(Originally post on on www.startgrowtransform.org, November 23, 2009)
"We're All Doing It"
Last month the US Department of Labor (DOL) launched a Facebook page. Other federal agencies maintain them too, but DOL hasn't really been out-front in implementing the Administration's early commitment to communication, transparency, and participation. While Facebook is just one means of demonstrating this commitment (the Department, and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis also tweet), it is an important one for which the department deserves kudos.
Concern About Jobs
It goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that the "jobs agenda" has reached fever pitch across the country. During the past several months, jobs - the lack of them, the low pay associated with them, the fear of losing them, the benefits associated (or not associated) with them, even guilt on the part of people who still have them - have dominated the public discourse. Many times I've felt helpless in trying to refer people with questions to the right agency, department, workforce board or one-stop (and I'm familiar with the workforce system). But within moments of the Department launching its Facebook page, people inside and outside the agency were getting their questions answered - in public.
People Meeting (and Learning from) People
Here are my favorite examples* to date:
1. Sonya Schurr Taylor (GA). Last Thursday evening Sonya asked USDOL why the Georgia Department of Labor's website had no information about extended unemployment insurance. By 7:30 the next morning, this information was posted on the Georgia DOL site. Sonya shared this with USDOL, and USDOL reponded, letting her know the agency was "glad to hear it", and providing a link to additional services.
What happened here? Did someone at USDOL contact someone at the Georgia State DOL? Did someone at Georgia DOL catch the mention because they were scanning for social intelligence? Did a previous inquiry by Sonya prompt the change? Was it a coincidence? We don't know. But by simply allowing such problems to appear in public, the likelihood that they will be noticed and resolved quickly dramatically increases. And positive resolutions to citizen problems generate trust between citizens and their government.
2. Daliah Holmes, USDOL. Daliah's question - posted on November 16 - was intended for DOL insiders with knowledge about recent policy changes having to do with building security. The November 18 response answered her question, and was right there for everyone else to see.
What's going on here? Facebook is helping DOL employees respond to their colleagues' questions. We outsiders can see this, and assess for ourselves whether this kind of conduct inspires confidence. For me, the answer is an unqualified yes.
3. Jordana Cohen, (NY). Jordana, clearly agitated about the lack of information provided to her about extended benefits by the State of New York, posted an article about it, along with a question and plea for clarity on November 18. Hours later, Karin Gehn Barrett responded, indicating what she knew (and confirming what Jordana feared). Jordana, outraged, posted instructions for contacting New York's Congressional delegation to insist on a change.
What do we make of this? In this case, two strangers from New York are using Facebook to share information about issues of concern to both of them (and certainly to others). There is no DOL response here, probably because the interaction raises tricky questions for the agency. Joanna is asking for political action using the DOL Facebook page.
Transparency Brings Challenges and Opportunities to DOL
Transparency brings new challenges that DOL attorneys and others will undoubtedly fret over, but efforts like these bring welcome opportunities for citizens and residents to interact with their government and with each other - across geographies, time zones, and demographic groups - in ways that help all of us get smarter, faster.
* At posting time, all three examples were accessible from the Department's front page here. By the time you see this, you may have to scroll back a few pages. I hope so.