Lessons from the federal blogosphere

Agency bloggers find it tricky to satisfy readers' expectations

The Gov 2.0 world has a new mystery: the case of the missing blog. It’s an example of how federal agencies with a few years of blogging experience are encountering new and often unexpected questions.

Imagine going into a library and finding that your favorite book is no longer available, not just from that library but from every library, never to be found again.

Something like that happened when Navy CIO Rob Carey’s acclaimed three-year blog vanished from the Web Dec. 1, 2010. Carey had accepted a promotion, and the new CIO wrote that he didn't want to continue the blog. The archive disappeared in a flash.

All of Carey’s blog entries on the Web have been wiped out — “gone down to Davy Jones’ locker,” quipped Steve O’Keeffe, a marketing and communications consultant. The Navy has declined to comment.

Blogging has been a trend for federal agencies for three or four years, and a handful of agencies are taking blogging to the next level by providing frequent, rich content that promotes people's engagement and transparency.

Even so, although more than 100 federal agency blogs exist online, only a few seem to be widely read and talked about. Carey’s was one of them.

Other standouts named by Gov 2.0 experts are the blogs maintained by the White House, the archivist of the United States, the Energy Department, the Transportation Security Administration, the State Department’s “DipNote,” the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Greenversations,” NASA CIO Linda Cureton’s blog and the Veterans Affairs Department’s “VAntage Point.”

Many other federal blogs are just slogging along. But whether good, bad or in between, many are confronting new questions about archiving, cataloging and quality that didn't arise as often in the first heady months.

Gov 2.0 experts say the sudden eradication of Carey’s blog might be an example of what not to do. No one expects every CIO to blog. But many people do expect content to remain on the Web, especially exemplary content with possible historical significance.

“It is ridiculous for it to just disappear,” said Adriel Hampton, producer and co-founder of Gov 2.0 Radio.

“Any responsible organization should not wholesale delete social media, blogs or any other kind of conversation,” said Mark Drapeau, director of innovative social engagement at Microsoft. “Would the new CIO retract a former CIO's press release?”

O’Keeffe takes a softer view, saying he believes blogs are a frontier that still lack common principles about archiving. “You can make up your own rules,” he said.

It’s true that federal guidelines for preserving social media are a work in progress. But with minimal costs associated with maintaining a blog archive online, it might be needlessly risky to remove a popular blog.

And archiving is not the only gray area. Another question that’s starting to come up more frequently is whether federal blogs should register for International Standard Serial Numbers so they can be cataloged the way periodicals are in library records.

A number of blogs already have ISSNs. John Moore, an open-government consultant, and others say the trend should extend to federal blogs. Blogs “are a matter of public record and should be treated like books to be preserved — and searched — like other matters of record,” he said.

Perhaps the greatest problem that confronts federal blogs is the difficulty of churning out robust content week after week. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn in their social media guide that blogs are labor-intensive for that reason. Several widely praised blogs — those from the White House, TSA and VA included — use a team approach to avoid burnout.

Even so, many federal blogs suffer from weak content or infrequent posts. A blog with bland writing and a month or more between entries can make you and your agency look amateurish, Hampton said.

Perhaps it's ironic that many substandard federal blogs slog on forever while one of the best was killed. Drapeau said the weak blogs endure because they do not call attention to themselves.

“Who complains about horrible, obscure movies that they haven't seen?” he asked. “And given that the financial cost of having a bad blog is very low, there's little to stop most bad blogs from persisting.”

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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