Energy's mission for cutting-edge communications

The Energy Department's Cammie Croft talks about the challenges of being a social media advocate in the federal government and the importance of staying on the front lines of new technology.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This was updated April 19, 2011, to clarify Cammie Croft's previous position with the Obama administration. 

Cammie Croft has been a pioneer in bringing federal agencies into the Web 2.0 era, first at the White House and now at the Energy Department. She helps agencies modernize communications technologies and take advantage of new tools for social networking, collaboration and interaction with the public.

Since May 2010, Croft has been senior adviser and director of new media and citizen engagement at DOE. Previously, she was deputy new media director for President Barack Obama’s transition team and then held the same post at the White House.

A self-described math and science geek from Altoona, Pa., Croft switched from a premedical curriculum to major in political science and communications at the University of Washington in Seattle. She spent several years working for advocacy and political organizations before joining the Obama campaign.

Croft spoke recently with staff writer Alice Lipowicz about the challenges of being a social media advocate in the federal government and the importance of staying on the front lines of new technology.

FCW: What was it like to develop new media tools at the White House?

Cammie Croft: In the first week, I was so excited to be on the new media team. I came into the office and on my desk was a 1990s computer. I was wondering, how am I going to work with this? How can I do what we were doing in the campaign?

It took weeks to get laptops and access to social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Once we got the access, it helped across government. Bev Godwin at the General Services Administration took the lead in helping all the agencies gain access to the tools.

With our team of eight people, I spent a lot of time building the foundations for WhiteHouse.gov. It was clear that our requests for Web 2.0 technologies weren’t customary. The tools had never been used.

For example, the president’s weekly video address needed to be posted online at 6 a.m. each Saturday. Typically, you would do that remotely. But we had to go into work at 6 a.m. every Saturday to turn it on.

FCW: What made you decide to work for the Energy Department?

Cammie Croft: I enjoy a good challenge and building things. I had just gotten done building a foundation for new media at the White House, and it was a greater challenge to try to do it at a department.

I started at DOE in May 2010 just [after] the BP oil spill.... There were immediate things we needed to do to disseminate data about the spill and put it online.

When I came to Energy, there was no central office thinking holistically about an online presence. One of the first things we took on was our limited capability to disseminate information in a dynamic way: no Facebook or Twitter account, and no blog. So we set those up.

The Energy Department has three clear goals: advancing clean energy, supporting research at the frontiers of science, and reducing nuclear dangers and environmental risks. But you would have had a tough time figuring that out at the former Energy.gov website. One of our team’s first big projects was to begin a complete overhaul of the website — including the front end, which is the interface you see, and the back end, which is the content management system and the infrastructure.

We launched a new look for the website in January 2011, but the problems go much deeper than that. To be honest, we put a pretty picture on top of a broken infrastructure. For example, our previous content management system did not have blogging ability. It was not built for it. We were working with an outdated and archaic content management system that needed a significant upgrade. Our goal is to develop a cutting-edge communications platform.

FCW: What solution did you choose for your new website infrastructure?

Cammie Croft: We are using Drupal to build the platform and hope to launch in 2011. We have been able to nearly pay for it just by consolidating some additional websites into the new platform. Our new blog was built in Drupal, and it was free and easy.

We don’t want another proprietary solution for content management. Drupal is open source and allows us to tap into a community of developers. We need to be on the front lines of technology as it evolves.

One thing great about Drupal is you are able to share content and push it just by tagging it. Through automated processes, you can share it more efficiently. Another great thing is that because the White House made the choice earlier to go to Drupal for its website, a lot of the security concerns have been addressed.

FCW: How are you bringing citizen engagement to Energy?

Cammie Croft: Energy issues [have an] impact on our lives every day. We want to help people understand why it matters, and what impact it is having. We have data about appliance efficiency, where energy is coming from and energy usage. The key is localizing the data and making it easily available online.

FCW: Do members of the federal government Web and new-media community collaborate with one another? If so, can you give us some examples?

Cammie Croft: The federal Web community is quite coordinated and collaborative. I have conversations every day or every other day with other federal Web managers. There is a lot of information sharing. We have formal calls through the [Federal] Web Managers Council, and there is a new-media call once a month with the White House.

For the Japan crisis, we have had interagency cooperation and response. Federal Web managers are setting up websites at many agencies labeled with the “japan2011” suffix [such as Energy.gov/japan2011] to push out the information about what we are doing.

FCW: What is your greatest challenge working in new media for the federal government?

Cammie Croft: With any mission or goal, there will be moments of frustration. I want things to happen so much faster. I’m patient, but there is a sense of urgency.

In the advocacy world, you can build a website in 24 hours. In government, it can take a lot longer.

FCW: How do federal new-media managers keep up with new technologies?

Cammie Croft: I don’t have a dedicated Facebook or Twitter manager. I have media managers who understand all the assets and are using a variety of technologies. We are aware of Foursquare, Quora and some of the other sites. We just got big on SlideShare recently. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is very popular on SlideShare.

The next big thing is going to make us even more efficient. We have to plan. This is an evolving space that rapidly changes. We need systems and processes that are flexible so we can tap into the innovation that is happening without using taxpayer dollars.

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