Helping people figure out governmental uses of social media

Helping people figure out governmental uses of social media


Okay, I've been asked to write something brief to help people get it. Seems like everyone in government is getting the idea, and that includes people who didn't grow up with two way electronic communications. I've been asked to write something brief getting people started on the idea, but I'm a dilettante; figured I'd write a draft and ask for help. Here we go…

Social media for government is just starting right now. Turns out, the folks in local Washington DC government are already having tremendous success. check out their Apps for Democracy Digital Public Square to see what they're doing.

Some specific ways people are using social media and the Net for down-to-earth needs:

  • 311 customer service – if you see a pothole fixed or a big tree limb removed, you submit a request and it gets done. In the UK, there's an iPhone app which goes further. You photograph the problem, enter a description, and transmit it right to the people who can do the job. Check out
  • neighborhood info – people are happy to pitch in and let you know what's going on, a great example is iLiveAt. (Check out Dupont Circle; I would've like to have known the long, long up escalator had failed at the end of Inauguration.)
  • conducting business online – for example, it'd be a lot easier to get a license of any sort if you could just enter info online instead of waiting in line, say, at the DMV. As your application goes through stages, if lengthy, you could be notified by email at each step.
  • emergency response – during Katrina, craigslist was immediately used by survivors to let friends and family know where they were headed. People located survivors by asking. Within a day or two, people were offering survivors housing, then jobs.

People are also using the Net to get involved in governance. It's a way for government leaders to hear from constituents directly, unfiltered by layers of staff.

Sunlight Foundation fosters a networks of sites focusing on transparency and accountability. Consider which encourages citizens to check out legislation before passed; consider the possible results with legislation like the "Patriot" Act or TARP. Sunlight organizations like highlight the effect of money in politics.

The White House has started its first experiments with two way communications, beginning to learn how to engage millions of Americans directly. It's very early in the learning process; no one has done this before. Check out and as really good starts.

The results of hearing from constituents in some manageable way has the major benefit of getting buy-in, of creating the perception of legitimacy on the part of the subject politicians. I like to call this "the consent of the governed."



Prokofy Neva

Everybody gets how interactive dynamically updated sites are useful to find information and help and goods.
But you guys really need to stop flogging as if it is one of these interactive, new media web 2.0 sites. It's not. Look at it carefully. All it is, is a government propaganda push-media page. It has *one* element that enables you to "tell your story" on a simple template that…goes nowhere. At least, who knows where it goes as there is no interactivity, no feedback, no map with pinpricks, no acknowledgement by email, no forums, no nothing.
Please, don't tell me, "Oh, give it a chance" etc. This is the USG working with our tax dollars, and we need to say the gov2u emperor has no clothes. That's not the same thing as being transparent, truly.
Real democratization of governmence will come when people like you don't take the hoax for the reality. What happens with sites like these is not 'here come everybody' but Clay Shirky's "smart committees," special people who get to run things and get government funding to flog their tech and get consulting gigs for the digital Beltway.
Twitter as it is now is more useful than these sites because *it is free and open*.
Please also find examples besides Lawrence Lessig using Maplight and whether this is really the way to find out what's up.
And I could add that embedding the wiki culture and fake social media was all done without the consent of the governed. Congress has never had an opportunity to review or assess all this widgetry and opensourcery. It was installed by fiat by a few coders.

Stephen Buckley

I'm not sure, but I think you are talking about the "people" who work inside the government.
Back in the early 1990's, I was a federal worker in D.C. The "online community" was, of course, microscopic compared to today.
Of course, we were very excited about the Internet's potential for making government more open and attuned to its citizen-customers.
But it was hard to explain the Internet to people who had no frame of reference other than it being some sort of "information superhighway." And it took awhile, but after seeing enough ".com" commercials on TV, my co-workers and friends slowly began to "get it" about what I had been trying to tell them (years before, when there were no websites).
So, in the latter 1990's, there was this great buzz in D.C. about "e-government", in the very same way (eerily) to what is happening now with "Gov2.0" (the addition of Web2.0's social media tools).
But what happened is that the "e-government" movement was taken over by the commercial interests, i.e., the K Street crowd and "beltway bandits" who saw an easy way to meet the frenzied demand for "e-gov" by selling turn-key services for improving "customer interaction" like online renewal of your driving license. (woo-hoo!)
Now, something like renewing your license online is neat, but it was not the type of fundamental change in "civic engagement" and democracy that we early-adopters in the government had been trying to promote. So, once again, we waited until people slowly "got it" about the real potential for "e-gov".
So, now, with the advent of new online tools for networking, along with a change in the White House, it appears that more people do now "get it" about how we can improve the quality of "civic engagement" so that our government can work better and cost less.
But having seen how the more noble aspects of "e-Gov" were shunted aside in the latter 1990's, I can certainly relate to the pessimism of Profoky Neva (see previous comment) in his fear that the commercial interests will take over and then become the back-seat driver (ironically) of the of federal government's drive to a more open government.
It doesn't have to be perfect, but those involved in the effort to increase transparency in government have to model the change that they want.
Although it could be phrased in a more polite manner, there is a legitimate question raised by Prokofy for clearing things up about Who is making What decisions and How (in the name of Transparency).
Now, the answer may not satisfy Profofy and others, but the lack of an answer is still a bit unsettling to those of us who saw this pattern in the 1990's "e-Gov" push.
(Such is the lot of older people: having to watching younger people make the same mistakes.)
If some of these relatively new arrivals to online democracy do not learn from the lost opportunities of 10-12 years ago, then we are condemned to repeat them.
If they really believe that "we are smarter than me", then they need to show it.
Otherwise, THEY are the ones who not "get it" and risk leaving the rest of us behind (as it happened before).
Stephen Buckley


Well I seem to be speaking mainly of non internet issues here, but
Our community Riverside CA won a Nationwide award for how internet connected the City is with this and that available online, the 311, etc. The police, utility, City Council, City Government, Police, etc. etc all have websites with this
being the main website.
I hounded them to get rid of the Chamber events calendar and now it boasts a Community Calendar on the main page that lists Parks and Library events for example.
If you want interactive you can click on the City Council page and down the page you can enter your address to learn which City Council persons ward you live in.
You can click the City map to see which area comprises your ward.
I believe you can click and submit a 311 report with your concerns if you have a pothole you want fixed or a handicapped ramp installed or a drug party house you want Code enforcement to shut down.
Yet when it comes down to the really important matters, those are not shared with the public, we are denied our say at City Council because most items are listed on the Consent Calendar (the Council passed this in one vote, citizens are not allowed a 3 minute say for items listed on the Consent Calendar, and the items are not read off or discussed), the online Community Calendar which lists the Library board of trustees meetings does links to the meeting agenda or to the Board of Trustees webpage, and even if it did there is no backup to the agenda, no information on where to get a speaker, and if you cannot attend the meeting there Boards webpage provides no links to any agendas, minutes, reports, nothing whatsoever about what the board has done, is doing, or has planned for the future. In essence that Board and one or two other groups that report to the board make the decisions without seeking public input whatsoever. For example no notices are posted at the library, no flyers are available and you can see the agenda only if you know where to dig down on the City's website to find the hidden agenda page. The Board does not even offer an email address, just a phone number.
Despite all the technology, decisions are made by a few people once a month in a little room and most the public in Riverside is in the dark.
And interestingly the Board's decision has been essentially dictated by our City Manager who tells the Board what options they may consider, and not allowing the decision that a reasonable man on the street would want on the table, that being the one which would provide a Main Library with adequate parking and of a size that would serve the community for many years to come.
Also and more importantly in this area many people do not use the internet, at least not like folks do in urban areas where folks jobs are centered around a computer screen.
Among seniors who attend meetings I hold about half or more do not use computers or the internet at all.
Also if decisions were made via votes by the public on the computer, the special interest folks like our Greater Riverside Chamber of Commerce who are internet connected, would ensure that the votes came in to favor what THEY wanted, and not what was good for most the people that live here in Riverside.
For example Riverside Greyhound is being pushed out of town because, well the people in power want it out including our local Greater Chamber of Commerce, whose offices are next door to our Greyhound station. They and others in power go to City Hall and meet with City Council/others and make decisions of what will happen in this City, behind the scenes, at least that is my impression.
Citizen actually have very little say in what happens in our City and with our tax dollars.
Transparency only works if you have people in City Councils, City Manager, Mayor, etc positions who would care about being transparent.
For example recently I attended a City Council meeting listed to begin at one time, and I arrived prior to that scheduled time, I came to learn that ALL ITEMS listed on the online City Council agenda were heard by the Council including public comments and Consent Calendar items, EXCEPT FOR ONE PUBLIC HEARING ITEM, BEFORE THE TIME THEY WERE SCHEDULED TO BE HEARD ON THE AGENDA.
So in communities of around 300,000 like Riverside, spread out over a hugh geographic area, we need some help in ways that the little folks, those who ride Greyhound, those who struggle to make a living, those who are being pushed out by the City of Riverside, we need a way to find a voice for all these people.
I have tried to use Craiglist's political ads for this purpose here in the Inland Empire.
I pass out flyers with information and links.
But sometimes when important decisions are at hand, someone flags off the ads telling folks to go down and speak out at City Council for example.
The little people don't have the money to organize, make flyers/posters, do not have money for mailers, or even to buy email lists of voters to get the word out on issues.
Good people who would like to run for office, cannot do so because it takes say $100,000 to $200,000 to run for a City Council seat for a job that pays $30,000 to $50,000 a year.
Just like the newpapers our City Halls are being sold to the highest bidder, and whoever wins the bid spends the citizens tax dollars and the citizens do not have a clue what is happening.
For example most things passed at City Council are passed on the consent calendar and not a whisper of what is included on that calender is mentioned on the Cable TV program that airs the City Council meetings or can be watched on demand via the Cities website/video. The City Council meetings on TV are designed as PR to reelect the incumbents and to say how wonderful our City is as PR for folks wanting to move here.

John Thacker

What exactly does have in the way of two-way communications?
For knowing where money is being spent, it's a lot worse than the existing, where regulations have been posted along with comments publicly posted for years. links to existing useful two-way communication government sites like and (, which is nice. But those things already exist.
Your claim that "no one has ever done this before" is silly.

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