USDOT in the social media slow lane

photo by freephotouk

photo by freephotouk

The U.S. Department of Transportation is officially nowhere to be found in social media circles, but DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is everywhere, including Facebook, Twitter and Flickr (no Creative Commons). DOT does have an official YouTube channel, but most of the recent videos include LaHood in his “On the Go” video chat series.

While I’m all for high-level U.S. government officials engaging with citizens via social media, LaHood, a former seven-term politician prior to becoming Transportation Secretary, still appears to be on the campaign trail, making his persona the prime focus for the entire department. In fact, LaHood is the only Cabinet member to follow this practice. With the exception of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Facebook page being promoted on ED’s homepage (they do have an official Facebook page), no other agency follows this protocol.

Here’s why DOT is short-sighted in its approach to social media:

  1. No long-term strategy: When LaHood leaves, presumably the accounts go with him. Even if they’re the property of the U.S. Government, the branding transition back as official DOT accounts will be cumbersome. Basically, the next communications/social media department will start from scratch.
  2. No one knows Ray LaHood: With all due respect, he seems like a great guy, but no one outside of Washington, DC, knows who heads what agency. Everyone, however, knows what DOT is.
  3. It comes off as self-serving: When the agency itself doesn’t have social media accounts, but the Secretary does, the impression is that he’s still running for office or using his position to build influence for future gain.

Hopefully LaHood and DOT’s communications team can change lanes quickly and embrace a more comprehensive and sustainable social media strategy. Citizens (and taxpayers) deserve a more refined, strategic approach to outreach.

If not, does AAA service social media?

Social Congress and the 21st century legislator

Brad Fitch, Congressional Management Foundation

Brad Fitch, Congressional Management Foundation

How is it possible, in the 21st century, that I can Skype with friends in China, keep up with my friends across the country via Facebook and exchange messages with the CEO of a startup I admire on Twitter, but yet when I try to communicate with my members of Congress, it seems like everything I do is swallowed up by the black abyss?

What? Maybe I should try tweeting to Senator Boxer, commenting on Rep. Nancy Pelosi‘s Facebook page or emailing Assemblymember Tom Ammiano? Come on, you’re joking, right? Doesn’t everyone in Congress think the Internet is a series of tubes?

Well, turns out I’m wrong. Not only is Congress up on their social media skills, but according to Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation:

Nearly 2/3 of staff surveyed (64%) think Facebook is an important way to understand constituents’ views and nearly 3/4 (74%) think it is important for communicating their Members’ views.

Fitch talked about how Capitol Hill perceives and uses social media at a #SocialCongress meetup Monday in San Francisco. He had some good news, bad news and interesting perspectives. (The full report will be released on July 26th.)

Bad news first: staffers agree that email and the Internet have made it easier for citizens to take part in public policy, but nearly 2/3 feel like they’ve reduced the quality of the messages they send, and less than half think that email and the Internet have increased citizen understanding of what actually happens in D.C. In other words, to quote Popvox CEO Marci Harris, “The internet has increased civic participation and lawmaker accountability but has not necessarily led to a more informed constituency.”

Great, now we have uninformed people writing to Congress. How does that possibly help our democracy? Well, as Thomas Jefferson said, “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” In 2005, CMF found that “Congress received four times more communications in 2004 than in 1995 – all of the increase from Internet-based communications,” and a 2008 survey by CMF and Zogby found that “43 percent of Americans who had contacted Congress used online methods to do so, more than twice the percentage that had used postal mail or the telephone.”

In this case, the good news and the bad news is kind of a mobius strip: more people are communicating with their elected officials. Those people may not be as well-informed as said elected officials hope them to be, however, the saying “the medium is the message” is more appropriate than ever when talking about the Internet. Senior managers and communications staffers on the Hill across the board said social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were vital to both communicating the Member’s views and understanding what constituents want. The key is doing more than just liking a status update, or leaving one-word comments on a link. To make an impact on your member of Congress, you have to discuss the impact of a bill on your state or district, give a reason for your support or opposition, or tell a story.

Gov 2.0 champion Tim O’Reilly asked the question that was on the minds of all the technologists in the room:

“It’s not just about reaching Congress,” he said, “but can we use technology to make Congress smarter? People in government are ready, they want to figure it out. We have to help them be more responsive, to be the government we wish we had.”

Are the reasons for using Twitter different across party lines?

TwitterThis post is meant to summarize a recent and well-publicized study of ours for those in the Gov 2.0 community who are interested in the key results, but do not have the time to read the paper.

It has been well documented that Republicans have a greater affinity to Twitter; despite the leading Twitter user being President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Our study asks: are the reasons for using Twitter different across party lines?

Data from the Twitter adoption decisions of the 111th House of Representatives suggests “yes.” Based on an empirical method that is used to back out latent preferences associated with adopting Twitter, the analysis yields the following:

1. Republicans who have sponsored a large number of bills are the most likely to adopt Twitter, while Democrats who have the strongest electoral support (from 2008’s election) are the most likely. But so what?

2. Well, the number of bills and the 2008 electoral support proxy for the perceived benefits associated with outreach and transparency, respectively.

a. Outreach operates as a means to diffuse information that works to a politician’s advantage, with the ultimate goal of (perhaps) getting bills passed. This advantage is especially useful if by using Twitter, a politician can generate public support for contentious policies, which in turn, yields support from ideological rivals they interact with – who also use Twitter. Our data seems to support this story, as Republicans who have sponsored a large number of bills and belong to committees with a lot of fellow Democrat Twitter adopters are the most likely to adopt.

b. Transparency is the conscience act of “being honest.” Politicians who have strong constituent support would conceivably have the most to lose by failing to maintain the public’s trust. However, politicians who have been in office for a number of years have most likely developed some level of trust, and are therefore less inclined to make conscience displays of transparency, like adopting Twitter. Our data seems to support this story, as Democrats who have the strongest electoral support and the least number of years in office are the most likely to adopt Twitter.

Outreach and transparency are both valuable to a healthy democracy, and to some extent, it is re-assuring that Twitter use is motivated by both reasons. An interesting counter-factual situation would be if the Republicans were the majority party. We may therefore ask in that situation: Is the desire to reach out to (opposing) voters strongest for “losing” parties? Our study certainly hints that Republicans are not only motivated to use Twitter as a means to reach out to their own followers, but also to Democrats, as they are more likely to use Twitter in cases where their district was overwhelmingly in favor President Barack Obama.

All-in-all, it would seem like Twitter is good for the whole Gov 2.0 idea. If Republicans are using Twitter as a means for outreach, then more bills may be passed (note: this has yet to be tested empirically, and still remains an open question for researchers). If Democrats are using Twitter as a means for transparency, then the public benefits from the stronger sense of accountability. Sounds like a more productive government to us.

Why Twitter’s government outreach is a big win for the Gov 2.0 movement

TwitterFor at least that past two years, a tiny yet fast-growing group of folks who call themselves “Gov 2.0 advocates” has worked tirelessly to spread a message that emerging technologies, low-cost communications and digital culture can reshape government to be more collaborative, transparent, efficient and connected to its citizens.

We have advocated for humanizing government, and for using new tools to bring more citizens into the deliberative process and to help shape the future of both our democracy and the bureaucracy. One of the main tools for the Gov 2.0 movement has been social media, as activists and line workers join technologists and political reformers in calling for more open communication between officials and agencies and the public they represent and serve.

Last week, Government 2.0 – a term first used by Bill Eggers in his 2005 e-gov-focused book of the same name, and that has become almost synonymous with Web 2.0 as developers have turned on to the promise of government-brokered data troves and universal open standards – won a significant victory. Twitter, the popular social media messaging service that has serves as a platform for thousands of startups using its architecture and user base, announced that it is hiring for its first field office, focused on the government sector.

Twitter goes to DC

Twitter’s job posting and further remarks by corporate spokesman Sean Garrett explain the DC-based position as the first step towards a public affairs unit, with support for innovative and engaging uses of Twitter in politics and policymaking. A new blog by Garrett and his team has since March been highlighting interesting government uses of the platform, from San Francisco’s integration of Twitter and 311 non-emergency service requests, to construction updates and border crossing wait times by tweet, to the British Prime Minister’s communications usage.

Twitter, thanks to millions of active and aggressive content-sharers and innovators around the world, has transformative powers. Conan O’Brien took to the service to recreate himself after losing his show, creating numerous accounts, rallying his fan base and using the free and frenetic publicity it to launch a comedy tour. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert, after panning Twitter as trite, has become one of its staunchest advocates, using it to deliver and amplify commentary on everything from film to politics to sport and humanism. Newark Mayor Corey Booker has used it to spread a hands-on philosophy of hope far beyond his New Jersey township.

Twitter grows due to user innovations

Twitter’s growth and popular features have often evolved from the minds and whims of its user base, from the intensely popular “retweet” convention for repeating and affirming others’ messages, to the hashtag form of semantic tagging in its short messages, to Follow Friday, the day that tweeps around the world recognize friends and favorites.

Government 2.0 – which first hit Twitter’s mainstream of “trending topics” during a March 16, 2009, pilot broadcast of the Gov 2.0 Radio podcast including govies, contractors and consultants calling in from South by Southwest and their DC-area homes – is now set to join the legacy of user-driven Twitter conventions. The first Twitter office outside of San Francisco will help connect politicians with their constituents and agencies with the public. It will help serve an engaged and innovative Government 2.0 movement, while that movement continues to shape and grow Twitter’s utility.

Government 2.0 and the use of social media for politics and public service are still in their infancy, but it’s safe to say that Twitter’s new focus on this arena is a milestone of which we can be proud.


Gov 2.0 Radio: Engaging app developers with government data


Engaging app developers with government data: A discussion with Mark Headd, an app developer and former govie, about civic apps. Headd explains Open311 and accessing government services and lowering costs using Twitter, and gives ideas on how to engage developers around government civic apps contests.



Guide to using Twitter

Tweet itGadi Ben-Yehuda, Social Media Director for the Center for the Business of Government, shares his insights into how government can better leverage Twitter.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is a ‘micro-blogging’ platform. Twitter accounts are free and posts consist of 140 characters that may (but don’t have to) contain links, address other Twitter users and be part of ongoing conversations that are tracked with the pound sign (#).

Why join Twitter?

There are distinct reasons to follow certain people and conversations on Twitter and then to begin or join conversations. Reasons to follow people and conversations include:

  1. Let human beings (rather than an algorithm) find news relevant to your interests;
  2. See what people are talking about and how they are discussing it;
  3. Find people who are likely to be interested in your publication; and/or
  4. Jumpstart a relationship that you plan to initiate in real life.

Reasons to begin your own conversations or join those already in progress include:

  1. Help constituents find your own blog posts or multimedia assets;
  2. Deliver meaningful, but brief updates to your audience;
  3. Help determine the course of a conversation through language and links; and/or
  4. Keep yourself invested in the conversation among its most active participants

How to tweet?

Once you establish your Twitter account, you may begin tweeting. On the top of the Twitter home screen, there is a text box into which you enter messages.

Technical Aspects of Tweeting


A tweet may be no more than 140 characters. It’s a good idea to limit yourself to 140 characters minus four more than your username so that others may retweet your messages without losing words I.e. if your handle is ‘Jsmith’ (six characters) limit yourself to 130 characters — 140-6-4.


A hashtag is a ‘#’ placed in front of a word or string of letters. Hashtags are developed spontaneously by users and allow people to search for them and follow ongoing conversations. Examples of hashtags include #energy, #gov20, and #recovery. Take care, however, not to use ambiguous hashtags; visit and read the tweets in which your hashtag appears to get a good sense for its relevance/appropriateness.


Placing a username in a post is akin to using a hashtag. You mark a name by place an “@” before someone’s Twitter handle. Doing this links a user’s name to their profile, so that readers can click on it and go to that user’s twitter feed. It also makes your tweet appear within that user’s twitter feed and on people’s twitter feeds if they have a search running for that person’s name.

It’s generally considered good manners to alert a fellow Twitterer when you mention them.


Just read @GBYehuda’s Twitter guide. Great #gov20 resource.

Content Aspects

Twitter is an excellent digital channel for the following activities:

  • Publicizing your blog content: tweeting about your blog post, using hashtags, including a shortened link ( or, as example). Shortening links is automatic in applications like Tweetdeck, or you can go to or and enter a URL to be shortened.
  • Augmenting your blog content: tweets can be added to your blog to keep your content up-to-the-minute fresh. They can also keep your readers engaged in your conversation by more regular updates than you have time to add to the blog per se.
  • Calling out followers: tweets that include usernames can be used to pull people into your conversation, thus creating a relationship and a dialogue that may be more interesting and fruitful than a monologue.
  • Linking to/commenting on relevant content: tweeting about others’ posts, articles, and other assets as they are published online makes you a resource for your followers and a good colleague to the authors whose work you distribute.

How to build a following

Once youve joined Twitter and started writing posts, you should start to build a following. It takes time to build a significant following and many people will find you through retweets, your blog (or other publications), or other organic means beyond your control. There are some actions you can take, however, to accelerate the growth of your readership.

  • Follow people who are likely to want to follow you. This is an extension of the adage ‘If you want a friend, be one.’ Look for the people who are engaged in the conversation in which you are participating and follow them. Look through their follower lists and follow all the people there who are also participating in that conversation. Be generous with your follower lists, erring on the side of inclusion. People are more likely to investigate following someone who is following them than they are to follow someone based only on hashtags and retweets.
  • Reference people who are likely to want to follow you. Be generous with your use of ‘@’ signs to reference other twitterers. Retweet others’ posts if they are relevant and if you think your network should know about them. If you are commenting on a blog post, ascertain if the author is on Twitter, and if so, reference her in your tweet. If you have written a blog post about someone, include their Twitter handle in your tweet about the post.
  • Use appropriate hashtags. People follow conversations as well as people. By marking your posts with appropriate hashtags, you will both attract more followers and be read by people who are not necessarily following all your tweets.
  • Tweet meaningfully and often. People are more likely to follow writers who provide high-value content and do so frequently.
  • Include your Twitter handle in all digital communications. People are more likely to follow you if they know you’re on Twitter. Include your Twitter handle in your emails, post it on your blog, write it on your business card, and put it in the signature of essays that you publish online. Anywhere that you might include your email address, you should also include your Twitter handle.

Use TweetDeck

If you are successful at building an audience, and if you want to follow specific conversations, you should use Twitter as a platform and TweetDeck as your interface. Set up columns that track conversations by hashtag (for example, I follow ‘#gov20’ all the time and when a conference is in session, will follow that specific hashtag, e.g. ‘#g2e,’ ‘#pdf10,’ and ‘#irmco’) and columns that track your highest-value followers by topic (for example, I have a column for technologists, another for social media/communications, and another for government employees).

Apart of splitting your Twitter feed into higher signal-to-noise streams, TweetDeck can also present other social media streams, like FaceBook and LinkedIn, but that’s really more gravy.

Tweeters Twitter should consider for its new government gig

TwitterThe Beltway is buzzing about Twitter’s new Government Liaison gig, and the excitement is shaking DC like a California earthquake. The aftershock has produced a smart post by Andrew Wilson (Top 10 Requests for the New Government Liaison at Twitter) that offers great ideas for Twitter as they comb through a stack of resumes bigger than a GPO print job.

Here’s the gist of the job description:

Twitter is looking for an experienced, entreprenurial person to make Twitter better for policymakers, political organizations and government officials and agencies. You’ll be our first D.C. -based employee and the closest point of contact with a variety of important people and organizations looking to get the most out of Twitter on both strategic and highly tactical levels. You’ll help Twitter understand what we can do to better serve candidates and policymakers across party and geographical lines. You’ll support policymakers use of Twitter to help them communicate and interact with their constituents and the world. You’ll work with nearly every group at the company and at every level to pursue your vision for how Twitter ought to be. You’ll help set the culture and approach of a fledgling public policy department and be an important part of our very small company.

There are a number of well-qualified people for this position, and by no means am I endorsing or know whether the following are interested, but as personal campaigns pop up and resumes fly, here’s a few folks Twitter might want to consider:

Adriel HamptonAdriel Hampton (@adrielhampton) is an avid Twitter contributor and influential Gov 2.0 tweeter, both in the context of his role as host of Gov 2.0 Radio, but also as a public servant for the City of San Francisco. He knows how to use Twitter both in a hands-on government capacity at the local level as well as in a political campaign (see his recent GovFresh post Can Twitter reimagine democracy?). While he currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m sure he’d be more than willing to do so for Twitter.

Steve Lunceford (@dslunceford) is the founder of GovTwit, the world’s largest government Twitter directory. He’s enthusiastically built GovTwit over the past few years into a central tool for cataloging government Twitter accounts, both at the state and local level. Lunceford is well-regarded and well-connected within DC. See also his recent critical but constructive post, A verified disappointment: how Twitter handles government accounts.

Wayne Moses BurkeWayne Moses Burke (@wmburke) is the founder of Open Forum Foundation and GovLuv, the Twitter app that helps citizens connect with government. Burke is one of the few, perhaps only, people in DC who has helped build a real (and valuable) government Twitter application. He’s well-regarded within DC and passionate about changing the way government connects with citizens.

Peter SlutskyPeter Slutsky (@pslutsky) is currently Ning‘s Strategic Relationships Manager and based in DC. Working in DC for a Silicon Valley-based tech company, Slutsky will most likely be able to manage the cultural divide and leverage his already established connections with key people within government. With Ning going through growing pains, this might be a nice transition for him.

Thoughts on who else might be the right person for the job?

Can Twitter reimagine democracy?

Twitter’s plan to hire a government liaison (its first DC employee) has set off a a tweetstorm from the U.S. Capitol to London to Tokyo, and likely a flood of resumes into the Web 2.0 firm’s SoMa offices. Some of the Gov 2.0 community’s brightest have already offered great suggestions for how this new Twitter position can serve official government social media, and, with Facebook’s recent stumbles, the lighter social network may have a real opening here.I look forward to commenting and continuing the discussion on Twitter and on friend’s blogs (check out the hashtag #twitgov), but here I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the political side of the equation.

In 2009, I ran for House of Representatives in a crowded special election in the San Francisco East Bay. I had experience covering politics and government for the San Francisco Examiner and a few years of local government service under my belt, and a burning vision of the potential for social media and collaboration tools to change American politics and governance.

I launched my campaign in the dead of night, sending scores of private direct messages (by hand) to my most influential Twitter connections – mostly apolitical social media rock stars like Kim Sherrell and Calvin Lee – with a link to a blog post announcing my candidacy. The next morning, enough of my connections tweeted the post out publicly that the news quickly spread around the nation. By lunchtime, I was fielding calls from Democratic Party operatives and political Web publications from DC to San Francisco.

I made Politico and CQ Politics and kicked off what was to become a heated contest between five Democrats in a left-leaning district. I went on to fizzle, because while I knew media, I didn’t know a lick about fundraising or building a local political organization in the few short months before the election. Former Lt. Governor John Garamendi blew out the field, beating me by about 100-to-1.

However, I interacted with hundreds of people on Twitter during the campaign, tweeting thousands of times. On a microscopic budget, my campaign generated dozens of stories in the traditional press and I participated in a dozen debates with the region’s top politicians. Twitter also put me on the national stage and brought me several of my core volunteers, including an incredibly talented graphic designer and editing help from social media friends in New York and Washington state. It established scores of off and online relationships that remain valuable today.

It is my firm belief that what I did will be repeated more and more successfully over the next few election cycles, by better and better grassroots candidates, until we see social media-fueled campaigns beat the traditional. (One of Congressman Garamendi’s aides mentioned after the campaign that the boss had been concerned that my Twitter presence was bigger than his; each Democratic candidate in the field adopted a Twitter account, although only Garamendi and I kept ours up after the campaign.)

I used other tools, too – MixedInk, NationBuilder, Ning, WordPress, Google Docs and Facebook – but Twitter stood out, turning my mobile phone into full-fledged media operation and national sounding board.

This is a long way of saying that social media is changing the game. And Twitter has the potential to push that change along, reimagining grassroots democracy around the world.

The company’s active move into the world of government and politics is a big deal, and I hope it’s a great success. Twitter has a fairly high learning curve (I still see officials starting general audience messages with an @ ID sign, for example) and training politicians on its effective use is imperative to turning them on to its possibilities.

Much of improvement in gov/political uses will be driven by listening to the Twitter community, and I hope folks will leave suggestions here. A few of mine:

Suggested user list

There has been huge controversy around the SUL, which has helped a select group of Twitter users, including prominent politicians, quickly amass followings of a million or more. Since traditional media often rank candidate strength by number of followers (yeah, didn’t work for me ;), this kind of favoritism has real world political impact. But, like public financing, there is huge potential for the SUL to invigorate grassroots campaigns. What if instead of a employee-blessed suggestion list, Twitter created a political category that tied politicians to their own regions and added them only after meeting minimum and transparent social media influence marks? Any politician that could rally a threshold of local support could then benefit from enhanced exposure among the larger Twitter community.

Social portals

Twitter, with its light infrastructure and geo-location capabilities, could become the backbone of election sites and official gov portals, bringing social networking to more staid government and political sites and using universal log-ins to unlock additional features on candidate and constituent-services sites.

Transparent engagement metrics

From my own experience, the Twitter community craves and rewards engagement. As Twitter builds out its usage metrics, what if it it created a prominent dashboard that candidates could use and voters and newspapers could track?

These are just a few thoughts and personal reflections. I hope you’ll engage in the discussion about the future of Twitter for politics and government.

Can Twitter reimagine democracy?

A sound, simple government Twitter follow policy

Because there isn’t a consistent strategy around government Twitter follow lists, I’ve been thinking more about how agencies and municipalities can better leverage this feature to support citizens.

Some government agencies/municipals follow only related agencies and departments within the agency, as well as elected leaders and appointed executive officials. Others appear to follow whomever might be affiliated with the person managing the account or, worse, whomever follows them. Following everyone that follows you isn’t scalable and could potentially be perceived as an endorsement of that person or company’s product and services.

Government should think of Twitter follow lists as an opportunity to highlight ‘Related’ services or provide a direct connection to its leaders. Use it as a way to help citizens understand who’s in charge of your agency or municipal and all the services you provide.

If you’re responsible for your agency or municipal Twitter account, here are some suggestions:

  • Follow your agency/municipal appointed/elected leaders.
  • Follow departments within your agency or under your municipality.
  • Follow related agencies.

Your follow list is an excellent opportunity to eliminate the perception that government is one big bureaucratic nightmare. If someone is on there that doesn’t help the common citizen, it’s a good idea to un-follow them as soon as possible.

Your constituents will appreciate it.

There’s a LocalGovChat for that

LocalGovChat (@localgovchat) is a weekly Twitter chat to help local government communicators connect and learn from one another. Chats are held Wednesdays from 9-10 p.m. EST.

LocalGovChat is managed by Mike Rupert (@rupertmike) and Amy Taylor (@nomeatballs).

“We want to start what we hope to be an ongoing, open dialogue between local government communicators – public relations, community outreach, webmasters, graphic designers – in hopes of sharing ideas, our successes and our failures,” said Rupert.

How it works:

1. Follow the #localgovchat hashtag Twitter stream every Wednesday from 9-10 p.m. EST.
2. Tag your tweets with #localgovchat if you have comments or questions.