Report: Avoid getting caught in Web 2.0 tangle

The Blogging Revolution: Government in the Age of Web 2.0

Public officials should work to embrace new Web applications such as blogs but also be careful not to get “George Allen-ed” by what they say or do online, according to a new report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

Some political insiders started using the term “George Allen-ed” to refer to the former Virginia senator’s infamous use of racially charged language at a campaign rally. It seared through cyberspace via Web 2.0 applications such as YouTube and blogs, arguably costing him his re-election bid last fall. Still, more politicos and government executives are turning to new Internet-based applications to connect with constituents and the public at large.

“There are the professional benefits of better communication, [and] there are the PR benefits of more direct communications and clarity of message because of the no-filter situation,” said David Wyld, author of the IBM report and director of the Strategic e-Commerce/e-Government Initiative at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Federal agencies and their top bureaucrats are among those looking to take advantage of Web 2.0 tools to reach new audiences. Recently, the General Services Administration created a site on the USA.gov portal to showcase agencies’ active and archived blogs.

“What blogs are really about is engaging the public with the government,” said Bev Godwin, director of USA.gov. “There are people who read blogs more than they go to Web pages, and so it’s a way to get your information out, whether it’s about safety or [the] Library of Congress or anything else, into the blog community.”

But it is exactly this unfiltered, raw communication that offers the most potential pitfalls, the IBM report states. It lists several examples in which public officials’ misuse of blogs not only zapped their online presence but also jeopardized their careers.

“A lot of members of Congress are certainly more comfortable with talking points and talking on-script than they are with talking off-script,” said Tim Hysom, a spokesman for the Congressional Management Foundation, which monitors official congressional Web sites.

In 2006, fewer than 20 members of Congress had blogs on their sites, the foundation said, and GSA lists only about 10 agency blogs through USA.gov. Despite the slow start, experts think public-sector use of Web 2.0 applications will grow because of the tremendous upside of connecting with influential people.

Still, for bureaucrats and politicians used to communicating via press releases filled with talking points, blogs are a big adjustment.

“Blogs that are on message are not interesting, and they sharply remind the reader that the writer is incapable of seeing past his or her own official verbiage,” said David Weinberger, a research fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who was also senior Internet adviser to the Howard Dean presidential campaign in 2004. “If you are just going to spit out talking points, then you shouldn’t bother blogging because you have lots of different spittoons for that stuff anyway.”

The IBM report offers 10 guidelines for public officials who blog:

  1. Define yourself and your purpose.
  2. Write the blog yourself.
  3. Be sure to dedicate the necessary time to the blog.
  4. Regularly post updates and respond to comments.
  5. Don’t use the blog for self-promotion.
  6. Accept criticism.
  7. Run spell-check.
  8. Don’t give the reader too much information.
  9. Make the blog easy to use and try adding multimedia features.
  10. Become a student of blogging and learn from others.

“You have got to make a personal commitment to the process and the technology involved,” Wyld said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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