Open Government Platforms in the Executive Branch of the U.S. Federal Government

[updated on 04/15/2014]

I put together a list of open government platforms that I used in my Digital Government class this semester at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The list is sorted by their contributions to the three dimensions of the 2009 Open Government and Transparency memo (transparency, participation, and collaboration). In addition, for each platform I thought about the main goals, the target audience (or engaged crowd), the process(es), and the potential outcomes.

I included HealthCare.gov even though it is an online marketplace and might not be considered as an Open Government initiative. However, I believe it increased transparency for both the (uninsured) public and journalists, as well as the providers in each state.

Addition: Alex Howard prompted me on Twitter to think about what kind of transparency the platform might provide. I include it in the class, because the platform served as a broker to help citizens understand their local marketplace and provide information about plans as well as providers. I believe it is a valuable and trusted government service and private marketplaces might not have the same level of trust. Take a look at Alex’s article on TechPresident where he discusses private healthcare markets.

I am posting it here as a summary for my class, but also to ask for feedback from anyone interested in this topic. Did I forget an important platform? Is the classification and my analysis of the dimensions reasonable? Should I add more dimensions to describe the platforms? Curious what you think, Internet!

Turkey’s political decision to blackout Twitter

Will the revolution be tweeted in Turkey even though the prime minister has decided to block the microblogging service Twitter? It sure looks like it. However, it seems to have backfired big time as this Twitter map of the hashtag #TwitterIsBlockedInTurkey shows:

An upside of this political decision is, that it has in my opinion increased the digital literacy among the Turkish people. They had to learn about proxies, VPNs, anonymous surfing, and other work-arounds to gain access to Twitter, read about what the world outside thinks about the developments and keep posting to Twitter. In a world where physical access is no longer a hurdle, digital literacy – know _how_ to access content and understand cultural differences of social networking sites has become an important issue. As one of my friends reports from Turkey,  this article on Mashable.com has become an important source to teach people how to reconnect or stay connected.

Even though the Turkish president (who mostly has representative functions) had to sign the law prime minister Erdogan put forward, he himself kept tweeting and posted a memorable update condemning the blockade of social media platforms (translation: “Closing of social media platforms can not be approved of.”

In the past, EMPA students from the Turkish prime minister’s office, other cabinet offices, and the presidential office attended my social media classes at the Maxwell School. Looking back at our class conversations I am still surprised – and I know I shouldn’t – how little political power the president has and how much his office focuses on representative aspects. My students from both offices were eager to learn how to use social media in professional ways to support their bosses, but it was also clear to me that the political elite represented in the classroom was disconnected from the technological and cultural developments surrounding social media. A fact that I also observe when I talk to high-level public managers from other countries or the U.S.

While this certainly does not justify the Twitter blackout, I do believe it is an important factor to understand why government officials may feel threatened by a free and open online conversation they can’t control. The result is that they are oftentimes surprised by what is now called leaks of their own behavior and learn about it when issues are starting to be covered in the press – bridging the boundary between online conversations and mainstream media attention.

HICCS 2014 conference paper: The Challenges of Challenge.gov: Adopting Private Sector Business Innovations in the Federal Government

Our HICCS 2014 conference paper titled “The Challenges of Challenge.gov: Adopting Private Sector Business Innovations in the Federal Government” is now available online. Here is the abstract:

As part of the Open Government Initiative in the U.S. federal government, the White House has introduced a new policy instrument called “Challenges and Prizes”, implemented as Challenge.gov that allows federal departments to run Open Innovation (OI) contests. This initiative was motivated by similar OI initiatives in the private sector and to enhance innovativeness and performance among federal agencies. Here we first define the underlying theoretical concepts of OI, crowd sourcing and contests and apply them to the existing theory of public ness and the creation of public goods. We then analyze over 200 crowd sourcing contests on CHALLENGE.GOV and conclude that federal departments and agencies use this policy instrument for four different purpose: awareness, service, knowledge and technical solutions. We conclude that Challenge.gov is currently used as an innovative format to inform and educate the public about public management problems and less frequently to solicit complex technological solutions from problem solvers.

Published in: Proceeding HICSS ’14 Proceedings of the 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences
Pages 2073-2082

Romanian Journal of Public Administration: Interview on social media in the public sector

Ines Mergel, social media specialist: „Government agencies are not used to liking, sharing”

In order to highlight a few of the major aspects regarding the use of social media instruments at the level of public administrations, we tried to obtain a specialist’s opinion. Therefore, we talked to Ines Mergel, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration and International Affairs, and a Senior Research Associate in the Center for Technology and Information Policy, at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

In the next lines, you can read about Ines Mergel’s advice regarding the use of social media instruments.

1. What could be the main advantages and risks, for the public administration, of using social media tools such as Facebook or Twitter?

Generally, I would say that government has more to gain from the use of social media than to lose. However, the problem is that government agencies are not used to ‘friending’, ‘liking’, ‘sharing’ or even just proactively pointing citizens to government content. The information and communication paradigm in the public sector is usually limited to low frequency of information sharing. That means in a press release-style an agency shares information when it actually has something to say. The fast and furious online exchanges on social networking sites are oftentimes very challenging to the bureaucracy: government officials are bound to their internal policies and regulations, have to keep the hierarchy in mind and get confirmation before they share information.

The advantages are pretty clear – not just to me – but for government organizations. In the U.S., 90% of local government agencies have a Twitter account and 94% have a Facebook account. Many also maintain other content creation sites, such as Instagram accounts or blogs, so that citizens are notified in case there is new information. On the federal government level all agencies maintain a presence on social media and they “want to be where the people”: To represent themselves, but also to reach citizens where they prefer to receive their information. Social media channels have become an important part of the communication tool kit to test the ‘temperature’ (how people feel about policy changes), increase public awareness for programs and pull people in to government information on an agency’s website. Another important part is that government does not always have to be actively involved in online network exchanges, it oftentimes helps them to listen in and share correct information in case people are spreading rumors.

The risks are unfortunately always present and every time something goes wrong on social media, internal policies are tightened to prevent missteps in the future. I believe the greatest risk is over-communication and not understanding the individual culture of each social networking site. Oftentimes, government agencies simply replicate their standard communication to Web 2.0 applications, completely ignoring citizens’ needs. This is certainly a reflection of government employees’ digital literacy. But also a function of the fast changing nature of the sites. People can’t handle the amount of comments they receive once the floodgates on social media are opened and tend to ignore comments – a practice that can backlash as well. The result is that citizens see a confirmation of their bias that government is slow to respond and might even make fun of agencies. Another huge risk is to abandon social media sites or not moving on when a social networking site clearly does not attract the stakeholders an agency wants to reach. A great example is ironically enough the FBI’s Facebook page. There is no moderator, no commenting policy enforcement or active responses to citizens.

2. What kind of resources does an institution need in order to benefit from the advantages of social media?

I believe the greatest challenge is cultural and not so much monetary. First, an agency needs to understand the new information paradigm and get top management buy-in to allow employees to experiment with new technologies. My main concern is always that agencies might leave it up to the interns, the young guns who grew up with the technology and know where to click. However, they don’t know what is appropriate to share or how the agency prefers to communicate.

There are different models out there. Some agency make social media part of the public affairs or communication responsibilities and they quickly share their once created content out to social networking sites. Others decentralize the efforts and let teams or campaigns create their own social media channels. I would always advocate for a dedicated social media person who bridges the organization’s members and the public and sees herself/himself as an advocate for both. Start with a task force and include those who really want to innovate, legal counsel to be sure you are covered, and create a business case for your top management to get the resources you need.

3. Can institutions use social media for communicating information in the case of emergencies (natural hazards for example)? Can you provide such an example?

One of the most interesting applications of social media is during emergency situations. Even during power blackouts, cellphone towers are still sending signals to wireless cellphones, because they are operating on a different power grid and usually don’t go down during an emergency situation. Here in the U.S. the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has an extremely social media-savvy director who included social media use into the first responder instructions. Citizens are seen as “first first-responders”, those who are at the scene first, even before the actual first responders show up and they help to inform both authorities as well as other citizens by live-tweeting or sharing their photos, impressions of severity and impact. Social media has become a true resilient digital infrastructure, when the actual infrastructure, such as phone lines, TV networks, and power grids are not available.

Excellent examples include the earthquakes in Haiti, where cellphone coverage was restored before any other government service, such as hospitals were back in place. Another recent example here in the U.S. is the government information sharing before, during and after the super-storm Sandy. NYC mayor’s office sent break-through messages to those citizens located in the evacuation areas. While it is difficult in this case to say whether lives were saved, government has truly embraced new technologies to inform the public.

The U.S. Geological Service now uses citizen Twitter updates to measure the impact they feel during earthquakes and posts them on an Internet Intensity map. The information from citizens is now used in combination with scientific information collected by the agency and helps to coordinate government responses.

There are many less tactical or less intrusive emergencies that citizens experience on a day-to-day basis where social media platforms help out. For example, the U.S. experiences unforeseen amounts of snow fall currently, and volunteers create online support groups to coordinate volunteer snow crews and help each other out. New social interaction platforms are used to coordinate these responses. SeeClickFix.com is one of these remarkable platforms.

4. Do you have a prediction regarding the future of social media in the public administration sector?

Predicting the social media future is difficult. The tools are not designed for day-to-day governance and citizens main purpose to use social media tools is not to stay in touch with government. I would even say on the contrary. I believe we have another 2-3 years with new tools constantly popping up and government’s changing ability to use them for their own purposes. For example, I believe that content curation tools, such as Storify (n.r. social network which was launched in 2010, it allows its users to create stories using sites such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram) are very helpful for agencies that are running temporary campaigns and try to gain attention of the public in a very short amount of time. These tools help to pull together information from across different social media platforms. Government has an opportunity to innovate, but it needs to let the public in.

Quotes used in the article:

  1. ‘In the U.S., 90% of local government agencies have a Twitter account and 94% have a Facebook account’.
  2. ‘My main concern is always that agencies might leave it up to the interns, the young guns who grew up with the technology and know where to click. However, they don’t know what is appropriate to share or how the agency prefers to communicate.
  3. ‘Here in the U.S. the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has an extremely social media-savvy director who included social media use into the first responder instructions. Citizens are seen as “first first-responders”, those who are at the scene first, even before the actual first responders show up and they help to inform both authorities as well as citizens by live tweeting or sharing their photos, impressions of severity and impact’.
  4. ‘Another recent example here in the U.S. is the government information sharing before, during and after the superstorm Sandy. NY city’s mayor’s office sent break through messages to those citizens located in the evacuation areas. While it is difficult in this case to say whether lives were saved, government has truly embraced new technologies to inform the public’.

Box:

The work of Ines Merges is also focused on using, within public administrations, of innovating methods and new technologies, such as the social media component.

You can find more articles published by the researcher on her blog: inesmergel.wordpress.com.

Also, there can also be mentioned other important articles, such as: Social Media in the public Sector – A Guide to Participation, Collaboration and Transparency in The Networked World; Social Media in the Public Sector Field Guide: Designing and Implementing Strategies and Policies, A Manager’s Guide to Social Media Strategy, Working the Network: A Manager’s Guide for Using Twitter in Government, Using Wiki’s in Government: A Guide for using and maintaining wikis in the public sector.

Here is the original version in Romanian:

Twitter Best Practices Page for Government

Twitter has created a Best Practices page that provides information for what they call different types of industries, including television, government, sports, news, music, nonprofits, and faith.

The government page includes suggestions for Twitter townhalls, Tweet Chats, Twitter alerts, live tweeting, Twitter timelines on government homepages, photos in government tweets, and even suggestions on how to use Twitter for policy change.

eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government Special Issue: Social Media in Asia

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The eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government has just published a special issue focusing on governance issues around social media, mobile applications and other new technologies in Asia.

Here is the blurb:

This special issue is aimed at showcasing innovative scholarly works examining various subjects concerning the role of social media, mobile phones, and other new technologies in the formation of democratic citizenship and good governance in Asia. We seek studies that address relevant topics in a particular Asian country, and also welcome comparative research on Asian countries or Asian and non-Asian countries.

The articles are available for open access on the journal’s website and listed below:

Table of Contents

Editorial

Transformation of Citizenship and Governance in Asia. The Challenges of Social and Mobile Media PDF
Nojin Kwak, Ines Mergel, Peter Parycek, Marco Skoric i-iii

Special Issue

Civic Action and Media Perceptions within the Wall: The (Re) Negotiation of Power in China PDF
Natalie Pang 1-15
A Trigger or a Muffler? – Examining the Dynamics of Crosscutting Exposure and Political Expression in Online Social Media PDF
Soo Young Bae 16-27
Protests against #delhigangrape on Twitter: Analyzing India’s Arab Spring PDF
Saifuddin Ahmed, Kokil Jaidka 28-58
Internet Aggregators Constructing the Political Right Wing in Japan PDF
Muneo Kaigo 59-79

Scientific Research Papers

The Impact of Public Transparency in Fighting Corruption PDF
James Batista Vieira 80-106