To tweet or not to tweet: Feds weigh the dangers and benefits

The public nature of Twitter presents some risks, but savvy feds are finding ways to share.

Because Twitter is a place for rapid-fire public dialogues and all 24 major federal agencies are now using the platform, you might expect lots of conversations about government technology policy to be happening on the site.

They are, but you have to know where to look.

You won’t find much interaction in the official agency Twitter feeds, which are mostly press releases and generic announcements. And the personal Twitter accounts of many federal executives are not necessarily social or even active.

But those trends are starting to change, and a handful of media-savvy federal managers are exploring a broader range of ways to use Twitter effectively. The conversations are starting to flow and become truly engaging, and it is exciting to be part of it.

It has taken a couple of years to get to this point. Twitter, where every tweet is public, presents some risks for federal employees.

“Even with a disclaimer in a Twitter biography and indication that these are ‘my personal views only,’ if he or she is identified as a government worker and tweets something off-color or controversial, then that can rebound to their detriment,” said Alex Howard, Gov 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media and a longtime Twitter user who has more than 125,000 followers.

For federal staffers just getting their feet wet on Twitter, it can be daunting. “They are still a little gun-shy about tweeting,” said Gadi Ben-Yehuda, social media director at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. “Right now they are not very willing to engage in any controversial dialogue.”

Even those who have been on the site for a year or longer might be listening more than tweeting. One example is Todd Park, who became federal chief technology officer in March. He has more than 8,000 followers but has only tweeted about 110 times since October 2010 while CTO at the Health and Human Services Department. David McClure, associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, has 1,300 followers but only 20 tweets.

Sharing, caring and responding

The core appeal of Twitter is the opportunity to discover and interact with people. That means retweeting, asking and answering questions, and commenting. It also means sharing, caring and appreciating a joke or a cute cat photo.

A recent study by Edelman Digital shed light on how one group of federal officials — members of Congress — are using Twitter. While one-half to two-thirds of lawmakers’ tweets were work-related, a small but growing number were more social, such as comments on sports teams or links to recipes.

Even humor was not off-limits. The lawmakers “were not afraid to use their official Twitter handles to tweet about fun or irreverent topics,” Edelman’s report states.

Similarly, a few appointees and career professionals in the executive branch have become standouts on Twitter for being down-to-earth and flashing some wit. One of them is GSA CIO Casey Coleman, who has been recognized by Forbes as one of the top 25 social CIOs. Another is Jeffrey Levy, director of Web communications at the Environmental Protection Agency; his Twitter feed was on Time’s list of the 140 best feeds of 2012.

Even Park, who has averaged six tweets a month in the past, has promised to get more active. In April, he tweeted: “Pledge: will seek to at least 5x tweet production yr-over-yr without decrease in tweet quality.”

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel is the latest must-read federal tweeter. With about 3,000 followers, he has only averaged about 20 tweets a month. But he recently ventured into new territory. On April 5, FierceGovernmentIT published a lighthearted article speculating that VanRoekel would make application programming interfaces a key part of his upcoming digital strategy.

Although an unabashed fan of APIs, VanRoekel had not said explicitly that they would be part of his strategy. He responded to the article the day it was published by writing: “API #thereIsaidit #yesitisthesecretsauce.”

Yes, he definitely said it, and I predict that his tweet will reverberate around the federal social sphere because it marks a turning point for federal engagement on Twitter.

NEXT STORY: Who needs 21 e-mail systems?

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