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What The Public Wants From a Government Twitter Account

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the average citizen feels like they don’t know what the hell is going on in Washington.

I feel fairly confident in drawing this conclusion because every time, or nearly every time I talk to someone outside the Beltway they say something like this to me:

“Well I don’t know what the hell is going on over there in Washington, maybe you can explain it to me.”

And most of the time when I talk to people inside the Beltway, who don’t work in my agency, my office, or my division I hear the same thing, well sorta:

“What exactly do you guys do over there?”

And then we start talking and…MEGO (my eyes glazeth over).

It’s not like we government people don’t try to explain. We do. But it’s hard to do, and when we try to say it simply while also balancing the things we can and can’t say, the result is usually less than compelling.

But the truth is that government work is fascinating, as we employees find ourselves:

  • Navigating myriad layers of oversight – laws, regulations, guidelines, policies and rules to follow, plus organizational politics and culture.
  • Struggling to simplify and clarify one’s purpose – while answering to multiple audiences with varying kinds of interest in the mission and different levels of sophistication.
  • Retaining stability in a chaotic environment – what was high-priority one day may disappear off the radar the next.

So why can’t we tell that story? Why can’t the public simply ask their questions and get the information they want?

Here’s a “top 10” list of reasons that come to mind.

1. We can’t tell them, and we don’t explain why.

2. We can tell them, but we think we can’t, because we’re ignorant.

3. We promote “chain of command” thinking, in which mindset the customer has no choice but to take what we give them.

4. We prioritize operations over customer service.

5. We feel queasy about the kind of free social media tools that can help, because they raise uncomfortable questions.

6. We lack an accurate radar for the kinds of communication that are more versus less important.

7. We underfund the communication function.

8. We don’t sufficiently empower and encourage subject matter experts to speak directly.

9. We are fearful of making an error in judgment or issuing inaccurate data.

10. We take so long to decide what to say, or how to say it, that people stop caring. (There is inevitably a vast gap between “what we meant to say” and “what actually gets said” –> once the Committee of All Relevant Parties is done with it.)

It is in this context that a government Twitter account becomes a valuable source of timely, relevant, understandable and accessible information for the public.

There are five kinds of Tweets that seem to generate the most impact:

1. Genuinely meaningful real-time status update

2. Direct quote that sheds light on what an influencer is thinking or planning.

3. Inspiring quote that sheds light on an influencer’s vision

4. Statistic relevant to public policy

5. A visual that makes plain why an effort, initiative, or idea is important

A Twitter account can and should be used to tell the public what’s going on, in real time. We have found that when we post cute pictures we get some retweets, but the number of follows and retweets explodes when we satisfy the public’s true thirst.

The people want information that helps them to be informed citizens.

It is true that people get angry at government even in the best of scenarios. They’re angry at corruption, they’re angry at lack of accountability, they’re angry at fraud, waste and abuse.

They are angry at lying.

But there is so much information that the public has a right to know, that can be shared, that would convey the sensitivity and the complexity of government work and actually promote engagement with government.

When we don’t even bother to tell that story, in a way that people want to hear it, we are virtually guaranteed that citizens will, in thinking of the government, favor their worst fears.

Twitter is a revolutionary tool. We ought to take advantage of it, and of other free and low-cost technology platforms.

We should share as much information as we can.

Make sure it’s marked clearly as originating from the government.

Invite others to share on our platforms.

Make clear the limits of our communication.

We should overall prioritize transparency and accountability to the fullest. Even when it makes us look bad.

The public may never love the government. But at the very least they should trust that government is working on its behalf.

Social media can help.


All opinions my own. Photo of spectator by Stefano Corso via Flickr. Photo of televisions by Adriel Hampton via Flickr. Photo of graffiti by PhilosophyGeek via Flickr.

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Mark Hammer

I think you pose an important and timely question, and I think your list of impeding factors is spot on. I’m particularly predisposed to #8.

But I will pose what may be its complement: Is the short form of Twitter antithetical to what the public wants/needs to know about government or what we need to do in support of fostering better grasp and buy-in? In many ways, brevity is the enemy of transparency, by leaving out nuance, and an appreciation of the details. And often it is naiveté about the necessary operational details, and accountability requirements, that leads the public to misjudge the bureaucracy.

Some might say that Twitter can be used to link people to more extended documents, True enough. But at a certain point, that starts to bear a stark resemblence to being passed along from one phone number to another, in search of someone who can actually answer your question: the “old school” method of frustrating citizens.

Several years ago, before I had disabused myself of the idea that running for elected office would be something I would like to do, I thought that I would make a point of explaining the rationale for every vote and decision Imade. I would keep a running searchable log/blog, so that citizens could get inside my head. Even if they didn’t agree with me, they could clearly see how I balanced off priorities and contingencies, so that paranoid conspiracy theories would have fewer spots to land. I can see a role for Twitter simply announcing a new update to that blog, such the citizens didn’t have to keep checking. But in that context, tweets are the handmaiden of the more detailed and nuanced content, and not a substitute for it.

So, is Twitter the right tool for the job, or do we merely *think* it is the right tool because it is contemporary?

David B. Grinberg

Dannielle: kudos on your post, you raise many excellent points which are worthy of serious consideration. Most importantly, as you point out: “We should overall prioritize transparency and accountability to the fullest.” Thanks again for sharing this useful and instructive information which should be a “must read” for ALL gov communicators.

Dawn Dawson

Until .gov in particular FEMA stops teaching use of social as a tool and by command and control dogma it will never change. “Command and Control” known to be contrary to “Social” which is collaborative & open. It’s amazing how other agencies like the Fire Service, Coast Guard and some in Law Enforcement have adapted to the evolution of communication over the past 8 years but Government can’t or won’t. There is also an increasing trend of using consultants, academics, researchers and with higher ed degrees, many who don’t use social themselves or dislike it, over anyone with actual embedded experience who is a true “subject matter expert”.