Open-gov reviews devalue social media

DOD's social media success inspires only uninspiring reviews from the White House's open-gov leaders

The Defense Department’s recent low scores in audits of its open-government plan deserve a second look — and might hold a lesson.

DOD ranked at or near the bottom among federal agencies in publishing its data on the Web. However, it is ahead of the pack in attracting hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans. It earned little to no credit for its Facebook activity in the audits, and that points to a broader concern: Is social media an afterthought in the Obama administration's vision of open government?

Observers around the world have praised the administration’s drive for Government 2.0 as a way to advance transparency, accountability and citizen participation. Social media also can help meet those objectives, especially in audience input, experts say. Facebook has nearly 500 million members worldwide.

“Social media is where the people are,” said Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “It makes sense to engage there.”

Most of the administration’s open-government initiative has involved releasing data, creating new Web pages and using new collaboration tools. Exploring how Facebook and Twitter might further the goals of Gov 2.0 is still mostly frontier territory.

To be fair, the White House has earned a few Daniel Boone badges for its own use of social media. Its Facebook page is one of the most popular federal page on the social networking site, with 588,000 fans.

At the same time, the White House has been a step slower in its ability to turn its Facebook lessons learned into timely and helpful guidance for federal agencies.

Let’s look at the timing of events. The Open Government Directive, issued by the White House in December 2009, did not explicitly address social media, except to say that guidance would be coming soon. That guidance was published April 7, the same day that 29 federal agencies and departments submitted their open-government plans. Many of those plans did not mention social media.

The second round of coordination repeated that gap in timing. Although the White House released additional social media guidance June 25, many of the agencies — including DOD — already had completed updates to their open-government plans by then.

Meanwhile, many agencies have already started using social media.

“The [White House's] focus has been on data,” said Roger Strother, information policy analyst at OMBWatch, an open-government group. “There is a risk of social media falling to the wayside if it is not included in the open-government plans.”

In a self-assessment on the White House’s Open Government Dashboard, DOD met six of 10 open-government goals, which was among the lowest third of scores. An independent audit by OpenTheGovernment.org echoed that assessment. DOD scored 40 out of 60 points, the lowest grade of 29 federal agencies.

Neither audit gave credit for DOD’s booming popularity on Facebook, where it has an active presence: the Marine Corps’ Facebook site has 381,000 fans, the Army’s has 294,000, the Air Force’s has 278,000, and the Navy’s has 189,000.

Open-government supporters say Facebook and Twitter offer untapped opportunities for government. “Social media is an area ripe for a lot more exploration by federal agencies,” said Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch.

“Right now, federal agencies are using social media for broadcasting, but they could be more interactive,” agreed Heather West, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The lag in defining social media’s role in Gov. 2.0 is understandable because third parties operate many social media sites, which can create policy issues, such as privacy concerns.

“Social media has a place in open government,” said Amy Bennett, program associate at OpenTheGovernment.org. “The administration just has to make sure there are policies in place to protect privacy.”

Until the Gov 2.0 agenda incorporates a larger social media piece, those open-government efforts might not meet their full potential. And federal agencies that are stars on Facebook and Twitter might not get all the recognition they deserve.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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