Federal Agencies and Web 2.0


Elizabeth Newell, at GovExec.com, writes about how federal agencies are beginning to stick their toes in the social media pool. It’s beginning to dawn on agency leaders that when citizens search for government information, they will want to use the same systems they do in their everyday lives. But as David Herbert at the National Journal writes (reposted here by NextGov.com), many agencies still struggle to make connections online.

Newell cites the GSA’s GovGab, the Defense Department’s roundtable with military bloggers, and she referenced the growing list of federal agencies that post on Twitter. Herbert points to the TSA is an agency that gets it. The Evolution of Security blog is an effort by TSA to explain the bizarre airport security system and offer tips for travelers. The agency realizes that in the online world, “if you build it they will come” is not the way things work. At airport security lines they advertise their site with signs saying “Got Feedback?” The site has been up for a year and posts average 3,000 page views and 100 comments.

NextGov.com has posted a “Best Practices for Government Web sites,” where they highlight five agencies that pay careful attention to what their users want to see and do online. NextGov.com consulted with online experts who told them, that meeting the needs of the public will always be the foundation for any great government site. The five agencies they selected are: NASA, Library of Congress, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Social Security Administration, and TSA. They have an interactive “Best Practices” presentation where they explain why they picked each agency.

Despite this progress, bureaucratic barriers and inefficiencies still exist to further governmental embrace of social media. For instance, government agencies get hung up on terms of service agreements, legal jurisdiction and issues over advertising. And as Herbert reports, many agencies have put content online, but much of it is useless, boring and unable to attract an audience. He quotes Sheila Campbell, co-chair of the Federal Web Managers Council, “It doesn’t make sense to be using Web 2.0 tools for the sake of using Web 2.0…(they need) to make sure they’re developing compelling videos that resonate with their target audiences.”

Newell quotes several agency communication and technology leaders as being encouraged by the rhetoric coming from the Obama administration about service, citizen engagement and transparency. And they are hopeful that the administration’s pro-new media attitude will further speed up the embrace of these tools by their agencies. As one observer is quoted as saying, “We really hope . . . the White House from its bully pulpit says, ‘This is OK,’ and gives agencies the comfort level to make that leap of faith.”

Herbert quotes Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and senior technology advisor for Sunlight, about the federal government has a long way to go in embracing Web 2.0, but he remains optimistic. “Right now you can point to some failures of some interesting experiments, but six months to a year from now things will be very different,” he said. “And it’s about time.”