Feds discover gold in blog posts
- By Mark Tarallo
- May 07, 2008
Government bloggers are now writing about every conceivable subject, including the Middle East peace process, federal agency management techniques and rock singers with drug problems. The era of government blogging has dawned.
Federal officials are using blogs to stimulate policy debate and engage the public, correct press reports, communicate with agency employees, and highlight the resources agencies have to offer.
Federal officials have launched at least 30 official blogs and are continually adding more.
“I think the government is beginning to see the medium as ready for prime time,” said Matt Raymond, director of communications at the Library of Congress and founder of the LOC Blog.
Government officials came somewhat late to the online party of freewheeling discourse known as blogging. Blogs were already popular among Internet users when several high-profile federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and State and Homeland Security departments, decided in 2007 to test the waters.
Government officials tell similar stories about the origins of their blogs. Most had initial concerns that dissolved when the blogs became a reality. Heath Kern Gibson, editor-in-chief of State’s DipNote blog, said she was surprised at the response outside the agency.
“I go to conferences, and people truly act as if it’s the greatest thing,” Kern Gibson said. “And I’m thinking: It’s 2008. It’s a blog. I’m not giving out $100 bills here.”
Among the early government blogs, EPA’s Flow of the River blog, started in July 2007 by Marcus Peacock, the agency’s deputy administrator, sounded the least governmental. Flow featured subject-matter common to bloggers worldwide: personal musings, pop culture references and anecdotes from the author’s life.
However, Peacock used those musings to make serious points about management topics. For example, in January, he wrote about the tragedy of rock singers such as Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin, whose drug use is sometimes seen as energizing their talent. In a blog post, Peacock turned those singers’ struggles with addiction into a management lesson on early intervention.
“Some say…Janis Joplin without heroin would have been just another rock singer. I can’t go there,” Peacock wrote. “There is a general rule in performance measure that applies here: Always bring bad news early. One of the reasons EPA tries to measure things on a quarterly basis is so we can spot where problems are developing and correct them before they get big.”
In April, EPA decided to broaden its effort by sponsoring a group blog. Flow of the River ended, and a new blog, Greenversations, began. Peacock will be one of the regular posters to Greenversations, said Jeffrey Levy, acting director of Web communications at EPA.
At State, DipNote encourages debate through a comments section considered one of the liveliest in government. “The public seems to want to give their voice about American foreign policy,” Kern Gibson said.
In the comments section, e-mail messages containing personal attacks, foul language and threats are rejected. But passionate disagreement with U.S. foreign policy, appropriately worded, appears often, and some critiques are erudite and thoughtful. To further stimulate discussion, Kern Gibson and her colleagues started posting a Question of the Week that asks for comments on substantial and sometimes provocative foreign-policy topics.
One such question posted March 4, “Should the [United States] engage Hamas as part of its efforts to bring about peace between the Israelis and Palestinians?” elicited a firestorm of comments, including one from a member of Congress. “I’m worrying that you guys are asking questions like this using funds approved by the appropriations committee that I am a member of,” wrote Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
The Hamas query attracted so much attention that some theorized the weekly questions were policy trial balloons, a theory Kern Gibson said was “just insane.”
“To think that we sit in a room and cynically strategize what questions we should ask — that’s Washington conspiracy theory thinking at its worst,” Kern Gibson said.
In April, EPA started its own weekly question feature by asking, “What is the best way to reduce fossil fuel use?”
Not all federal blogs generate the passionate debate that Dipnote does, but the blogs serve a variety of purposes. Peter Orszag, the Congressional Budget Office director, said his CBO Director’s Blog has become an efficient clarification tool.
Orszag said that in the wake of a possibly inaccurate or misleading news story in the pre-blog world, he “would field 25 calls, and people would ask, ‘Why did you say that?’ ”
Now a corrective post on the blog helps mitigate those situations. The blog is an efficient way to clarify information, but a printed item is often better than a verbal clarification, Orszag said. “People like seeing things in print.”
On Capitol Hill, House minority leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote a real-time blog during a budget committee hearing in March to spread his party’s message. By doing so, Boehner’s office was able to issue commentary in real time as the committee held a series of votes on the budget.
As Boehner discovered, one of the most valuable features of the blog is the two-way communication it generates. Robert Carey, the Navy’s chief information officer who started his CIO Blog in January, said one of his primary objectives as a blogger is to receive unfettered feedback.
“I need to not just push out policy and guidance but respond to the needs of the warfighter and understand where there may be a need for new [information technology] strategies, policy and guidance that we are not even addressing,” Carey said. “This is where I think the blog will help.”
In other parts of the federal government, such as the Smithsonian Institution and LOC, a blog is a virtual docent, highlighting areas of an agency’s vast collections that even veteran users might not know about.
The library started a blog in April 2007 to help people navigate its 138 million works of history, creativity and inspiration. Officials had discussed the idea for some time before launching the blog, Raymond said.
“We had to consider many issues about the proper use of official time, intellectual property, the danger that a single blogger can be perceived as the definitive voice of a whole institution,” Raymond said. But once he received permission, Raymond titled his first post “What Hath God Wrought,” the first words transmitted electronically, by Samuel Morse in 1844.
The General Services Administration had navigation in mind when it started GovGab in September 2007. Its tone is informal, and its bloggers — a handful of GSA employees — use their first names. Their posts explore ways government can assist people, sometimes highlighting little-known government resources, such as consumer information on auto leasing published by the Federal Reserve Board.
“Information that comes from the least-logical agencies often makes for the most interesting content on the blog,” GovGab blogger Jim Zawada said.
Ask almost any federal blogger to sketch the future of government blogging, and the answer is more blogging by more people serving more purposes.
Kern Gibson said she views blogs as the mode of communication for the future. Communicating ugh them will one day become as routine and frequent as an agency issuing a press release, she said. “Eventually, we’ll get there.”
Carey framed the issue in demographic terms. He recounted a recent trip he took to Iraq, where he saw 20-year-old soldiers operating a dozen chat sessions at once while they were monitoring their functional areas.
“It’s the use of this type of Web 2.0 technology by the net generation — the 18- to 30-year olds — that has motivated me to start a blog,” Carey said. “This age group is the reality of who our new recruits are, and this is the technology they are comfortable with. It makes sense to use it.”
Raymond said the expanded use of blogs might dispel some preconceived notions about federal agencies. Blogging can “show that there are human faces behind what we do,” he said. And blogs are sources people now seek to become better informed. “Millions and millions of people, myself included, get a lot of information from blogs. There’s no going back,” Raymond said. Tarallo is a freelance writer in Washington.