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The Nine Commandments of Social Media in Public Administration: A Dual-Generation Perspective

This article is part of a Special Section on Web 2.0 and Social Media that ran in the Summer issue of PA TIMES. See the end of this article for links to others from the Special Section.

Mordecai Lee, Ethan Lee Elser

Like other professions, public administration has had its share of fads that came quickly and, often, disappear just as fast. We suggest that social media is not a fad. A recent study showed 40 percent of adults going online to obtain information about government. Public administrators deserve the credit for adapting to Web 1.0 to communicate with citizens. We think Web 2.0, especially the use of social media, is here to stay. Sure, some of the current ‘hot’ platforms may fade. MySpace is declining, now vastly superseded by Facebook.

But the role of social media has already become a permanent element of modern management. This new venue for external communications can enhance the quality of government, but only if done right. We suggest some guidelines based on our respective generational perspectives as well as our familiarity with government public relations (Mordecai) versus that of a prolific user of social media trained in business marketing (Ethan).

1. Only use social media if you can identify a tangible mission-related reason for using it. Most definitely, don’t adopt it merely to keep up with the Jones’. Ask yourself the plain questions: Would a proposed use of a particular platform concretely contribute to implementing my agency’s mission? What are my goals and how will I achieve them?

2. Unlike a business or nonprofit, every government agency has the duty of accountability in a democracy. The agency is expected to contribute to an informed citizenry by reporting on its performance and stewardship. Before social media, the most common manifestation has been e-reporting, using websites to provide easy access to, for example, annual reports. Social media can further this democratic duty of government by sharing more unfiltered information on the agency’s record.

3. Social media works only if the agency is committed to its maintenance and operation. In the mid-90s, with the rise of the Web, the strong advice was that an outdated homepage was worse than none at all. Ditto for social media. For example, the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation has a Twitter account to communicate traffic problems and receive feedback from residents. Earlier this year, Ethan used it several times, including identifying a pothole and problems in the timing of traffic lights. He experienced various difficulties, including no response and no action after receiving a response. So, some important cautionary signposts: Don’t skimp on staffing or shift assignments. Have clear workflow delegation. Don’t promise what you can’t keep. Don’t raise expectations to unreasonable levels. Don’t let anything slip through the cracks.

4. Beware of the temptation of population explosion. Don’t overdo the number of, for example, discrete Twitter pages. Going back to Ethan’s experience, good call by DC’s DOT not to have separate channels for reporting, say, potholes vs. broken traffic lights. What a citizen would consider reasonably related issues should all be in handled in an integrated way. Pages should be centralized, clean and crisp.

5. Integrate with the agency’s existing external communications activities. It is de rigueur in 21st century public administration for each agency to have a website with interactive functions, an email listserve for discrete topics for citizens to sign up for, venues for submission of comments and complaints, and so on. If an agency is considering developing a Twitter page for citizens to report service complaints, it, presumably, already has in place one or more venues for this. Therefore, it’s important that using social media for service requests is maintained by the same office that operates these other methods of receiving such feedback or ensure that the office handling social media, delegates concerns to the proper personnel.

6. Just like other aspects of public administration that engage the public, remember the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid). One doesn’t want to confuse or overwhelm citizens. Simple instructions and explanations are vital. Relating back to commandment #5, a prominent listing of “There are three ways a citizen can submit a service complaint” helps the occasional user. It’s easy to forget that a user of social media may only be accessing it once in a long while and isn’t as familiar with the system as the agency staff at the other end of the wire (or wireless). A model of this simple one-entry-point approach is the ‘_11’ portal, such as 211 and 311 centers. This model helps the citizen get quickly to wherever he or she wants.

7. While social media tends to be seen as two-way communications, it can also be used for one-way communication, but generally only for high profile office holders, such as a mayor. This would follow the now-common template of legislators using Twitter to post short messages on what they’re involved in at a particular moment. For public administration, this would be a good fit for senior officials in the executive branch. But the distinction of one-way vs. two-way needs to be made clear to the citizen users. When some agencies disseminate information via email (‘your book is ready to be picked up’) it is now common to include a clear notification that the address is not staffed. Ibid for social media.

8. One of the strengths of social media is public outreach. This tends to be proactive communication initiated by a government agency to reach a discrete audience about an upcoming event that will affect them. So, for example, if the public works department of a local government knows that an intersection will be blocked due to a project, being able to notify citizens who live in the immediate area of the upcoming disturbance to their daily routines is both helpful to the citizens and facilitates cooperation. However, such an effort must be continuous from start to finish. It’s not enough to send a head’s-up FYI one week out. Instead, countdown emails (‘two more days’) are helpful both as reminders and to reach citizens who may not have paid attention to earlier notifications. Similarly, updates (‘if the weather holds up, we’ll finish a day early’) is a service that the public appreciates. Finally, a wrap-up (‘Thanks for your cooperation. Please come to the ribbon cutting and free cake tomorrow at __’) is a nice capstone to an outreach project.

9. Based on Ethan’s experience working on social media for a nonprofit association, there’s a need to create ‘clear use’ guidelines for staff. For example, who is authorized to post a tweet? Does anyone have to approve a message before it is released? What topics generally need to be cleared for potential legal implications?

As John Kamensky reported in the March/April 2010 print issue of PA TIMES, the Obama administration is seeking to include social media in its focus on improving government. That’s great news. But, even though the administration is on the right track, it has only identified the tip of the iceberg. New uses are constantly being pioneered. For example, recently the BART mass transit system in San Francisco used the foursquare platform for riders to post their locations and earn virtual badges. We encourage agencies to explore new ways and platforms to integrate themselves into citizens’ lives and then share the lessons learned with other government managers. There’s so much that social media can and will be able to do to improve government.

ASPA member Mordecai Lee is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His book Nixon’s Super-Secretaries: The Last Grand Presidential Reorganization Effort is being published in September. Email: [email protected]

Mordecai’s son, Ethan Lee Elser graduated in May 2010 with a BA in business administration from George Washington University while working part-time for the Consumer Electronics Association. Email: [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ethanelser

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