, , , ,

Eight Reality Checkpoints for Using “New Social Media” In Government

By Dennis D. McDonald

I’m tracking public announcements about the transition to the Obama administration and the emerging role for digital media and technology in the public sector.

Currently a mix of messages is being transmitted by industry and government leaders and commentators. Some are overwhelmingly positive about the potential for using modern digital media to engage more people in conversations about public policy issues. Others are more cautious about the practical limitations to widescale adoption of social media and social networking. Meanwhile, the Obama transition team is using these technologies on a daily basis.

A range of views on this topic was provided by the panel Creating New Opportunities for Open and Participatory Government convened on December 12, 2008 by Google in Washington DC. Participants included participants in the Obama and McCain campaigns, current and past Congressional and White House staff, and public policy advocates active in promoting “open government” initiatives. Public questioners also engaged in a lively discussion following the moderated sessions that included reference to questions submitted via the web.

The overall theme, not dissimilar to a panel I participated in earlier in December, was “Now that we’ve shown these new tools can be used to manage elections, how do we adapt them to help us govern?”

What I took away from the discussion was a growing realization that the realities of wide adoption of web 2.0 techniques are now being discussed more openly and on a broader scale than in the past. The opportunities are real. So are the potential issues, as I discussed earlier in Five Challenges Government Faces When Adopting Web 2.0.

Here are some of the most significant things I gleaned from the Google DC panel discussion and the questions that emerged from the audience; note that these are my own interpretations:

1. Openness is not the same as participation.
2. Many people view current social media and social networking tools as new and untried.
3. Resistance to the use of such tools is real.
4. The President and Congress will have to lead if these tools are to become commonly accepted as tools of government.
5. Many existing rules and regulations are outmoded and will need to be modified to accommodate new media.
6. It’s best to use the new tools as part of an overall “grassroots” approach to generating public involvement.
7. The use of new technology in the campaigns is not the same as the use of such tools in governing.
8. Getting more people involved is always better than having fewer people involved.

1. Openness is not the same as participation.

As the private sector has learned in its own adoption of web 2.0 tools and techniques for communicating with the public, customers, and members, openness is not the same as participation. Making data available, as important as it is to making government activities “transparent” to the public, is easier than using technology to support actual participation.

2. Many people view current social media and social networking tools as new and untried.

Those with experience in corporate adoption of web 2.0 technologies will not be surprised by this. Congressional and legislative leaders and staff possess a wide range of characteristics ranging from ignorance and resistance to social edia and social networking, to eager adoption. How large are these different groups? It seemed clear from the speakers that some very influential people in government are not only ignorant but downright resistant.

3. Resistance to the use of such tools is real.

One speaker suggested that one important reason for some resistance was a desire to continue “business as usual” in which a limited number of individuals were involved in the nitty gritty of such traditional activities such as the development or regulations and legislation. Opening up the process is viewed by some as a threat to traditional forms of power. This is real.

4. The President and Congress will have to lead if these tools are to become commonly accepted as tools of government.

Overcoming resistance to the use of new tools requires leadership. Nothing new here; any type of organizational change, to be consistently effective, requires leadership in addition to “groundswell” support. Incoming President Obama has already shown though his initiatives related to openness and collaboration in his transition efforts that he supports using new media; how this will carry over to governing is the question we are wondering about.

5. Many existing rules and regulations are outmoded and will need to be modified to accommodate new media.

This gets us to the nitty gritty of change. Many rules and regulations concerning the timing and other processes associated with publication of government information were developed in earlier times when paper was king and web publishing was not as pervasive and immediate as it is now. “Opening up for public comment” has a whole new meaning now that has ripple effects throughout the supply chain of regulators and regulatees. Not everyone will be comfortable with these ripple effects.

6. It’s best to use the new tools as part of an overall “grassroots” approach to generating public involvement.

We heard this a lot from panel participants, several of whom were fresh from the campaign trail: online communication, content management, and collaboration tools are great, but they need to be used in conjunction with effective “grassroots” person-to-person organizing in order to be maximally effective.

When I asked the panel if anyone was sensitive to the costs in professional staff time required to monitor and engage with increasing numbers of public communications, the response I got was along these lines: “Yes, incorporating online social media and social networking does require an increase in time for engaging with and synthesizing public conversations, but the costs for this are being borne by an increased involvement of the public as well.”

This sentiment is not unlike that of corporations that add social media to their customer communication and customer support programs. A common expectation is that customers will help other customers online and this will reduce the overall direct burden (and costs) associated with support being provided by paid company staff. (Side note: in reality, costs for time engaged in customer support in such instances are still being incurred, but not by the company itself; instead, some of these costs are now being shifted onto customers, somewhat like the shifting of costs that occurs with customer self service programs.)

7. The use of new technology in the campaigns is not the same as the use of such tools in governing.

It’s one thing to focus all your energy on specific target outcomes such as getting out the vote or convincing people to vote one way or another on a specific ballot item. It’s quite another to engage people on very complex value-laden topics such as abortion where a simple “yes/no” consensus is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. In addition, many governmental, legislative, and regulatory initiatives are long drawn out, complex, and constantly evolving. When that is the case and a readily measurable — and immediate — outcome is difficult to achieve, will the role of social media and social networking be the same as it was with the election?

8. Getting more people involved is always better than having fewer people involved.

One of the early concepts popularized about social technologies was the concept of “the long tail,” where small numbers of users, events, and transactions could, over time, take on significant cumulative social and economic importance. Technology is a great enabler for this; self organizing “microcommunities” can emerge that can communicate, collaborate, and create content just as efficiently as larger more established — and less agile — communities.

While there are significant practical issues involved with Government agencies and legislatures engaging with and keeping track of constantly evolving specialized public interest groups, the fact is that numbers still count. At the end of the day, government officials want to be re-elected by a majority. They are naturally attuned to large voices. In a democracy, this has traditionally meant that the the largest and loudest voice will rule.

Social media won’t necessarily change that. In fact, there will be those who look at social media and social networking as just an extension of individual campaigns where the goal is not facilitating many small conversations, the goal is winning elections, passing legislation, and pressuring regulators. In the real world, so this story goes, numbers rule and, inevitably, the voice of the individual can be lost.


Personally, I’m quite optimistic about the use of new media to open up and make government more open, transparent, and responsive. The “genie is out of the bottle,” in my opinion, and there’s no way we’ll go back to the old ways. But the road will have some bumps:

– We need to accommodate citizens who are not digitally literate.
– We must recognize that resistance is real and potentially legitimate.
– We need honesty about the costs and complexity of engaging large numbers of people in meaningful dialog on potentially complex and time consuming topics.

Another concern is that the same tools we use to engage democratically can also be used to undermine democracy if employed by those whose interests differ from our own. Countering that possibility will require vigilance, hard work, and education.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald, an Alexandria Virginia based consultant who can be emailed at [email protected] This is a repost of an article published in his web site on December 21, 2008.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Profile Photo Celia Mendive

It will be very interesting to see how this is handled….I do believe that some kind of regulation is needed. I remember a few years back, I wrote a paper in grad school on the the Can- Spam Act…who would have thought of that back in the day….

Profile Photo Adriel Hampton

Thanks for the concise and helpful summary, Dennis! It is great to see these issues under discussion at the highest levels of government. The light of day will tell whether Gov 2.0 is a worthy objective or not. In my own community, I’m seeing Web literacy and knowledge as the barrier I need to help my fellow citizens overcome. We are planning local pro bono training to help active citizens join the Web revolution (point 8 – numbers!).

Profile Photo Sarah Bourne

Point 7 is critical – governing is not the same as campaigning. You might be able to use the same tools (with a nod to point 5) but the dynamics are different. For instance, In Massachusetts, people raised questions about privacy issues about devalpatrick.com when it was used after the election, that had never come up during the campaign. Cost/funding and accessibility are other areas where surprises may pop up. It’s a good thing there is a lot of enthusiasm out there for Gov 2.0 because that energy will be needed to slog through these issues.

Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

Celia – it all depends on what you want to regulate!

Adriel – Yours sounds like a very worthy project and I would like to know more about it.

Sarah – “slog” is a good word to use – some issue really drag on and very few people have the time, money, and fortitude to participate closely for the long haul.

Profile Photo Daniel Bevarly

Very thoughtful and helpful, Dennis. One of the concerns I have related to point 7 and also point 8 is how we develop/apply Web 2.0 technologies in the governing process. If we don’t, we risk discouraging or disenfranchising younger voters and citizens who thought they had found a way to their liking to be active participants in our nation’s democratic process.

Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

Daniel – thank you for your comment.

Regarding point number 8 — it is still very true that “numbers count.” I will be interested in seeing how Obama’s “briefing book” program, where people are encouraged to register and vote on comments online, makes its way into the governing process. It’s all very “little d” democratic, but what is the line between communicating with your exevutive branch and communicating with your congressperson? Have people ever been able to make distinction between the two?

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria Virginia USA

Profile Photo Daniel Bevarly

Dennis – Yes, numbers do count. But are we talking numbers as a representation of the citizenry for policy making or for the popular vote for re-election? Most people only “interact” with their elected officials when they walk into a voting booth. If these are the numbers, then more transparency and more ways and opportunities to engage voters using Web 2.0 technologies will definitely favor incumbents if they use them properly.

As for the voter’s differentiation between their legislative and executive branches of government, the distinction is clearer at the state and local levels versus federal. Still, while I believe people do distinguish between the two, there appears to be a lack of appreciation and understanding just how important it is to maintain a continual dialog with your legislator when it comes to having your say on the issues.