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Twitter, Government, and the Meaningful Use of Social Technology

Unless you live beneath a rock in Washington, D.C., though some of you may be reading this from a vault beneath the Pentagon, it will come as no surprise to you that Twitter is making inroads into the District with a new Government Liaison position.

The fact that Twitter needs a government affairs presence with feet on the ground is not debated, as we only need to look to the Iranian election case, but already a #snowpocalypse of blog posts and tweets have rained down calling into question just what with this new role will be responsible for, or more importantly, what does the Beltway community need of it.

Through my experience, however, what it comes down to can be described with a term most often used in the government promotion of Electronic Health Records : Meaningful Use, or more elaborately, leveraging targeted technology progressively towards an ultimate goal.
Back in April I both learned and taught this lesson first hand when after months of months of taking classes through the new Post 9/11 GI Bill my monthly benefits were still being delivered irregularly if at all. If you’re a veteran this story should come as no surprise, nor should it that I was for months utterly unable to contact the Department of Veterans Affairs on their hotline to fix the problem (ring ring, robot voice, hang up, dial tone), or that my Senator’s office was more than happy to intervene but frankly showed up with a only pocket knife for a safari in the rain forest.
Sitting there with no traditional recourse left in the bureaucracy, I took to my phone to connect with the modern gentleman’s best tool since the tie clip: Twitter. Throughout the day I tweeted questions to the Department of Veterans Affairs with the ultimate goal of getting that which I needed, being my estranged benefits. Along the way dozens of others joined me in a stunning example of consensus building as people from around the country shared their own stories, offered assistance, or just cheered us on.
And though I have more than a sneaking suspicion that the VA thought we would just blow over and go away – which is often the mindset in any agency – the fact that Twitter is both a free and accessible tool allowed us to continue until indeed the mission was complete: I received a phone call from the Deputy Director of Educational Services who both corrected the problem and very sincerely explained the cause.
This was the improving of a government service using only the simple application, and a wake up call to both constituents who wonder what power their individual tweets hold and to government agencies on how modern execution of their mission can shake down with the meaningful use of technology.
This lesson sounds like old hat to most of us, but the fact remains that many in the government, whether a federal agency or a Congressional campaign, still have not learned them. Some fear to tread in the waters because as anyone who has worked in a Congressional office knows, if you pick up even a telephone, you are inviting potential bedlam into your world. Others simply don’t see the value yet because its understandable at times to be overwhelmed, or underwhelmed, by the incessant buzz and hype ringing through their ears like those infernal trumpets at the World Cup.
But when I sat there that day in April none of those reasons mattered, as I needed my government services, and the government wanted to deliver them but needed a new way how – and its for that reason that the Twitter Government Liaison is critical to educate, to share, to implement visions that could only come from the land of these strange people we are who are ambitious yet had no desire to go to Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Most of government can have access to Twitter, but it’s that question of what is the meaningful use specific to each mission that still is debated to this day, and that we must find the answer to.
Take a look at the Twitter dashboard for the World Cup. Now imagine that service, improved and expanded upon for elections or an initiative from the Environmental Protection Agency. This is the path forward, not only inviting more people into the conversation but using that chatter in meaningful, contextualized ways that turn mere buzz into a symphony. For those of us who have worked to usher policy initiatives through government we know that consensus building is a key tactic in doing so, and as my own case demonstrated, even with meager participation it can be achieved.
Now if we could just get retweets figured out…

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Steve Lunceford

Actually getting a meaningful reply..that’s the beauty of using Twitter for more than just push.

While not rising to the level of import as getting benefits (as your personal experience), I recall tweeting about an unusually long security line at Dulles airport (~2 of 20 lanes in use) and addressing it to @TSABlogTeam this past winter. They tweeted back in about 5 minutes and within 10 minutes additional agents were deployed to speed up the security process for the folks in queue. Again, powerful stuff to have your voice heard and that type of interaction and “face to government” will go a long way to improve citizen impressions of their government and its workers.

Justin Herman

Thanks for the comment Steve – see I never get into Twitter much as a publicity service, I see it and use it as a strategic tool that can be leverage by both government and constituents to improve services. Some of that has gotten lost in the larger societal adoption of Twitter and how that is communicated, but with feet on the ground in DC that critical need can be refocused, and the extra tar balls no one wants left on the side. Its got to be, because we all need better.


I’ve seen the same thing happen many times. Leveraging social media as another channel…towards solving government problems. Agencies are big and often people can get stuck in byzantine traps. Twitter helps you connect with individuals that can help you get problems solved.

Which is what it is all about in the end.

Justin Herman

I cringe when I hear people say Twitter is primarily a marketing tool. And I imagine others around government cringe too for that very reason.


I think the trick is Twitter is still really hard to explain. Been hanging with non-soc media friends last few weeks who just have a real hard getting Twitter.

Joseph Porcelli

Wow, great post! Very well written and understandable, even for folks who have yet to adopt youtoo, faceoff, and tweeter.

Justin Herman

I hear that Mr. Govloop – when in the Political Science Graduate Student at my university I asked how many people used Twitter, and I found I was the only one. I was like, “Where do you think you’re getting jobs in DC if you’re not leveraging these tools,” and the response was “we don’t have time to follow celebrities and hear about lunch.” (face palm)

Justin Herman

Thanks Joseph – I think some people can spend so much time and effort philosophizing and posturing over government innovation that they lose the focus and purpose – and turn off the very people whom we seek to work with.


“Remember…I’m really busy and don’t have time for this crazy stuff…unlike some of you (*finger pointed*)”

Joseph Porcelli

Golly, It sure is swell to talk about innovation and transparency! Like you wrote, “leveraging targeted technology progressively towards an ultimate goal” is the point! When we talk about this “crazy stuff” more people we “get it” if we stopped explaining how the technology works and started with enrolling them on results they could achieve. Let them ask how it works, once their hooked!

Justin Herman

Exactly Joseph – many in the government like plain speak and objectives. Many who want to impress people in government use contrived “thought leadership” that amounts to making conspicuous statements meant to dazzle but lack solid foundation. In order to achieve goals we must work at the level in which our participants operate, and in this town, those participants aren’t swayed by foppery.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I’m still a bit blown away by this Social Media Today list of the Top 10 social networks in which Twitter seems to lag way behind Facebook and YouTube…and even seems to have reached a plateau (if not in decline). Are we a just a fringe group – a small slice of society – that is actively using Twitter? And if so few citizens are using it, should government divert its attention from the places where the majority of Americans are trying to engage at present?

F. Cavalcante

“Taking advantage of the technology-oriented to a progressively larger goal”
Congratulations, this sentence says it all! In Brazil, studies indicate that twitter is more utilized than Facebook, and today we can easily talk to politicians and companies using this technology. As CIO of the Legislature of Fortaleza, we are deploying twitter as a tool for interaction between government and citizen.

Adriel Hampton

Andy, that’s US only – huge distinction. There is also a much higher uptake of Twitter as a media channel than Facebook – it gets picked up routinely by bloggers and traditional media, so its impact is greater than the numbers alone.

Alice Lipowicz

Very interesting story, and you’re certainly not alone in your complaints about VA red tape. Here’s a story on a recent report from the VA IG discovering that many, many callers to the VA are disappointed by the response from the call centers: http://tinyurl.com/2buu8cb

Dawn Lautwein

I’m one of those apparently still a little in the dark about twitter. I have Facebook and get so tired of seeing that Robin needs help in Yorkville, Sue bought a pony in Farmville, Jim played Bejeweled, and more personal, but equally trivial notes, that I can’t imagine stuff like that streaming to my phone. Like those quoted earlier, I thought twitter was about following celebrities or messages between bored friends. Your article was a more compelling case for twitter, but how did you know where to direct the tweets to for the VA or TSA? I realize volume of tweets helped at the VA, but if everyone started twittering, do you think the response would be as bad as with the phone system? (in other words, those responding would become as overwhelmed as people receiving phone calls did?) I’m certainly not trying to sound anti-technology, though as of yet, I’m too cheap to pay $5 for a text messaging plan because email and calling are easier and as effective most of the time.