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The 30-Foot View: Reflections on a Social Media in Government Conference

A while ago, I don’t remember what conference, one of the break-out questions was “how will we know Gov 2.0 is succeeding?” One of the participants answered “When we don’t have to ask ourselves if Gov 2.0 is succeeding.” On December 6 and 7, I attended the ALI Social Media in Government conference in Las Vegas and I’m here to say: we don’t have to ask that question any more.

Though every session was informative and encouraging (not least conference chair Steve Lunceford’s presentation), a few of the speakers dramatically demonstrated how social media is being not only accepted, but expected, by leadership to solve problems and increase operating efficiency while achieving agency missions. That is–it’s not just symbolic, to prove that government “gets it,” or that public service is “cool”–it’s part of the best practices that makes office less expensive and more productive.

Here are some highlights (though, again, each speaker was captivating):

Jamie Findlater, US State Department: Though most people think of external communications when they think about social media, Jamie’s office specializes in using social media tools for internal communications at the State Department. She spoke about the tools that State is using for ideation and evaluation; recruiting and teleworking; and mentoring (including “reverse-mentorship,” through which digital natives are teaching their holder colleagues how to use The Twitter).

Her presentation, “A Grassroots Approach to New Media: How Social Netowrks Can Encourage Cultural Transformation in Your Organization,” detailed how both to streamline operations and to improve the way agencies manges employees and internal processes.

Amy Sinclair, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission: Amy’s presentation was titled “Engage the Public through Social Media for Crisis Communications. One of the main examples that she talked about is applicable to every municipality: water-main breaks. But even if that particular crisis is not applicable to every agency, it is still instructive: what do you do when part of your system is not only broken, but demonstrably so–and every minute it stays broken constitutes a growing emergency (in this case, in the form of a lake forming where there should be a road)?

What was great to hear from Amy was how she used Twitter not only to broadcast, but to listen. Because of her outposts in the digital landscape, Amy was able to respond to a crisis far faster than if she and her department had relied on traditional communications and decision channels.

Juanita Chang, U.S Army Public Affairs: Perhaps the biggst takeaway from Juanita’s presentation is what is possible with a budget of $0.00. She and one other staffer monitor the U.S. Army’s non-recruiting social media sites, including their Twitter feed and Facebook page, and navigate the same issues that everyone else does (e.g. privacy concerns) but with the minor detail that national secrets (like naval routes) people’s lives are on the line.

Kristy Fifelski, City of Reno: One of the best things about Kristy’s presentation is that she summed it up in a Tweet-ready slide: “Our three [#socmed] recommendations: 1. Customize 2. Integrate 3. Have a sense of humor.”

Customize is more than just branding. Reno, for example, as a logo, but it also has a prototypical image, which is what they use on their Facebook page.

Integration is key (and I’m not just saying that because I’ve been advocating for online-offline integration since 2006!). When you’re planning any kind of campaign, it means seeing your social media efforts as an extension of the campaign, not an add-on and definitely not a substitute for traditional outreach. After all, not everyone has computer in their office, home, or pocket.

Having a sense of humor. This is essential, because we’re going to make mistakes and people are going to publicize those mistakes through social media channels. And then we’ll be expected to respond through those same channels. So it’s better to say “yeah, I got busted,” as Kristy had to do when one of her constituents noticed that they misprinted their slogan as “Reno: The Biggest Little City in the Word” and, more generally, being known for Reno: 911. Better to laugh with the crowds than simply have them laugh at you.

On the plane back from Las Vegas, I read a report published by the IBM Center for the Business of Government (i.e. my office) titled “Reflections on 21st Century Government Management,” in which one of the two authors, Steven Kelman, talks about how all organizations, public- and private-sector, behave in certain ways based on their goals and their constraints. The private sector, Kellman contents, is focused more on goals, while the public sector tends to focus more on constraints. One of the subtexts of the conference that I intend to explore in an upcoming blog series is the constraints that social media is either revealing or, in some cases, engendering.

In all, I was very impressed with the conference and with every speaker. So many conferences have been focused on the 30,000-foot view that it was refreshing to hear and see the 30-foot view. It is that perspective that I’ll be exploring when I chair the next ALI social media in government conference here in DC in February.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about how social media is being implemented in your office, and what fault lines it is uncovering.

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Andrea Baker

Unfortunately I was not able to attend the rest of the conference. I had planned on staying for part of day one, but an early morning call about the loss of a family member sent me home packing fast. I would like to believe the workshop I led on the first day, prior to the actual conference was of a benefit. I uploaded my presentation, more of a outline to Social Media 101 and starting your social media plan to Scribd while I was out there, but it looks like the file got corrupted. I am going to try to upload a cleaner version now and make sure that link is available for the attendees as well as other aspiring Social Media Community Managers and Specialists within the Government. I used some conversations and links I found here on GovLoop and championed the site several times during this talk and past presentations. Its a valuable resource and an even more invaluable community.