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To Blog or Not to Blog: Furthering Transparency Through Interactive Websites

The Benefits of Blogging:

It was Feather O’Connor Houstoun, a senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation, who astutely pointed out, “Government is moving toward transparency in fits and starts, and no one seems able to point out key tools that will accelerate the process.” One tool worth considering is the creation of public sector blogs. Simply put, a blog is a social media tool in the form of a website on which an individual or group of users may record opinions, information, etc., on a regular basis. A blog can be a very effective way of increasing public sector transparency by adding a personal and authentic voice to public entities that are often thought of as impersonal and unresponsive. A blog may not only serve to introduce citizens to government, but it can also provide valuable information that citizens may use to their advantage by allowing them to communicate directly with government. This communication can serve to provide government with invaluable feedback on the services provided and can likewise assist government in refining or improving those services. Such transparency provides answers to citizens while serving to build faith, trust and confidence in their elected and appointed officials. Further, a blog can create opportunities for citizens who historically have not had a voice or presume to think they don’t have a voice in the affairs of government. It can also serve to gather in one place, diverse people who may otherwise never have any interaction with one another, let alone with government.

Since a blog is a less formal and more immediate way for government to inform and engage a public that is increasingly “wired-in” to various social and electronic media, the possibility of creating communities of interest (groups of people expressing a collective concern with the resolution of a problem) increases exponentially. By providing citizens with a free, simple way to learn about how government conducts the peoples’ business, or by creating a forum in which citizens can raise their concerns about the quality of government services, a rapport can develop seldom experienced in times past.

A quality, user-friendly blog that shows the public that government wants to hear from its citizens can attract a wide variety of readers. True, some people will use the blog as a sounding board to merely vent or gripe, but others will offer invaluable contributions that you can’t always get from a town hall meeting, survey or other forum. A blog can, among other things, assist your entity in:

  • Creating a database of answers — Government can blog about citizens’ questions, especially frequently asked questions, answer them, and provide links to those posts to save time and answer future questions.
  • Exercising leadership and authority — In times of crisis, the citizenry must have faith, trust and confidence in their leaders. A blog is an excellent way to demonstrate that leadership.
  • Identifying proponents — Blog readers may be among government’s most powerful, ardent allies, a factor that comes in most handy during difficult budget years, etc.
  • Taking the community’s pulse – During those times when government has to take a position or vet new legislation, testing the concept with the blog community can provide invaluable insight and suggestions.
  • Addressing disinformation –A blog can be most helpful in not only disseminating information, but in correcting the volumes of disinformation that appears on the Internet and on social networking sites.
  • Communicating in a crisis – A blog allows you to put out the facts in times of crisis without requiring citizens to seek alternative news sources to get the information they need.

 

Avoiding the Pitfalls and Pratfalls:

It can be a daunting challenge to encourage all elected and non-elected senior administrators to commit to developing a culture of transparency within the government and its employees that permeates all levels of the governmental entity. This is especially true when you add to the mix social media in the form of a blog. A blog can provide unparalleled opportunities for increased transparency in government, provided there is a buy-in, if you will, from leadership. Merely creating and monitoring a blog comes with unique challenges. Prior to creating a blog, the entity is well-advised to determine at the outset, the purpose and scope of the blog. If its purpose is to merely alert citizens to the goings-on of government through the use of timely postings in the form of budgets, emergency/disaster planning, or upcoming public meetings, then challenges are minimal at most. If, on the other hand, the blog is designed to foster collaboration by permitting citizens to add content or comment on the public entity’s postings, then the entity has created what the United States Supreme Court calls a “limited public forum.” In a nutshell, governmental entities may open a limited public forum for use by the public at large to discuss various subjects. When creating such a blog, government should consider the following:

  • If an entity’s blog is made available to one group of citizens, it must be made available to similar groups of citizens in the same general class, i.e. “Friends of the Library” or “Citizens for Responsible Zoning.”
  • Government may limit a forum to certain groups or class of speakers, but cannot discriminate based upon the viewpoint of speakers.
  • The entity should consider some level of accountability of blog participants in the form of registration using real names and valid e-mail addresses.
  • Citizen participants should be reminded that the blog is subject to a respective state’s open records and open government laws.

One area particularly worth mentioning is the government’s right to delete blog postings that are non-protected speech such as child pornography, attempts to incite social unrest, false statements of fact, obscenity, threats of harm to others, and speech owned by others by way of copyright, etc. Like anything else government undertakes, it has a duty to do no harm and to do what it does in a non-negligent manner. A blog must be monitored, and at times, adjusted to minimize the possibility of abuse. Your entity’s attorney can prove invaluable assistance in this regard.

 

In summary, the positive effects a public sector blog can have on government’s quest for greater transparency can be immeasurable provided the government takes the time to craft the blog in such a manner that it is user-friendly, current, and encourages citizen participation.

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Author: Joseph G. Jarret has served state and local public entities as an administrator and attorney and teaches courses in public administration on behalf of the University of Tennessee, Graduate School of Public Administration. He is the 2013 president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA.

 

Image courtesy of http://www.starrhall.com/maximize-your-blogging-efficiency/.

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