ray machine — the text contains a link to a video clip of the test — and it looks “completely different than your typical laptop or DVD player.” Bob also wrote that the laptop’s unusual X-ray image would go out to TSA screeners to help prevent similar incidents.
Bob’s posts didn’t immediately silence the critics. The video and explanation elicited more responses, many of them supportive but others still critical. However, TSA was able to recognize the public’s frustration and counter and contain the criticism.
“Without the TSA blog, that conversation would have been fragmented and occurred on multiple blogs,” Beal said. “Now, instead of eyes scouring the Internet trying to find information and perhaps finding rumors, they got the official word from the TSA. All eyes were on the TSA blog.”
Another way for a blog to be open and authentic is for the blogger to be a person in a position of authority. Beal said a good example of that is the blog started in August 2007 by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. Leavitt personally writes the blog and discusses his thoughts about challenges confronting federal entitlement programs. The blog is open for public comment, and Leavitt occasionally responds directly to readers’ posts.
The boss-written blog can be a valuable tool for reaching the public or interacting with an organization’s own employees, Beal said.
If you do have a high-level person blogging, it is important that they have time to keep up with it, which leads to the next point.
 
Speak out, speak often
The more the merrier is a good rule for using interactive Web applications. Depending on the platform, that might mean more participants, more interaction, more content or all of the above. The best way to attract people to a community is by following the community’s rules.
In the blogging world, frequent posts are expected.
“If you establish ground rules about how often you are going to use the blog, you really do need to commit to that,” Beal said. “If you depart from what you said you’re going to do, it can hurt you more than if you never started the blog.” 
Don’t be surprised if blog readers let you know when you are not meeting their expectations.
The following comment was posted to the blog started in 2006 by Jay Bernhardt, director of the National Center for Health Marketing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Was going to write a blog article on the existence of your blog (from the Agonist, www.agonist.org) but unfortunately you don’t seem to have updated in a month!” wrote a poster named Ian. “While non-political blogs don’t need to update too often, enough posts to look ‘alive’ will help you build up your baseline traffic, get links and get onto people’s blogrolls. (Three posts a week is a good guideline for a minimum.) A CDC blog is the sort of thing that a lot of people would probably want to link to if you had regular interesting updates.”
Also remember that readers don’t come to blogs to see press releases and one-way pronouncements, social-media experts say. A large part of blogging’s appeal comes from allowing readers to post comments and then check later to see whether the blogger, or other readers, responded.
“Sometimes blogging can be more like Web 1.5, where you are just transmitting,” said Frank DiGiamarino, vice president of strategic initiatives at the National Academy of Public Administration, which is gathering best practices for using interactive Web tools.
“How are you opening up that free flow of information?”
DiGiamarino asked. “The worst thing you can do is put something out there and not respond to it in some way.”

Being responsive does not mean responding to or even posting every reader comment. Many government blogs, including Leavitt’s and Bernhardt’s, have ground rules indicating that a moderator will screen comments before posting them and reject those that contain off-topic rants or objectionable language.   

Pick the right tool
Web 2.0 is a big umbrella that includes a diverse set of interactive Web applications. It is important to understand the problem you are trying to solve and the strengths and weaknesses of a particular application before trying to use it.

For example, the Web 2.0 social-networking sites Facebook and MySpace are skewed to a young audience, Beal said, but that has not stopped many agencies from staking out a presence there by establishing profiles with links to their Web sites and other online resources. Being on MySpace probably won’t hurt an agency, but it might not help, either, depending on what the organization is trying to accomplish.

“If you’re trying to communicate about Social Security benefits, this might not be the best way,” said Bruce McConnell, former chief of information technology policy at the Office of Management and Budget and now president and founder of Government Futures, a Web 2.0 consulting company. “You have to understand the demographics of the people you are trying to reach.”

Also, for certain kinds of problem-solving, the no-holds barred style discourse characteristic of social media might not be appropriate, said David Gorodetski, chief operating officer and executive creative director at Sage Communications, a marketing communications firm that has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration and National Institutes of Health on developing online strategies.
“If I was an immigration official, for example, [would] I want to engage in a forum with very minimal control where the issues are very sensitive and heartfelt?” Gorodetski asked. “Is that the right thing for my agency?”

Audio and video podcasts are two Web 2.0 tools with low start-up costs, and they are good choices for communicating with stakeholders, Beal said. Agencies such as NASA — with its spacecraft animations, space imagery and other appealing content — frequently offer video podcasts. However, agencies with more down-to-Earth missions can also use podcasts effectively by capitalizing on the power of sounds and images to communicate.

The Prince William County, Va., Service Authority has been using video podcasts to provide information to residents about its drinking water and water reclamation services. The agency presents 10-minute videos in a news magazine format. Some spots offer practical tips, such as how to spot water leaks that can increase a water bill. Others publicize the agency’s efforts to control expenses while being a responsible steward of the environment.

Keenan Howell, the agency’s director of communications who produces the videos, said he thinks video spots helped lessen residents’ complaints about a recent rate increase.

“I think it helped folks understand in the case of the incremental rate increase, or even when they’re paying their monthly bill, the value behind what we’re doing and the need to protect this precious resource, the Chesapeake,” Howell said.

Virtual-world technology is another promising social-media application, although it is one that is still fairly new. In virtual worlds such as Linden Lab’s Second Life, people use avatars — online representations of themselves — to explore and interact with computer-simulated environments.
Agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, CDC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have established presences called islands in Second Life. These agency islands — think of them as 3-D Web sites — offer virtual meeting spaces for training and job fairs; science labs for remote collaboration; and immersive, graphical applications.

For example, NOAA’s island offers simulations of a tsunami and an airplane flight into a hurricane. Those features support the agency’s goal of using the virtual world for public education and outreach, said Eric Hackathorn, program manager of NOAA’s virtual-world program.

Hackathorn and his colleagues originally assumed that young video-game enthusiasts would be the most common visitors to the NOAA island. People from that demographic group are visiting the site, but large numbers of people in their 60s and older also visit. Only 60 percent of the island visitors had heard of NOAA.

“It’s definitely reaching out to an audience that we wouldn’t otherwise be interacting with, which for the purpose of education and outreach is tremendous,” Hackathorn said. 

A potential downside of virtual worlds is their association with racy, adult-oriented content and activity. “In some ways, virtual worlds are like the Internet of the early 1990s with lots of pornography and gambling sites,” Hackathorn said. “But now, even the most conservative organizations have Web sites.”
To counteract some of the seedy aspects of virtual worlds, Hackathorn said, NOAA can restrict who can visit and create objects on its Second Life island. NOAA also subscribes to a global-ban list, which is a database of users who have acted inappropriately on islands owned by other organizations that NOAA trusts.  

Hackathorn and others recognize that there is an inherent level of risk with Web 2.0 technologies because of their freewheeling and highly participatory nature. But that interactivity is also what makes them valuable.

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