All posts by Ines Mergel

About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

Using social media metrics and big data analytics for actionable insights

Generate actionable insights from social media and big data

Oftentimes social media use is seen as fundamentally different from other forms of formal organizational communication because of its speed, dynamic, egalitarian nature, but also its informal form. It’s important to align the use of social media with the organizational mission. Citizens can passively absorb the information and government can abandon other forms of publication and save taxpayer dollars. Public affairs can design campaigns to gain attention for certain issues, highlight deadlines in all phases of the policy life cycle (Lasswell 1951), or increase participation in offline behavior and online votes (increase turnout). The result might be an increased acceptance of public policy, increased inclusion and reduction of inequality of access (Thomas 1993, Bingham, Nabatchi, O’Leary 2005). Government organizations have the opportunity to diffuse misinformation and rumors, lower the costs of negative campaigning by quickly injecting correct, formal information, and bring in innovative knowledge about and from stakeholders.

Suggestions for practitioners aiming to measure the impact of their social media activities:

  1. Understand what you are trying to accomplish (increase attention, target certain constituencies, and what it looks like if you succeed with your communication) (DiStaso, McCorkindale, and Wright 2011). How are your social media activities supporting the organizational mission and to which extent do they serve you for example to become more innovative?
  2. Define a social media strategy and insights that optimize approaches to achieve the goals (Mergel 2012).
  3. Develop measures that are focusing on behavioral outcomes and not just reach. Have your posts and online interactions helped citizens change their behavior? Did they go out and participate in an initiative for which you need citizen input? Did they change their behavior by applying for a program?
  4. Display the information on dashboards that are accessible and understandable for decision makers (like the CDC’s social media dashboard) to see immediately how citizens are perceiving the information that is sent out by your organization (DiStaso, McCorkindale, and Wright 2011).
  5. Use the insights to optimize your tactics and identify actionable opportunities for program adjustments (Murdough 2009).

The following flowchart summarizes the steps outlined above:



New article published: Agile Innovation Management in Government: A Research Agenda

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-8-00-37-amI wrote a paper based on my interviews with CTOs and digital service innovators in the U.S. federal government. The goal of the paper is to bring together the elements that lead to innovations in digital service delivery. I contrast traditional software development processes with elements of an agile innovation management approach. The result is a research framework and research questions for future explorations:

Governments are facing an information technology upgrade and legacy problem: outdated systems and acquisition processes are resulting in high-risk technology projects that are either over budget or behind schedule. Recent catastrophic technology failures, such as the failed launch of the politically contested online marketplace in the U.S. were attributed to an over-reliance on external technology contractors and failures to manage large-scale technology contracts in government. As a response, agile software development and modular acquisition approaches, new independent organizational units equipped with fast reacting teams, in combination with a series of policy changes are developed to address the need to innovate digital service delivery in government. This article uses a process tracing approach, as well as initial qualitative interviews with a subset of executives and agency-level digital services members to provide an overview of the existing policies and implementation approaches toward an agile innovation management approach. The article then provides a research framework including research questions that provide guidance for future research on the managerial implementation considerations necessary to scale up the initial efforts and move toward a collaborative and agile innovation management approach in government.
Reference: Mergel, I. (2016): Agile Innovation Management in Government: A Research Agenda, in: Government Information Quarterly, 33(3), pp. 516-523.

New paper: #BigData in Public Affairs published in PAR

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-8-03-17-amKarl Rethemeyer, Kim Isett, and I just published a new paper in Public Administration Review with the title “Big Data in Public Affairs“.

Our goal for this article is to define what big data means for our discipline and raising interesting research questions that have not been explored yet. Here is the abstract of our article. Please email me if you can’t access the full paper:

This article offers an overview of the conceptual, substantive, and practical issues surrounding “big data” to provide one perspective on how the field of public affairs can successfully cope with the big data revolution. Big data in public affairs refers to a combination of administrative data collected through traditional means and large-scale data sets created by sensors, computer networks, or individuals as they use the Internet. In public affairs, new opportunities for real-time insights into behavioral patterns are emerging but are bound by safeguards limiting government reach through the restriction of the collection and analysis of these data. To address both the opportunities and challenges of this emerging phenomenon, the authors first review the evolving canon of big data articles across related fields. Second, they derive a working definition of big data in public affairs. Third, they review the methodological and analytic challenges of using big data in public affairs scholarship and practice. The article concludes with implications for public affairs.


Mergel, I., Rethemeyer, R. K., Isett, K. (forthcoming): Big Data in Public Affairs, in: Public Administration Review, DOI: 10.1111/puar.12625.

Award: Research stipend from IBM’s The Center for the Business of Government


IBM – The Center for the Business of Government has announced a new round of winners of their research stipends. I won an award to write about my research on digital service transformation in the U.S. federal government.

Here is the announcement text:

The Center for The Business of Government continues to support research by recognized thought leaders on key public management issues facing government executives today.

The Center for The Business of Government continues to support reports by leading thinkers on key issues affecting government today.  We are pleased to announce our latest round of awards for new reports on key public sector challenges, which respond to priorities identified in the Center’s research agenda. Our content is intended to stimulate and accelerate the production of practical research that benefits public sector leaders and managers.

My report will focus on the following topic: “Implementing Digital Services Teams Across the U.S. Federal Government”

In 2014, the White House created the U.S. Digital Service team and the General Services Administration’s 18F group. Both groups are using agile software development processes to design and implement high-profile software projects. The results of this report include lessons learned during the scaling up efforts of digital service teams across the departments of the U.S. federal government. These will focus on managerial design aspects, organizational challenges, motivations of digital swat teams and their department-level counterparts, as well as first outcomes in the form of digital service transformations in each department. This research report aims to support the presidential transition team’s efforts by outlining the current efforts of scaling-up digital service teams and their lessons learned, as well as observable outcomes of digital service teams across the U.S. federal government.

Congressional hearing about @18 and @usds operations and @gao report

I just watched the Congressional hearing of the 18F and U.S. Digital Service Oversight committee. The hearing was initiated by a GAO report titled: “DIGITAL SERVICE PROGRAMS: Assessing Results and Coordinating with Chief Information Officers Can Improve Delivery of Federal Projects” published on June 10, 2016.

The report showed that most agencies were fully satisfied with the digital swat teams that helped them fix their IT problems:

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 11.16.15 AM

The GAO inspectors talked to four CIOs (DHS, DOD, VA, DOS). The first three were fully aware and happy with the services 18F and USDS provided to their agencies. The State Department’s CIO was not aware enough, but then paddled back and said in follow-up discussions that he had actually been satisfied and involved from the beginning. Nevertheless, GAO found that CIOs need to be fully involved and IT acquisition should not happen behind their back – based on a statement of one CIO who had forgotten about the initial meetings he was involved in.

18F and USDS were criticized by the private sector witnesses for their opaque operations, vague agreements, and that they introduce an agile delivery BPA process that not all vendors and contractors want to follow due to intellectual property right protection. The agile blanket acquisition agreement encourages future contractors to showcase their code and ability to use agile methodologies in order to comply with the draft open source policy and lightweight production cycles. Vendors who don’t want to participate won’t be able to be involved in selected future IT acquisitions. Clearly that raises red flags on all sides, but moves government IT acquisition toward a disruption of the clearly broken IT acquisition process.

Communication and transparency are huge factors in explaining how a young start-up inside of government functions, moves their operations along, and comes up with oversight and accountability procedures and structures. The 18F blog is a valuable resource for a general audience, but I do believe that there is an industry-inherent over-reliance on publishing code and text on the social coding side Github. IT professionals value this resource highly, will find code, reuse it, or help the federal government to improve the code, but I don’t think that the community can expect Members of Congress or GAO inspectors to learn and read Github updates. This is where the bureaucracy meets the digital swat teams and more communication is necessary.

I was dismayed to hear the low profile USDS and 18F were keeping in their testimonies. There is so much more data out there that was already published on non-traditional outlets, such as Medium or blogs, that clearly shows how many millions of dollars the digital teams have saved the agencies they worked with. Why not show the numbers? No one else can show them except for those teams that have actually worked on comparing vendor data with digital service team data. Do it!

Generally, I recognize the statements of the private sector witnesses as a sign that they fear the disruption that 18F and USDS have started. This is a good thing — but needs to be aligned with the expectations and regulations that are there to protect government and its citizens against rogue behavior. As the chair of the oversight committee said: “Y’all should be holding hands and work on this together, because you y’all have the same goal.”


[Will update this post as process some of the statements a bit more]

Award: Emerald Group Publishing Award Citations of Excellence winner 2016

The Emerald Group Publishing has awarded our paper “A Three-Stage Adoption Process for Social Media Use in Government” in Public Administration Review as a  Citations of Excellence winner 2016! Very excited and grateful for all the authors who were willing to cite our paper:

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 3.14.34 PM

Suggestions for a Big Data curriculum for public managers

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 10.49.08 AMThe Journal of Public Affairs Education just published a symposium on Information Technology and Public Affairs Education. The symposium combines articles with a broad range of viewpoints, including IT skills and competencies, challenges adopting new technologies such as GIS, and how these topics can be integrated into the MPA curriculum.

I contributed a paper titled “Big Data in Public Affairs Education”. I found the topic interesting because it is challenging program directors to reconsider the existing MPA curriculum: There is a lot of conversation that MPA programs should focus on emerging topics that are now relevant to the challenges public sector employees face in their day-to-day operations. These topics include the use of Internet-generated data to combine them with administratively collected data and display them on dashboards for real-time decision-making. But also other topics, such as using GIS technology and sensors to make cities ‘smart’. There is usually very little room in the standard curriculum to integrate these topics.

Therefore I decided to review the existing literature, show what is already taught in MPA programs and where the gaps are, and then create a syllabus tailor-made for future public managers. My opinion is that big data is not an IT topic – and it makes little sense to compete with Data Science programs at iSchools or computer science departments. Instead, it is a very real management problem and Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 9.37.43 AMshould be taught using a critical management perspective.

I used Mason’s PAPA model to cover different dimensions of the issue and provided literature and cases that cover 13 different modules for a semester-long course on Big Data Management in the Public Sector.

The journal is open access. The full symposium is available here and my article on Big Data is available here.

Here is the abstract:


Public affairs schools face the challenge of including emergent topics in their curricula to prepare students for the public sector job market. Some such topics reflect advances in the use of information technologies; others reflect updates to industry standards or changing needs of public sector information management professionals. This article focuses on big data that are created through citizens’ use of new technologies and the combination of administratively collected data with online data. Big data require changes in government information management skills, including collection, cleaning, and interpreting unstructured and unfiltered data; real-time decision making based on early signals and patterns that emerge; and new organizational roles and tasks, such as open innovation and change management. This article reviews the existing literature, compares big data requirements in neighboring disciplines, and suggests 13 modules for a big data syllabus that extend Mason’s PAPA model of ethical considerations for the information age.

Please cite as:

Mergel, I. (2016): Big Data in Public Affairs Education, in: Journal of Public Affairs Education, 22(2), pp. 231-248.

IBM Report: Social Intranet – Insights on Managing and Sharing Knowledge Internally

Mergel_IBM_SocialIntranet_GraphicIBM The Center for the Business of Government has published my new practitioner report titled “The Social Intranet – Insights on Managing and Sharing Knowledge Internally”.

The report highlights four different social networking sites (think: Government’s own internal Facebook) that are designed to increase collaboration and knowledge sharing opportunities among public servants. The insights are based on qualitative interviews I conducted with public managers who were in charge of designing the social Intranet sites and a review of the existing press coverage and academic literature on enterprise social technologies.

I included four different cases at different maturity stages and with different audiences and purposes:

  1. The Department of State’s Corridor site
  2. The intelligence community’s iSpace
  3. NASA’s SpaceBook, and
  4. The Government of Canada’s GCconnex site.

The full report is available via IBM’s report page here.

Here are a few media articles that covered the report:

Please let me know if you have any questions!


Reuse of social media information by public officials during crisis situations #smem

Together with my co-author Clayton Wukich who is the lead author on this paper, I just published a paper with the title “Reusing social media information in government” in Government Information Quarterly.


Across policy domains, government agencies evaluate social media content produced by third parties, identify valuable information, and at times reuse information to inform the public. This has the potential to permit a diversity of social media users to be heard in the resulting information networks, but to what extent are agencies relying on private citizens or others outside of the policy domain for message content? In order to examine that question, we analyze the online practices of state-level government agencies. Findings demonstrate that agencies emulate offline content reuse strategies by relying predominately on trusted institutional sources rather than new voices, such as private citizens. Those institutional sources predominantly include other government agencies and nonprofit organizations, and their messages focus mostly on informing and educating the public.

Please cite the article as: Wukich, C., & Mergel, I., Reusing social media information in government, Government Information Quarterly (2016),

My class blog makes the list of 50 must-read federal IT blogs

So proud of my students: FedTech Magazine published its list of the 50 must-read federal IT blogs today and my class blog “Digital Government and Social Media in the Public Sector” made it on the list. Very proud of my students!

Each student has to contribute at least five blogposts during the semester. It’s a difficult task, especially for former (and soon-again) government officials who are trained to write in government memo-style and usually don’t post their opinions or assessment publicly on a blog.

Some of the blogposts replicate our discussions in the class, my lectures, current events, but also introduce tools used in government operations in other countries. The diversity of the topics makes it a very rich experience for the students. They hear voices beyond my own in the classroom and I use the blog to supplement the material I present. Every time, someone mentions a video or a report that was not part of the reading material posted on Blackboard, I encourage the students to go online and share the links or videos on our class blog. I keep adding every new group of students as authors each semester and this eight-year old blog has now grown into a a large community of former students.