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Great insights from the Massachusetts Governor’s Office on Using Social Media

When I ask those in Government what models they follow for Open Government I regularly hear Massachusetts, and the Governor’s office in particular. I reached out to the Brad Blake, Director, New Media & Online Strategy for the Governor, and he was kind enough to spend a lot of time responding to these questions. While Brad does spend time pitching his boss he also shares a lot of great information, information that should benefit others in moving open government forward.

Q. What are your thoughts on government 2.0, the open government initiative?

A. The Open Government Initiative and Open Government Directive are a fantastic resource for states. At least here in Massachusetts, they’re also great validation for a lot of things we’ve already been doing and support and framing for ways we can do it better and more. Since Governor Patrick took office three years ago, we’ve been breaking down barriers and do things differently to improve transparency and encourage participation and collaboration.

It’s not just about using technology, though. It’s about using technology in combination with traditional modes of input and communication. For example, take public hearings and meetings. In the past, many of them would take place in a government building in Boston during business hours with little advance notice to the general public. Over the past three years, though, Governor Patrick and his team have pushed to have more and more public meetings and hearings after traditional work hours and all across the state and to get more people involved both in-person and online.

For example, last spring we held a series of community budget forums. The Governor and others travelled all over the state, visiting over 20 cities and towns and talking with hundreds of citizens about current and future budget challenges, getting their ideas and input. We posted all the hearings on a google calendar, plotted locations on a google map, blogged about the hearings on our Commonwealth Conversations: Engage! Blog and encouraged further dialogue, tweeted reminders and updates and answered follow-up questions and posted videos on our YouTube channel.

We also held an online version of the forum using a Ning-based site where more than 350 members, representing 146 cities and towns, ranging in age from 18 to 80, joined to share their opinions or comment on the governor’s proposals. At the end of the online discussion, the citizen moderator of the forum assembled a task force which compiled a Citizen’s Forum Report and delivered it with their findings in a final meeting with the Governor.

Q. Why do you use social media? What are you looking to accomplish? How does it fit into your overall communication strategy?

A. Governor Patrick believes strongly in the power of civic engagement — that government works best when citizens are invested and involved in government processes from beginning to end. We use social media to get at more and better civic engagement.

This governor has accomplished a ton in the three years he’s been in office, but things move very quickly, peoples’ attention span is all over the place, and a lot of times people don’t understand how the work their government is doing affects them and how important it is that they be involved in the process. While the traditional media still plays a strong and vibrant role in the dialogue, they are suffering and shrinking and often don’t have the resources to dedicate to giving the full story and the entire context. So, we use social media to try to connect directly with people as much as possible and give context to the big things government is doing and more information beyond the headlines. And we’re by no means trying to circumvent the traditional media outlets. By posting quick videos on YouTube or photos on Flickr, we’re offering both them and citizens more to pull from to tell or understand the policies the governor and his administration are working on. At the same time, we’re giving them routes to be a part of the dialogue, whether it be commenting on a blog post, recording a video question on YouTube, or tweeting us a quick question.

One thing that’s great about it is that, with one piece of content or one exchange, we can often answer many questions. For example, if someone calls our constituent services office and asks someone a question, they might be on the phone for 15 minutes, but essentially only that one person benefits from that answer. If a similar exchange takes place on a blog or twitter, it has the potential to reach thousands – but is valuable even if it only reaches a few. We’ve had some of the same success with our YouTube videos. Over the summer, the governor visited cities and towns all over the state in the evenings, meeting with people on town greens and in school auditoriums. While many attended, by taking simple videos and posting them on YouTube, we were able to reuse the answers to questions people asked in person to answer others’ questions online. So, if someone in the months following the town hall meetings had a question or concern about casinos via twitter, for example, we could point them to this video…

Q. How long have your been “social”?

A. It’s been an ongoing, iterative process. In the beginning of the administration, we worked to get out website set up at www.mass.gov/governor and made sure that the more ‘traditional’ modes of communication were covered. From day one, we’ve had a great constituent services office that handles upwards of 1,000 pieces of correspondence every week – phone calls, emails, letters and in-person visits. We were also producing media, but we were posting it ourselves – links to videos we would host on our own servers, creating HTML pages of photo thumbnails, etc.. About a year into the administration (so, January of ’08) we started posting videos to our YouTube Channel.

A few months after that, we started using Flickr for photos. A year ago, we launched our Twitter account and really started encouraging agencies to blog. And our constituent services office now takes into account tweets as part of their correspondence handling.

Q. What results are you seeing? Have you seen results from social media that you could not have replicated using other communication channels?

A. A couple of examples here…

As I mentioned before, the Governor and members of his administration held a series of Community Forums across the state to discuss choices and priorities given the difficult economic situation. Traditionally, the conversations would have essentially ended there. Only the people who physically attended those meetings would have been able to benefit from the experience. By extending the reach of the Community Forums to an online forum, people could continue to share ideas and build on one another’s regardless of time and distance.

A little over a year ago, we started working with agencies and secretariats on a series of blogs for the state (www.mass.gov/blogs). Our Department of Public Health was one of the first. We worked with them to start a blog last January. They were using it, at first, to talk about an initiative in Massachusetts to combat obesity and get people helpful health information, solicit feedback, etc.. When H1N1 (swine flu) hit fast and hard, that blog we already had set up became the ideal place to give updates that people could subscribe to, ask follow-up questions, etc (http://publichealth.blog.state.ma.us/h1n1-swine-flu/). That level of immediacy and direct engagement with public health officials would have been very difficult before that. It’s a great example of how the two-way nature of social media is so important in government. The Dept. of Public Health was able to understand, through comments on the blog, where the gaps in communication were, what questions and fears people still had, and what information they had to do a better job of communicating in the future. If you look back over the posts, you see a lot of comments and engagement. They’re also using their Twitter account to help spread the word (http://twitter.com/massdph).

Q. What social media usage policies/guidelines do you have in place for State employees?

A. We actually launched our first set of social media toolkits about a month ago. They’re at www.mass.gov/itd/socialmedia. These first three toolkits cover blogging, Twitter; and legal issues pertaining to social media.

The toolkits provide guidance, best practices and branding recommendations. Future toolkits will cover YouTube, Facebook and other social networking sites, as well as Flickr, Wikis, and survey tools.

Q. Are you using a CRM system?

A. Yes, our constituent services team uses a CRM system and they now include feedback on Twitter in the same way they include feedback from email, phone, letters, etc..

Q. What agencies, local or Federal, do you learn from? Who is doing it best?

A. There are a lot of great examples out there, but one I often point to is the TSA. I believe they launched their blog at http://www.tsa.gov/blog two years ago. I remember reading at the time that they said they were the most hated government agency along with FEMA after Katrina. I’ve been very impressed by how they’ve used their blog to directly address airport security concerns and frustrations and how direct they are about issues. For example, right now there’s a post talking about the incident on Christmas Day saying, “One of the biggest misperceptions I found was that people thought that TSA conducts screening in Amsterdam and in other places around the world. Not so. We only screen passengers at airports in the United States and U.S. Territories. Each country has their own screening workforce – some are government, some are private sector, some are even military.” It goes on to talk about what they’re still doing in response, how they are working to strengthen coordination with international partners, etc.. They also do a great job of using bloggers who are from different areas of the TSA rather than having it come from some central team of communications professionals.

Q. Any stories from the field that people might find value from?

A. I don’t have one specific story, but I think we’ve been getting better over time with letting go a little bit and realizing that while communications via social media should be accurate, it doesn’t have to be perfect. For example, we capture a lot of our video content now on a simple flipcam and turn it around quickly without worrying too much about production value. The message is still accurate, but it might not be as polished, and I think people appreciate that. For example, here’s a video from when the governor visited the Greater Boston Food Bank. Here’s another from when he was at the airport on his way to Washington DC talking about plans for his trip. Later that week, the governor was meeting with a class and they asked him follow-up questions about how his meetings went because they had seen the video on YouTube.

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What a great interview…lots of gems here.

I like this quote especially One thing that’s great about it is that, with one piece of content or one exchange, we can often answer many questions.