Government Social Media: If You Don’t Want to Engage, Don’t Bother

There has been an unquestionable explosion of government social media use in the last year. Last week, GovTwit, the Twitter directory of government agencies and officials reported 44.9 million followers for the 3,000 IDs it tracks, after starting in 2009 with just a handful of accounts. Still, towns, agencies and leaders not using social media still far outnumber the early adopters.
And much of the hand-wringing over official social media use is about the public – what if they say something we don’t like! Many of the agencies using shiny tools like Facebook and or Twitter don’t even allow comments on their Web sites, even sites they call “blogs.”
Fear and failure to engage are simple reinforcing citizen concerns that government doesn’t listen and doesn’t care.
According to an April Pew study on trust in government, “By almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days.”
I, and, I hope, thousands of other Government 2.0 advocates, have not spent the last two years building a movement to have it end up as “The System 2.0.”
Some may argue that government needs to be on social media channels because of the large audiences. However, I cannot state more emphatically – if you’re considering a social media channel, but don’t want to provide citizen (customer) service and two-way engagement on that platform, you shouldn’t bother.
Using new media channels for one-way broadcasts and propaganda will only further alienate the people we serve. There are plenty of agencies using social media to engage and build trust. Join them, or don’t bother.


Pew: Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor – The People and Their Government

GovFresh: The politics of open government free speech

EPA social media response matrix chart

Posted from Wired to Share


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Andrew Krzmarzick

Hmmm…not sure if I completely agree with you, my friend.

Agree: The best use of social media is to foster 2-way communication…

But: Any agencies don’t have the resources to effectively staff up a social media presence.

Ergo: They ‘get in the game’ by re-purposing traditional content on new platforms.

And that’s okay in the short term because they are likely reaching a new audience and bringing their message/content to the places where people congregate…vs. expecting the people to come to their websites. It’s the equivalent of expecting people to come to town hall to get information vs. going to schools and community centers and ball parks and other places where people spend their time over the course of the day.

So let’s celebrate the fact that more people are getting the messages…and learn from those agencies/organizations that have been able to take it to the next level.

Last thing: If you criticize a kid for not playing an instrument correctly the first few times s/he practices, it could lead to discouragement and disenchantment…and they may never pick up the instrument again. Let’s get agencies to the recital…and at the same time invite them to join the band as they are more comfortable with the instrument.

Kristy Dalton

I agree that the most value from social media comes from INTERACTING with citizens, not just one-way messages.

Last week a citizen tweeted “With @aceball on 8-game road trip, now would great time for @CityofReno to look into crosswalk on 4th St. at Evans. #AccidentWaitingtoHappen”.

I responded by thanking him for letting us know and gave him a link to our web form citizens can use for requesting crosswalk reviews. The interaction ended with “Done. Thanks for the consideration.”

Citizens react when you respond to them on Twitter, especially because they think you won’t.

Scott Horvath

The agency should first decide their intention for their use of the social media tool. If they’re going to use Facebook to engage with people then they should have some sort of plan for responding to comments. If they, instead, intend to use Facebook to ONLY push out messages then there’s nothing wrong with not allowing comments. Some organizations want to have a “presence” in Facebook (or other tools) but if they have concerns over comments, records management, ethical, privacy issues, etc then they may be more comfortable using those tools as one way pushes.

I don’t think there’s any problem with that as long as that’s their plan and they can point people to why they’re doing it they way they’re doing it.

Some tools, like YouTube, may have social-like features but aren’t really used for that purpose. YouTube is primarily a video sharing and hosting tool. The social aspect of it isn’t as big as something like Facebook. YouTube was designed around posting video. Facebook was designed around sharing. So turning off comments on your YouTube channel is perfectly acceptable…unless you have the specific intention of actively responding to all comments.

It all depends on your use. You can use a social media tools and not be “social.” You may not fit the norm (whatever that might be), but if you have a clear plan for why you’re using that tool in that way then how is that affecting anyone’s life in a negative way. If you don’t like it, don’t bother…right?

Adriel Hampton

Andy and Scott, as practitioners, I see where you’re coming from, and I don’t think you’re necessarily wrong. However, I’d ask you to think well about how poorly government as a whole is doing at working with the citizenry, and ask yourselves if it’s OK to continue down that road. I see an opportunity with government use of social media, but simply pushing info on social platforms is a recipe for even further alienation. I use strong terms, but it’s because the problems are very great. Interesting comment on the post at Wired to Share, which goes to the heart of why if agencies are going to use social channels they should 100 percent be expected to respond and interact there (especially because more people are watching):

“I don’t understand why there’s a problem. In any democratic states, there have always been ‘frontline’ people responding to queries and comments, in person, by letter or by telephone. Some of the public have always been upset, annoyed and been highly critical. Social media just has the potential to increase the size of the audience who can ‘overhear.’
It’s not like communication between people has just been invented.”

Jaime Gracia

Adriel – Thank you for starting this conversation. I was curious how I was going to convey a similar message after the frustration of attending the Gov 2.0 Expo this past week in DC. In my opinion, and what I experienced, it was a dual-tracked issue that I did not find very constructive to advancing Gov 2.0 initiatives. The first issue I encountered was the message coming from practitioners, which was overwhelming that practicing effective communications strategies was through software. We walked through the pavilion, and spoke to a vast majority of the companies about their products. It was clear that Gov 2.0 was a bonanza of opportunity to sell software and technology products, with little understanding of the customer, their processes, and the intended use of strategic communications for objectives of openness and transparency.

Further, many of the sessions focused on one-way communications and not engagement, as some where outright didactic and not value-added to teach, instruct, and provide the Government needed information on how to best practice engagement.

The second avenue I witnessed was the clear lack of fundamental knowledge from Government personnel on what Gov 2.0 is about. I found little in the way of trying to enhance the messaging campaigns. Instead, many of the comments were about learning how to build website, push messages, and do things that were in fact the antithesis of openness. I am giving you information, what more do you want? Wrong!

My message was that my firm provides tools like other companies, but it is our analysis and strategic communications tools that add the value, as we provide services to engage the public through social media, and help decision makers find where that information is coming from to be more effective. We don’t claim to be thought leaders and the industry standard in Gov 2.0 like other firms that attended and sponsored the event (as I do not think any truly exist), but we have an interesting solution that is based on people first, technology second. That message fell flat.

I think much work needs to be done on both sides of the fence, and I hope that things continue to move forward more productively so that industry and Government can help create the environment of openness and transparency that offers great potential for more effective government management.