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5 Lessons from the Birth of a Government Blog

Dr. GovLoop has been scouring the Web to find awesome content…and here’s a blog post that caught his attention over coffee this morning.

Originally posted on WhoRunsGov

By Greg Palmer Mar 04 2010, 10:30 PM

How did I convince one of the world’s largest bureaucracies to enter the blogosphere? Trust me, it wasn’t easy. NYC’s Department of Education serves over a million students in 1,600+ schools and changing institutional momentum among 135,000 employees is like trying to turn an oil tanker.

But what’s interesting is that its size is both its biggest challenge and its greatest asset. Because despite the best efforts of ingrained bureaucracy to make people just another cog in a wheel, you can’t prevent the creativity of employees, teachers, and students from bubbling up. So instead, you have to learn to roll with it and become a part of the creativity that’s already occurring.

Experiment and iterate. When I wanted to dip our toes into the waters of social media, there was a lot of hesitation, but also a recognition that our participation was inevitable. The challenge was to combine my progressive tendencies with the hesitancy of my bosses. There are two ways large institutions can enter a new space — the first is to write an enormous policy manual and hope to be only 3-5 years behind; the second, and the one I chose, is to experiment and iterate quickly, something that’s risky but has a more immediate return.

Circumvent the bureaucracy. I created the “Going Green in NYC Public Schools” blog because NYC’s schools have some great green initiatives going on and it’s a topic that I thought the public would rally around without getting mixed up in the larger world of NYC schools politics. It was also a way for me to create content outside of the normal bureaucratic world, and in a different format and voice than they were accustomed to, hopefully setting an example for more pleasant and personable interactions with the public.

Rally the troops. Once I had some initial content up, I leveraged the heck out of our Intranet, employee newsletters, Facebook networks, etc. We were doing a poor job communicating with our fellow employees, but my intuition told me that they could be our best and most fervent evangelists. Chances are they were wondering why we *hadn’t* been blogging, and with very little promotion, our blog posts were getting a few thousand hits a day and a bunch of comments.

Follow the conversation. The majority of my time spent on Going Green was watching and learning what conversations people are having and trying to add some value to those conversations. For instance, some NYC schools use biodegradable sugar cane cafeteria trays, and parents were asking why all 1,600 schools don’t use those trays. The answer was simple — we give schools the choice to pay for the more expensive biodegradable trays if they choose to do so — but it was an answer the public never would have gotten without knowing what question to ask. I think it even convinced some additional schools to begin using sugar cane trays.

Curate with a light hand. Participating isn’t the only aspect of this — you’ll need to curate the comments and audience contributions. My advice is to try to be liberal with your curation policy; respectful discussion and a diversity of views is valuable. Part of this is picking a topic that you think will self-limit the scope of discussion, but you’ll have to gently guide the discussion in order to keep your community on topic. If worse comes to worse (and it sometimes does) you’ll need to delete a few comments and remind the the community to keep things on-topic and above-board.

All in all, Going Green was a successful pilot project for the NYC Department of Education. It caused some waves internally, but more importantly, it got internal stakeholders to take a second look at online communications and how to more successfully leverage that in the future.

Greg Palmer, a founder of CitizeNYC.com, is a web strategy, technology, and customer experience consultant to public and private sector clients. He specializes in user experience, implementing search engines, and creating web services for diverse constituencies. Prior to his consulting practice, Palmer headed up online communications for the NYC Department of Education and was Technology Advisor to Congressman Henry Waxman.

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