Policy Informatics Book Chapter: Knowledge Incubation in the Public Sector – Ines Mergel

Policy Informatics Book Chapter: Knowledge Incubation in the Public Sector – Ines Mergel.

I am participating in a book project that is featured over on the “Policy Informatics” blog. Here is the abstract for my chapter to be published in 2012:

The use of social media applications has become acceptable practice and is adopted by many government agencies. Public sector organizations are experimenting with the use of Facebook pages to represent their agency, Twitter for short updates, Wikis for collaborative co-production of content, YouTube and Flickr to share and incorporate videos and photos, online contests and challenges to access innovative ideas and solutions from government’s diverse audiences, or collaborative practices on virtual worlds such as Second Life. The main strategy of current observable use of social media applications is targeted toward broadcasting and educating government’s audiences – pushing information out, instead of actively integrating innovative knowledge extracted out of interactions on social media channels.

Managing the influx of innovative knowledge that flows into government and between government agencies through social media channels has posed unsolvable challenges for government. It is unclear how knowledge provided by the public is incorporated into new policies, change perceptions of citizens about the degree of responsiveness, accountability or transparency of government, or otherwise impact the effectiveness and efficiency of government’s standard operating procedures. What prevents the incorporation of innovative knowledge into government are two main barriers: First, the current information paradigm formulated in form of press-release style communication missions prevents active incorporation of innovative knowledge. Second, information vetting processes are not designed for bi-directional knowledge flows. This chapter provides insights into effective knowledge incubation mechanisms that emerged in some selected pockets of government. It highlights measurement mechanisms for effective knowledge incubation of each of the social media channels and innovative initiatives are presented.


Using social media for non-traditional forms of scholarship

During the last year I was a frequent guest speaker at different University-wide lecture series to talk about my research findings but also my personal use of social media applications as a scholar. I reported about the diverse social media applications I have tested (and abandoned) in the classroom, but also provided insights into how academics can and are currently using social media applications to communicate their work and tap into relevant networks. As a result of this increased visibility, I was also asked my many research centers at the Maxwell School to help out as an in-house consultant to get them started on their social media activities. Many of them have started with baby steps and most of them are still evaluating the usefulness of social media for their work. I can’t make the business case for each academic here, but I decided to compile my insights here in case other scholars are thinking about applying social media applications in their work as well.

1. Think about the incentives and motivation you have as an academic.

Most of us are trying to get tenure by publishing in academic outlets. Some of us might also want to gain (national and international) recognition as experts, which might in turn lead to increased opportunities on the job market or at our home institutions. The research outputs have to adhere to the standards of a discipline and academic field to advance the existing knowledge.

We might also consider the possibility of increasing our knowledge expert status to gain broader influence by spreading the insights and knowledge we have gained of our (publicly) funded research activities. This can happen of course through citations of our academic publications, but they are most of the time not read by anyone outside of our field, or – worst case – hidden in the library sheltered from access to anyone outside of academia. We might therefore want to think about ways on how to translate our academic findings into short pieces that are accessible to practitioners or the broader public, so that we can start or even be part of ongoing dialogue or can react to upcoming events.

Lastly, given all of these activities we want to avoid any unintended consequences, such as overexerting influence on our subjects by avoiding forceful recommendations. Instead, we might want to be part of the network of researchers, practitioners and the public to be part of the conversation.

2. Define your audience.

In order to understand how to communicate, we need to make an assessment of who our audience is. In a recent research meeting we discussed that the audience is much broader than just our direct peers in our sub-disciplines. Instead, we need to understand who the academic gatekeepers and important journal editors are. Moreover, we might want to understand who the journalists are that are writing about topics that are related to our research. Who are policy makers and practitioners that might want to read (an executive summary of) our findings? And who are important funders and donors that need to know about us and might invite us to participate in RFPs.

3. Selecting the right tools.

Many of these activities need to be accomplished through direct face-to-face interactions at conferences, job talks, speaking engagements, etc. Other ways of knowledge sharing are traditional channels, such as hard (or electronic) copies, or policy briefs that are picked up by the media.

Moreover, we also share knowledge by teaching or participating in conversations on listservers or other platforms.

Social media can help with both processes: I have started to use this WordPress blog back in 2006, when it became clear that I won’t have access to a stable URL for a while. Many of us are moving from one position to another and we need to set up our digital selves over and over again. I decided to link my institutional faculty page to this blog for frequent updates.

Twitter allows you to quickly disseminate research findings by linking to papers, Op-Eds, blog posts, or your homepage. It also helps to connect to other researchers or practitioners who are interested in my research topic. I was lucky enough to follow public conversations on Twitter around the #gov20 hashtag and used insights out of these conversations in the classroom. It also helped me to understand what the network of practitioners I should pay attention to looks like. Moreover, I like to use Twitter as part of my own reflection process and repost my blog posts and interesting articles in my news feed.

Facebook is great for joining academic groups and staying in touch with other academics. Otherwise, I mostly use it to connect to my peers and friends – very infrequently to “brag” about my publications. AND: never to connect to my current or former students. I do invite them to connect to me on LinkedIn and posted a social media policy on my faculty page.

4. Social media strategy

So what would I suggest as your social media strategy? First of all, I feel it’s important to say that you don’t have to be part of the bandwagon if you don’t believe in social media or it is simply not your form of knowledge sharing. Everyone of us usually has a formal faculty page. Make the best out if it and frequently update your CV and publication list.

I felt that an institutional site is limiting – either access is limited to a faculty assistant or it doesn’t allow for infrequent and informal updates such as a blog does. Therefore, I decided to use WordPress. It has very clean and professional looking templates (very different than Blogger from Google, for example). I connected my WordPress blog directly to Facebook. The application “Networked Blogs” automatically posts blog posts to my Facebook feed. I also use the blog link on my Twitter profile as a more accurate description of myself and publish those articles that might contribute to the #gov20 community on Twitter.

A blog is a great way to present short snippets of your ongoing research – and not necessarily the final output, that usually won’t be published until 2-3 years later (given the long review and publication cycles of academic journals). Blogs therefore help to abandon the time and distance constraints that we have based on the limitations of journal publications or yearly conference schedules.

A communication professional recently gave me the tip to use the “Link – Quote – Comment” rule: Blog posts of academics don’t need to be as lengthy as the one you are currently reading. Instead, it is absolutely acceptable to link to an ongoing event, quote how your own research might contribute to it and comment on how you might solve it or how your research might confirm it.

A blog is also a great tool to reduce search costs for journalists who are looking for an expert in a specific academic disciplines and might lead to press coverage or Op-Eds. The comment function allows for ongoing dialogue – although I can promise you that most people read and absorb online content but hardly ever make the effort to comment.

White House crowdsourcing effort to understand their audiences’ social media needs

The White House has recently asked its Facebook fans and Twitter followers to provide feedback on their social media activities. As an example, Twitter users were asked to fill out a short survey (see article in InformationWeek).


After reviewing the feedback, the White House published what they extracted from their fans and followers in a blog post. The GSA New Media Twitter account states that the most surprising finding was that half of the White House followers on Twitter are +50 years old (although the number does not indicate the follower age group, but reflects the age of the respondents only):


Here are the main findings:

Here are a few interesting things we’ve learned:

* 50% of Facebook survey respondents were over the age of 50, with another 35% between 35 and 49. Our Twitter audience is younger, with only 32% of respondents over the age of 50. A combined 62% are over the age of 35.

* 62% reported visiting our Facebook page at least once a week. However, 93% say they read tweets from us at least once a week.

* A much larger percentage of our Twitter survey respondents are active on Facebook (80% of Twitter followers use Facebook weekly) than our Facebook respondents reported being active on Twitter (30% of Facebook fans use Twitter weekly).

* Over 50% of respondents from both surveys reported never using Flickr, LinkedIn and social bookmarking sites (such as Digg, Reddit, and Delicious).

* 64% said that the frequency of our Facebook posts is “About Right,” with 31% wanting more, and only 5% saying that it’s “Too Much.”

* 61% of the Twitter survey respondents report that the frequency of posting is “About Right,” with an additional 35% saying it’s “Not Enough,” and only 4% saying that it’s “Too Much.”

* Over 56% share White House Facebook posts on a monthly basis and 78% have shared at least once. However, only 35% of responders report retweeting @Whitehouse on at least a monthly basis, with only 58% having retweeted us at least once.

* The top requested content includes news-oriented posts (Breaking News, the latest news from the Administration), interactive posts (ways to engage with Administration officials, announcement of live streams, quotes from major speeches as they happen) and the Photo of the Day.

White House Facebook page
White House Twitter account

Academic networking & social media

I recently presented my ideas on why academics should tweet and blog too at a symposium at Syracuse University called “Tenure Track Dream Team”. A little over 140 students who are currently on the job market attended the day – about 8-10 were actively using Twitter and 2-3 tweeted during the conference.

I focused my talk not so much on the technology (“You have to use it!”), instead I decided to think about what kind of networking ties academics need in early stages of their career and what usually drives human interaction. My advice for the students was to get out of their comfort zone: They need diverse network ties, so that they will hear about job opportunities (Granovetter’s research on weak & strong ties); they also need to maintain their local ties for future collaborations, but reach out into their global network, so that people are aware of their work and thereby bridge different parts of their network (Watt’s idea of creating small networks and reach across your local, dense ties).

I suggested to them that social networking services are a way to create, maintain and nurture their academic ties. I am using Twitter to understand who belongs to the network of people writing and talking about my research field. I tap into ongoing conversations and contribute when I have something to say. Twitter is a great resource to test and promote early findings or generally hear about hot and new topics. I also use it to understand how practitioners in my field talk about the issues. I started conversations and consequently was able to invite guest speakers to my classes. Moreover, Twitter is a great tool if you can’t attend a conference – someone will always tweet about what is going on or in which room the best presentations are going on.

In addition, I suggested to the students that blogs are a great way to bridge the 140 letters limitation of Twitter and point people to longer posts and links to publications. I suggested to think about individual blogs or content-area blogs that can be easily maintained by several people who are all working on similar topics. The latter lowers the individual publishing/writing pressure and the workload can easily be divided among several people.

RSS feeds as an integral part of blogs, but also all kind of other frequently updated parts on a website, are a great way for academics to sign up for table of content updates of their favorite journals.

We also had a good conversation about publishing cycles, open commons and publishing rights. Syracuse University has just started an “open commons” for working papers called “SURFACE” that shapes up to be a great vehicle to publish early results.

Here are my slides:

Update: Link to the video with my keynote address titled “Social Media for Prospective Faculty: Why Academics Should Blog and Tweet, Too!

Govt 2.0: From Tools to Policy to Convergence (crossposting)

Crossposted from Bill Greeves’ blog:

As I think back over the past two years, specifically with my involvement in the world of Government 2.0, I can’t help but think its adoption has coalesced into three phases. Nearly all of us have experienced some aspect of Phase I: Tools. What is Government 2.0? How does Twitter work? What good is Facebook? Phase I is very hands-on and experiential. It consists of learning the technologies that provide a foundation for Govt2.0 adoption. Many of the 2.0 movers and shakers might consider Phase I old news. But the truth is that when you look at government organizations as whole, particularly those of us at the local level, most are still in this phase – conducting experiments, discussing with peers, working on buy-in from our organizations, etc.

A small percentage of us have taken the next big step to Phase II: Policy. Phase II, which I highlighted in an entry a few months back, is focused on the larger, more extensive issue of the “how” of government 2.0. The effective policies cover such delicate topics as ownership, legal responsibilities, message consistency, etc. It answers sometimes difficult questions. Who will manage these tools? What can we tolerate in terms of two-way communication and feedback? Which tools will we deploy? The numbers of social media “policies” that address these issues continue to expand at a slow but steady rate.

This brings us to the relatively uncharted waters of Phase III: Convergence – a merger of these tools and concepts with our larger organizational strategy. How do we keep the momentum going? What’s next for us if we want to truly institutionalize the use of not just the tools but more importantly the concepts and the potential they represent, such as collaboration, open government and knowledge management? How do we take that next step to integrate these tools into our organizations’ larger communications or development strategy? These are all excellent questions. And no, I don’t know the answers…yet.

That’s where you come in! Together with Ines Mergel, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University (and fellow MuniGover!), I’d like to request your participation in a very brief online survey to help us develop some empirical data on this very subject. Once we can get a snapshot of where we are today, we intend to develop some analysis on where the gaps are and how we can overcome them.

When completed, we plan to do a seminar to review and discuss the results with anyone interested. I expect that we’ll also be able to share some best practices and lessons learned from the experience that will likely also help you take your own organization to the next level of engagement and implementation.

So please, take a moment to answer these few simple questions – share your pain, share your success!


Government 2.0 enthusiasts worth following on Twitter

Cross-posting on “Shaping Network Society” blog:

I am a Twitter enthusiast and as one of those people who do spend a lot of time online, I noticed that Twitter is one of the information channels, that help me get access to information, that is otherwise not on my radar screen or I would not get access to.

Twitter – for me personally as a Government 2.0 researcher – therefore has the potential to bridge structural holes in the communication and information structure that I have built over the years.  In addition, I noticed that it is expanding my attention network of a) topics I should pay attention to, and b) people and their public conversation streams that are interesting to know.  In a new information paradigm of the US government to move from a need to know to a need to share strategy, I thought I would share a few interesting people whose information and conversation who might be interesting to listen in to.

Without trying to convince anyone of the power of public conversations happening on Twitter, I put together a list of people and organizations that might have helpful information for anyone interested in Web 2.0 in government:

@timoreilly: Tim O’Reilly is the found and CEO of O’Reilly Media, traditionally known for publishing IT-related books, is now a supporter of Government 2.0 and hosts conferences on the topic. Definitely worth following -> I learned a LOT!

@mcaffee: Andrew McAffee, a former professor at Harvard Business School, has coined the term Enterprise 2.0. Andy addresses corporate but also general Web 2.0 problems and is asking questions using the hashtag #andyasks -> add the tag to the new search function, so that you can revisit the information purring in every few days.

If you like tweets from space live from the repair team of the Hubble telescope, space astronaut Mike Massimino is tweeting his observations directly from the space shuttle: @Astro_Mike. NASA itself was one of the first twitter users within the US federal government: @NASA.

As the swine flu (H1N1) developed and the threat level has increased to a pandemic disease, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US has adopted a comprehensive Web 2.0 approach to reach potential groups that are at risk at the virtual locations they might be frequenting the most. I posted a blog entry on this on my blog with an overview of tools used. On Twitter: @CDCemergency).

There are tons of government agencies present on Twitter and BearingPoint has put together a huge list that can be found here:

I have selected a few government agencies I am following and find helpful:
–    Department of State: Official Blog of the U.S. Department of State @dipnote
–    White House @whitehouse
–    US Army @USArmy
–    Tweet Congress: Aggregator of tweets from Members of Congress @tweetcongress
–    USA.gov – the one-stop shopping portal of the US Government: @usagov
–    Transportation Security Administration (TSA): @tsablogteam

In addition, the tweets of government-related IT publications and organizations might be helpful to learn about ongoing initiatives and news:
–    One Laptop Per Child @olpc
–    Govdigest @govdigest and DotGov @dotgov are compiling up to date information and are retweeting information from other accounts, spreading the word to their followers and multiplying the attention base.
–    UN Secretary general @secgen is using Twitter to as an online calendar, listing whom he is meeting with each day.
–    GovWik
–    Government Technology Magazine

As I am located in the US, this post and my list of favorite Web 2.0 people is very much US-centric. Please leave your suggestions for additional Twitter accounts in the comments!

Follow me on Twitter: @inesmergel

White House 2.0

The White House blog announced the “White House 2.0” initiatve today as a response to Obama’s call to meet the new challenges not with “old habits and stale thinking”.

Here is a list of the 2.0 tools they are using to stay in contact with citizens (aka fans, followers and friends):