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No Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore… Time to call KDOT

I was chatting with Patrick Quinn who is the Social Media Manager, Kansas Department of Transportation, about the community efforts taking place in his organization. What follows is some great information, compliments of Patrick (many thanks for your openness). Enjoy.

Q. It appears that you have an internally focused community and an externally focused community, true? What are the goals and purposes for each?
A. K-TOC, which is KDOT’s outward-facing online community, is a public outreach/public input tool we launched in January 2009. It’s a fully functional online community, a Facebook for people interested in Kansas transportation that offers user profile pages, blogs, wikis, status updates and discussion groups. Our goal is to provide a forum where citizens and policymakers can communicate directly about state transportation issues.

KPN-1 is KDOT’s pilot internal community. KPN-1 is still in the sandbox; we expect to go live sometime in the next couple of weeks. We see KPN-1 as a valuable internal collaboration tool for our various departments and bureaus, but right now the project is a pilot, and participation is limited to a small group of engineers who we hope will be the new community’s future leaders.

Q. For KDOT, what prompted you to create a social media strategy?
A. KDOT’s decision to deploy social media was made before I came onboard, and credit for that decision belongs to Kansas Secretary of Transportation Deb Miller, Communications Director Julie Lorenz, Governmental Affairs Chief Kyle Schneweis and a handful of other senior leaders at the agency who possessed the necessary foresight and courage to make the call. I don’t get the impression that they felt they needed social media—more that they recognized the value of positioning the agency in the middle of the vast new online audience, which happens to contain thousands and thousands of our constituents. With every day I spend in government, my respect for these folks increases. Initiatives like this won’t work in the absence of brave, committed leadership.

Q. How well are each performing?
A. K-TOC has exceeded many of our expectations and completely whiffed on others. Membership is about 985, which is much higher than we dared dream. Active membership is less than 200—I count as “active” those members who have logged in at least once this year—which is right in line with our expectations. Which is to say, we expected this level of continuing engagement from a much smaller membership: We were too optimistic. The community has proved to be extremely valuable in engaging citizens (and citizen groups), and has enabled us to broaden our outreach outside the constraints of conventional media. It’s been less successful in attracting citizen participation. We have a ton of readers and downloaders, but only a few posters. Last year K-TOC hosted about 14,000 unique visitors.

Note that K-TOC, for April 2010 (which is practically over): 1,559 visitors, 2,235 visits, 6,274 page views, 2.81 pages/visit, 2:16 average stay time, 51 percent new visitors, 63 percent bounce.

KPN-1 isn’t active yet, so I hesitate to make any predictions.

Q. For KDOT, how many page views per month are you receiving? Citizen created content? In other words, how much are citizens adding to the site?
A. We’ve not seen much citizen-generated content. Our Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day outreach incorporated significant citizen-generated content, but that was solicited; we asked the posters to contribute. Most of what we’ve seen is in the form of questions, and most of the questions came from our Project Selection Pilot Program.

The pilot was unprecedented. KDOT changed its internal criteria for selecting construction projects, which in the past were selected largely on the basis of engineering factors such as congestion and safety. Under Secretary Miller, “local consultation” was added to the selection process–KDOT went on the road, presented its findings to communities in live face-to-face public meetings and requested citizen feedback.

Social media completed the project-selection trifecta. A third element was added to the project selection mix: an analysis of the local and regional economic impacts of the proposed projects.All of these materials–engineering evaluations, economic impact analyses and the local consult scores–were posted to K-TOC for the whole state to inspect and comment upon. We divide the state into six administrative districts and presented the data by district; the link above is to the Northeast Kansas project selection results. The remaining groups are accessible from the K-TOC landing page. Collectively, the six project selection discussion groups have generated more than half of all public comments on the site so far.

The project selection outreach was (obviously) a first for the agency. We didn’t plan it as thoroughly as we should have, and probably missed some feedback as a consequence of the rushed way we went about it, but we learned. The next one will be much better.

Q. What ROI have you seen?
A. Not applicable. What’s the ROI of your phone? What’s the ROI of the computer on which you’re reading this? What’s the ROI of a public meeting? It doesn’t matter. Managers who insist on evaluating social media by ROI have already missed the train.

Q. For KDOT, why did you decide to create your own solution vs. making use of something like Facebook fan pages or some other existing community?
A. In 2008, when KDOT started to seriously consider social media, Facebook wasn’t quite as prominent as it is today, and in any case was terra incognito for the agency. Those members of management with experience of Facebook knew it only as a “reconnect with old friends” site–and as a site banned by all state computer systems. (Still is.) A proprietary community offered the assurance of a certain amount of agency control over the operation, which was an important consideration then and remains so now. The astonishing growth of Facebook, and our own increasing comfort in the social space, means that we’ll likely expand our Fb operation, but Julie and I haven’t yet had a chance to discuss that in detail.

Q. From a community management perspective, do you find it necessary to bring different tactics to bear for internal vs. external communities?
A. Completely different tactics. I’m the principal engine behind K-TOC, where I execute a strategy developed by our Public Affairs leaders. In the internal community. I’ve positioned myself as a resource for people with questions about community operations and community dynamics—but I’m not an engineer, and don’t have much useful to contribute to the network those folks are building, so I try to stay out of the way.

Q. What tools are you leveraging for your communities?
A. We’ve deployed Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook. In each case, we adopted the tool as a stand-alone resource and then started experimenting with it as a community-builder. The YouTube and Flickr accounts are brand-new and don’t really have a track record yet, but Twitter and Facebook have helped us grow K-TOC. We have plans to boost our Facebook presence, but not right away. Interestingly, we’ve seen independent communities grow up around our Twitter and Facebook accounts—the accounts do indeed have stand-alone value independent of K-TOC. I reach people on Twitter I can’t reach on K-TOC, and vice-versa.

Q. Do you leverage mobile technologies as part of your communities?
A. Ouch. Just this week I attended a web-policy meeting at which the question of mobile devices reared its head. Our motorist-info services like 511 and KanDrive are available on mobile platforms (I think, not my shop), but we haven’t yet modified the community architecture or the agency webpage to support mobile devices. We recognize the utility of such services and the public’s increasing demand for the technology, but at the moment “mobile” is still in the exploratory stage. Money’s awfully tight.

Q. What policies or best practices have you established?
A. Our social media efforts are overseen by Julie and by Vicki Johnson, KDOT’s Chief Counsel. (Important tip: get your chief counsel involved early.) We’ve published House Rules for the community and held several meetings to ensure our Public Affairs Managers are operating their motorist-info Twitter accounts in accordance with the agency’s public-information policies. And we’ve obtained a “crisis-response” procedure to help organize a response to attacks from online posters. Other than that, we’ve tried to avoid publishing hard-and-fast rules for the use of the tools.

Q. Anything else that you would like to add?
A. K-TOC doesn’t happen without the superb support we’ve received from Leverage Software, which is a company very interested in the citizen/government social space. When we were prepping the community project, I contacted some very big names in the community-platform business. most of them didn’t return my call. Of those who did, all of them except Leverage said they couldn’t meet our requirements. Only Leverage dived in. I think that took as much courage as the agency itself exhibited, and I know for a fact that K-TOC doesn’t happen without the unwavering omnicompetent support of Tom Paolucci, our client rep. The right vendor makes all the difference.

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