Twitter, blogs and other Web 2.0 tools revolutionize government business

If you cut through all the hype about Web 2.0 tools, you’ll find government managers and elected officials who use the technology to communicate, share information and network. Web 2.0 technologies for social networking and online collaboration let people connect quickly and with a larger audience than was ever available before.

If they’re looking for information about an obscure contract vehicle, they can post a message on a messaging service such as Twitter and see if someone can help them learn about it. Or if they run across a particularly useful piece of information on a community-created Web page, they can give it a high rating so others can find it easily in the future.

Here is a sampling of how Web 2.0 has changed the way some government managers take care of business.

Life before Web 2.0

When Jeffrey Levy needed an answer to a work-related question or an opinion about a project, he would reach out for help by e-mail or phone to a network of people that was limited to his co-workers at the Environmental Protection Agency and some peers from professional organizations.

Levy, director of Web communications at the agency, might send a group e-mail message to people he knew, but this approach was not ideal. People who did not have the time or expertise to help would receive the messages. And people outside of Levy’s ring of colleagues would never know he was looking for help.

Using Web 2.0

By using Twitter, Levy has a ready-made online network of people who share his professional interests, but who are not all government employees. Twitter lets users post short messages as long as 140 characters in length — called tweets — that other interested users can receive and comment on.

For example, Levy was trying to decide if a $1,500 Web 2.0 conference was worth the money to attend. With so much free information available from webinars and on blogs, Levy wasn’t sure he could justify going to the conference.

“So I threw out a question to my Twitter followers asking if they thought there was any value in this very expensive conference,” Levy said. His followers quickly responded that the conference was probably not worth the investment.

He also uses Twitter as a way to filter information. Levy chooses the people he follows, so he only tracks people talking about topics he’s most interested in.

Before Web 2.0

Air Force personnel at Nellis Air Force Base need to know the latest information about the F-16 aircraft’s weapons and tactics before deploying to Iraq, and they would receive paper reports containing those details. However, the staff members who prepared the reports were not always able to include new information or perspective from the personnel already deployed. Also, personnel who used the reports had no way to indicate to others what parts of the report they found most valuable, said Randy Adkins, director of the Air Force Center of Excellence for Knowledge Management.

Using Web 2.0

Now such information — with unlimited update capabilities — is available on the Air Force’s Knowledge Now system, a collaborative Web system accessed through the Air Force Portal. For example, Air Force personnel deployed in Iraq can contribute the latest information and feedback about tactics and weapons, then publish it in Knowledge Now for people just deploying to the Middle East. The community includes about 292,000 registered Air Force users who can collaborate on any subject.

Recently, Air Force officials added a tool in the system from Vivisimo that lets users rate, tag and share bookmarks related to the content. The ratings feature has been very successful, Adkins said. In one example, a service member in Djibouti used the system to find information about contingency contracting, then tagged it with a high rating so others could find it more easily.

“So as people vote and rate the stuff that they find very valuable it moves up, and the stuff they don’t find valuable moves down,” Adkins said. “It is a great way for people to learn from other people.”

Before Web 2.0

The typical methods for sharing government information with the public have included static Web sites, telephone information lines and printed publications from the Federal Citizens Information Center in Pueblo, Colo. The problem with these methods was that information too often was cast in government-speak or did not always reflect current events, said Joanne McGovern, a Web content manager.

Using Web 2.0

The General Services Administration launched Gov, a blog designed to put a personal touch on government information and services. Now McGovern, one of the site’s regular bloggers, weaves personal life experiences into her posts as a way to highlight government services. For example, McGovern wrote a series of posts about an experience she had when her car broke down when she was out of town. The repair shop ended up doing $2,400 worth of damage to her car. Using information she found from the federal Consumer Action Handbook, she was able to hold the shop responsible for the damage.

“That is the kind of thing that happens to people,” McGovern said. “I knew where to go for that government information that supported me and told me what to do.”

Before Web 2.0

When salmonella-tainted peanut butter turned up in a range of food products earlier this year, it fell to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration to publicize which products were being recalled.

In the past agencies would provide that kind of information to the public on their Web sites, toll-free telephone lines and through alerts sent to the media, but it was difficult to be sure the public got all the latest recall updates, said Janice Nall, director of CDC's Division of E-Health Marketing.

Using Web 2.0

To get the updates in front of more people, CDC officials developed a software widget that automatically pulls the latest recall information from an FDA database to other Web sites. Widgets are little software programs that other Web sites pick up and insert into their own Web pages. One popular widget allows YouTube videos to be displayed on Web sites outside the YouTube site.

CDC first offered the peanut-butter widget around Feb. 1. Since then, about 16,000 sites, including newspapers, health agencies and personal Web sites, posted the widget, resulting in more than 6.8 million views, Nall said.

“That viral effect is really pretty amazing,” Nall said. “The reach of the widget grows exponentially.”

Widgets are designed to be easily included on Web sites, so people looking for the information have vastly more places to find it. CDC offers other widgets such as daily health tips, influenza-outbreak maps and health emergency notifications.

Before Web 2.0

Cordray and his staff relied on press releases and brochures to share information and news about the Ohio Attorney General’s office. These traditional methods worked for a one-way delivery of information but did not allow members of the community to engage in a conversation with the office, said Erie Meyer, the attorney general’s senior new media strategist.

Using Web 2.0

Cordray began using Twitter’s short message exchange service as a way to engage in conversations online with constituents. For example, home foreclosures are a hot topic in Ohio. The attorney general's office uses Twitter’s search function to identify people who have posted messages on the service looking for information about foreclosures. The office can then follow up with a response on Twitter directing those people to the state’s Save the Dream task force.

“We see Twitter as another way to make sure we’re answering questions that people have,” Meyer said. “It hasn’t replaced press releases and action alerts, it is really just a supplement. Social media is just part of our toolset to engage citizens."

Cordray’s office also re-posts — or re-tweets, in Twitter parlance — questions or information others might find valuable, increasing the likelihood that other Twitter users will see it.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Tue, Mar 9, 2010 audio controller driver

Good to know that they are acquiring good use of some social sites that are made. Knowing that they are using such social sites for their own benefits, they must be also extra cautious for there are a lot of people that might be a threat on the kind of use that they are acquiring from these social sites.

Mon, Sep 28, 2009 JJ Reich Omaha, Ne

Doug, very good article. Thanks for the research and great examples. Although I agree with the Rich Pople in some aspects, I disagree with his underlying premise that "social media really should be thought of as 'a collaborative engagement platform.'" In my opinion, Social media is a communication platform - nothing more and nothing less. What separates it from other forms of media is how it can (and is being used) to engage people in conversations (and yes, collaboration too), not that it should every time. The communication capability Social Media provides to the world is revolutionary and beyond anything that human kind has ever experienced before. It provides conversation beyond visual range - beyond the reach of normal conversation. And that gives everyone access to like-minded people, communities of interest, unlike we have ever seen. Truth is, at our core, we all wish to be heard and understood – and now, everyone can find someone who will listen to, and understand them. Social Media applications’ success stems more from their simplicity. Social media opens up an avenue for individuals to choose to participate and engage in conversations which matter most to them - easily and on a global scale. Can those conversations become collaborative efforts? Absolutely! In fact I argue all the time that it is the inherent nature of the two-way communication it affords that separates from the rest of media formats. But collaboration is only a part of the picture.

Wed, Mar 25, 2009 Rich Pople

Your examples of effective use of social media are definitely steps in the right direction. But, they are, by-and-large, really just examples of alternative channels of communication. The fact is that any social media really should be thought of as “a collaborative engagement platform.” While that may seem obvious, or a trivial label, it’s an important distinction. Collaborative engagement platforms have the power to truly transform the way organizations operate. When you can leverage user controlled/contributed content in a collaborative decision-making fashion you enable a productivity boost amongst traditional knowledge workers that is akin to robotic automation of traditional manual labor.

The problem is that operating models in nearly every organization are based on a post-industrial revolution command/control structure and haven’t changed in the last 100 years. Sadly, most efforts aimed at leveraging the these kinds of technologies try to do so in these outmoded operating models. So, while using Twitter to identify an audience of interested constituents on a topic area (say bankruptcy protection) is an interesting additional channel -- with arguably good value in speed to identification of need -- it doesn't fulfill the real promise of community-based collaboration. Traditional organization structures, communication channels and business processes tend to stifle any creative collaboration/engagement long before it happened, leaving the platform as an interesting "hobby" when a decision-maker had some spare time.

But, get it right, change the underlying operating model and the opportunities are really tremendous.

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