Best in SF government social media

The City of San Francisco over the last two years has aggressively embraced social media for marketing of government programs and initiatives, citizen engagement, and two-way communications. An important task for the next mayor is not only to preserve the vibrant ecosystem left by one of the U.S.’s most tech-savvy mayors, but to continue to advance government innovation in one of the world’s most tech-savvy cities.

Let’s take a quick look at some of San Francisco’s crowning social media achievements, with an eye for growth:


More than 50 SF agencies and officials use Twitter for citizen engagement and government marketing, not including political accounts. While none approaches the 1.3 million followers of the former mayor, several of the accounts – including those of citywide officeholders and popular city museums – have several thousand followers each. The robust official Twitter activity makes San Francisco one of the top municipalities in the world for microblogging – it even takes service requests by tweet. The City could take its Twitter use to the next level through improved integration with official City websites and listening campaigns aimed at identifying and responding to public concerns.

Contests and Video

SF’s Public Utilities Commission created a positive stir around its goals of getting more residents to drink tap water and use reusable bottles with its “I Love SF Water” YouTube campaign. Here’s the winning entry:

SF agencies have slowly embraced social media-fueled contests to generate interest in their missions, and can take it up a notch through use of location-based apps and creation of a universal template and aggregation site for official contests, similar to the U.S. GSA’s Challenge.gov.

The former mayor was known for marathon YouTube videos, and one mayoral candidate has proposed YouTube for submitting official public comments. Including on-the-record video and text commenting is status quo technology for the City’s current public meeting webstreaming – it just takes a leader willing to turn it on.

Facebook and 311

311 FacebookThe City’s Facebook page is a monster with more than a quarter millions fans and heavy interaction from fans of our beautiful metropolis. In a recent addition, it includes on-site integration with SF 311, the City’s central agency responsible for taking and processing non-emergency service requests. Creating a citywide social media best-practices sharing forum and neighborhood-oriented trainings on multi-media access to City services would leverage this Facebook clout to enhance other social media efforts. The City might also consider allowing direct access to expert staff through Facebook, similar to the efforts of the U.S. Geographical Survey.

Zuck, Biz, Caterina pitch Code for America Fellows program to developers

In a new public service announcement from Code for America, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Biz Stone and Flickr/Hunch founder Caterina Fake pitch Code for America’s Fellows program, which aims to recruit developers and designers for public service-oriented development projects. The spot also features CfA Executive Director Jen Pahlka, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and CfA Board member Tim O’Reilly.

From CfA on the Fellows Program (application here):

If you’re a developer, designer, or product manager with a desire for public service, this is your opportunity to build the next generation of Gov 2.0 apps for city governments. By leveraging your unique skill set, you will bring improved access to information and government accountability to the local level, and you will change the way citizens and cities work together.

CfA ‘What if …?” PSA:

Tim O’Reilly interviews Jen Pahlka:

Gov 2.0 guide to Gov 2.0 Hero Day

I heart Gov 2.0 HeroesGov 2.0 Hero Day is held annually on June 15 to celebrate citizens inside and outside government who go above and beyond the call of duty and creatively leverage technology to build a more open, transparent and collaborative democracy. These dedicated citizens are commonly referred to as Gov 2.0 Heroes.

Discussing Gov 2.0 Hero Day on Federal News Radio with Chris Dorobek:




  • Share your Gov 2.0 Hero stories, videos, photos, links on the Gov 2.0 Hero Day Facebook Page.
  • Write a blog post (‘My Gov 2.0 Heroes’) or feature your heroes, why they inspire you, what others should know about their work and how you can help them.
  • Tweet your Gov 2.0 Heroes on Twitter with the hashtag #gov20heroday.
  • Get creative!

The politics of open government free speech

I occasionally post critical comments when government is operating outside my definition of ‘open’ and only do so when I believe it’s important for the community at large to consider it in context of their own actions. By and large, GovFresh posts are positive, educational and, at times, congratulatory pieces that highly offset the critiques.

What’s interesting about the critical posts is that they never get much openly shared traction. You don’t see high-volume tweets or Facebook ‘Likes,’ especially when it concerns large, federal bureaucracies.

When reviewing traffic analytics on these posts, the pageviews and unique visitors traction is noticeably different than what you would expect related to social network ‘chatter.’ This is interesting, not only because it affirms email’s influence as a content sharing mechanism, but more importantly, the critiques manage to make the rounds despite the appearance otherwise. People ‘feel’ it, but won’t say it.

This is understandable. Whether you’re a government employee or contractor, the last thing you want to do is upset the 8 million pound gorilla. Not only may people in the agency be your friends, but they also hold the purse strings to significant business opportunities.

While I’m not naive, it does concern me there can’t be an open discussion about what is wrong with certain aspects of the way government does business. It’s as if we’ve scratched the surface, and that’s as far as we’re willing to go. It’s fine to superficially engage with technology and transparency leaders, deploy Web 2.0 tools and open source software, but when it comes to acknowledging the contrarian, ‘open’ suddenly becomes ‘closed.’

If you consider yourself an open government advocate or practitioner, and these critiques incense you, you can do one of two things. Either do something about it, address it publicly and move on or disregard it completely and revert back to business as usual.

Open government is the former. It’s an ideal and opportunity to fundamentally change the way government works, and if you’re incensed by it and don’t want to engage, look in the mirror and ask yourself this: ‘Am I honestly building a better government?’

I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues inside the Beltway, and they acknowledge the dynamics. People appreciate the perspective, but they won’t openly express it.

This type of culture leads me to ask myself, “Is there a place for something like GovFresh to exist and sustainably maintain itself? Will government contractors or service providers support a blog or news site that at times is critical of its customer? Does GovFresh have to choose between watchdog or ‘play inside Beltway?’ Can you have it both ways?”

Maybe I’m too idealistic or naive to think open government means ‘open government.’ As democracy matures into a more transparent, collaborative and participatory role, I hope more people, be it government employees or contractors, feel comfortable about publicly expressing their concerns without being chastised or ostracized. I hope the leaders of these institutions, especially government, openly engage with the criticisms and set an example for others, including industry, that’s it’s OK to do the same.

If anyone can’t respect that, perhaps I’m overly-idealistic or maybe, instead of ‘two steps forward, one step back,’ we never fundamentally left square one.

Social media in government is like riding a bike

When my son turned three, we got him a bike with training wheels. He did quite well, but when it came time to take off those training wheels, he violently refused. Even a three year-old knew that going from four wheels down to two would increase his chances of falling from zero to incredibly high. That’s because training wheels aren’t actually training wheels. They’re impeding wheels. They rob you of the chance to learn balance, which is the most important lesson in riding a bike. It doesn’t matter how good you can pedal or steer, you have little chance of success if you can’t balance.

So, my genius wife had the idea of getting a small bike with no pedals. You push off and glide along, then plant your feet when it gets too wobbly. Since it was low to the ground, my three year-old had no fear trying it out, and by the third day, was very proficient at gliding. He learned how to balance. Shortly after, we got him on a real bike without training wheels, and he took off like he’s been riding all along.

Why do I tell this story? Because I think government can greatly benefit from a “small glider bike” when first taking on social media. Too many agencies are reluctant to try not just because they’re afraid of falling, but because some mistakes lead to severe consequences.

So why not deploy a “transition” tool so the agency can learn how to “balance” before going public? Experiment privately within your agency; don’t open it up until you figure out how to ride proficiently.

Both Twitter and Facebook have settings to create private accounts/groups. Invite your agency (try getting as many people as you can, especially your skeptics) to participate and learn how to leverage these tools to add value to your customers. There are so many facets that take time to balance, such as:

  • frequency of posts
  • tone of content
  • when to respond to inquiries
  • when to delete a comment
  • how much time to spend monitoring
  • what types of information add value
  • when to use multimedia
  • how to minimize unintended consequences
  • how to write in 140 characters (short messages apply to Facebook as well)
  • when to promote other resources
  • how to train your personnel

And on and on. Yes, it’s okay to stumble sometimes, and chances are you will make mistakes. But you can cheat the learning curve by stumbling privately and finding that balance before you go public.

A different look at open government participation

It’s been over a year, and, the evolution of Open Government is in full swing, including the definition of what Open Government is. We all pretty much agree that that OG is about transparency, participation and collaboration, but, what seems to be missing is context. Transparent to who? Participate in what? Collaborate to solve? So far, most of the efforts of the OG community have been focused on raw data sets and dashboards to answer for transparency, feedback collection sites to cover participation and various forms of social media to foster collaboration. Not a bad start, so long as we don’t allow the OG community to claim victory and quit looking for more creative innovations (or definitions of what OG could/should be).

To this point, I’d like to present a very different perspective on participation. As mentioned, generally, when participation is discussed with regards to OG, people are thinking about ways to gather feedback from or start a dialog with the public (or some subset of), typically focused on some government initiative or policy decision. Of course, this is generally a good thing, but, isn’t this an obvious use case for open government? So, let’s think outside the box for a minute and consider a whole different perspective, namely, finding ways to engage people directly with the mission of a particular agency. Still participation, right? Would this still be Open Government at work as well? I believe the answer is yes.

So what would this look like? Let’s use the U.S. Army as an example. For the Army to effectively deliver on it’s mission to defend the nation, no resource is more precious than the soldiers themselves. To ensure the Army stays fully staffed, the U.S. Army Recruiting Command has a critical role to play. While the re-enlistment rate is higher than it has been in years, there is still a need to bring in new recruits all the time. Enter goarmy.com.

In years past, think about how Army recruiters were depicted. I’m sure many of you recall the timeless Bill Murray classic, “Stripes” or even Pauly Shore’s “In the Army Now” (OK, maybe you don’t remember that Hollywood Blockbuster!) where there was an Army recruiting office in a less than desirable location, manned by a recruiter with a cheesy smile and a bunch of false promises. Obviously, these are spoofs of reality, but, a few things were true. The experience was in person, it was focused solely on the recruit and the ‘engagement’ was somewhat limited to ‘read this and sign here’.

Contrast that to the experience of goarmy.com. In this immersive online experience, potential recruits are offered various interactions that help answer questions, set expectations and illustrate what Army life is all about. Through the judicious use of video, animations, avatars (you really need to check out SGT Star!), and various communications technologies such as Facebook, RSS feeds and discussion boards, the recruit can, among many things, discover career options, learn about weapons systems, engage with interactive games, and even schedule an audition with the Army Band! And let’s not neglect to mention the other audience of goarmy.com, the parents and family of any potential recruits. The family is presented with a wealth of information to help guide everyone to making the right decision for their son or daughter. Again, just like the recruit’s experience, the family is offered interactive and engaging information that gives them a very detailed look into the kind of future that is waiting.

So, let’s break it down. The Army, through the development of this site, is capitalizing on the concept that ‘design matters.’ By creating goarmy.com, they have delivered an experience that people can use, leading to widespread adoption within the community of potential recruits and families. With this adoption has come participation, the ability to actually engage in the process of becoming a soldier in the United States Army. Also, there is an element of transparency as well. Consider how much better informed a new recruit is today verses a new recruit in say the 1980’s. Isn’t this what Open Government should be about? Better informed people who are taking an active role in the mission of a government agency? And how much more participatory can one get than enlisting in a military service?

Of course making data sets available and gathering feedback from constituents is important, I would never argue otherwise, however, let’s be sure to keep our eyes open for even greater opportunities for transparency, participation and collaboration.

Gov 2.0 Hero: John Lisle

John Lisle, Public Information Officer for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) in Washington, DC, shares his thoughts on leveraging social media and the value of using a little personality to connect with constituents.

What was your path to Gov 2.0?

My first government job was with the Arlington County Police Department, and that’s where I had my first foray into social media. We were the first local law enforcement agency to post surveillance videos on YouTube. We also created a MySpace page and encouraged teens to “friend” the department, as a warning to child predators. Both efforts generated a lot of positive media coverage including stories in the Washington Post and on CNN.

At DDOT, we have a Facebook page which has freed us from the constraints of our outdated website (we are launching a new one soon) because it is so easy to post photos, videos, links and other items.

Our biggest success, however, has been our Twitter account. We launched it last year in conjunction with “Potholepalooza,” a campaign to quickly address pothole complaints, and pitched it as another way for people to report problems. It really took off in December during the first blizzard and we got great use out of it during the twin blizzards last week. We pushed out important information, but we also solicited reports and photos of unplowed streets from residents. Before the December storm we had a respectable following of about 740 followers and that has grown rapidly to about 2500.

What area of government offers the biggest opportunity for improvement via Web 2.0 tools?

Communications/public affairs for sure, but also customer service. For instanced, some great apps have already been created for the public to submit service requests. The challenge is effectively integrating and utilizing them. We’re still working on that in the District.

How is the work you’re doing changing the way DC operates?

I think all of us who are using these tools are helping to change the public perception of the District Government. It is easy to get frustrated when dealing with a big bureaucracy, but Web 2.0 tools can poke holes in the wall and really improve communications and the experience for the consumer. For example, by responding promptly to questions, complaints, suggestions, etc., on Twitter, it can leave people with a much better impression of our agency, even if they don’t hear what they want to hear, or things don’t get done as fast as they would like. Michael Rupert at DCRA has really used Twitter effectively in this way to assist people who are caught up in red tape. When they voice their frustration on Twitter, he reaches out to them and tries to assist.

What’s the biggest challenge to executing open gov/Gov 2.0 initiatives?

Getting buy-in from upper management might be the biggest challenge. It’s not an issue at my agency – quite the opposite – but I’ve heard from peers who have had a hard time getting their bosses to understand the benefits. Many agencies have also created elaborate rules and policies governing the use of social media, or they only use it to repost their press releases or for other formal announcements. I think that misses the point and wastes an opportunity to give your agency a little personality.

What do you recommend to other cities trying to execute open gov/Gov2 .0 initiatives?

If you’re going to get in the water, don’t dip a tentative toe in, dive in! Use these tools to their full potential. However, you should know the risks, too. You have to understand your audience on each platform and communicate with them accordingly; if you botch it you could set yourself up for ridicule. For example, regularly tweeting messages that are too long and as a result get cut off – it’s been done; and don’t do a lackluster job of it. For instance, I think Twitter is only truly effective if you monitor the incoming messages as much as you do what you are sending out. If your followers get the feeling you’re not listening then you could do more harm than good.

Connect with DDOT

Gates, Mullen discuss social media and the military

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen discuss the impact of social media on democratic freedom and how military can leverage it.


Secretary of Defense Robert Gates:

“I think one of the more significant developments in the last 20 years or so has been the advance of communications technology in the hands of average citizens around the world. There is no question that the availability, or the easy access to the Western communications and media, played a part in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of eastern Europe. It is increasingly difficult for authoritarian governments to maintain control of all the means of communications that are available to its citizens … and, frankly, I think it’s a huge win for freedom around the world because this monopoly of information is no longer in the hands of the government.”

Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen:

“I think the speed of communications and information … creates a flexibility and an adaptability … which we have to have in our forces … I think our force, who’s average age is 20-ish … this is how they live … For leaders … I think its really important to be connected to that and understand it … because I think communicating that way and moving information around that way, whether it’s administration information or information in warfare, is absolutely critical.”

4-Star Tweets

National Guard When I saw this article by Air Force General Craig McKinley (@ChiefNGB) about why he tweets, it got me thinking about military transparency. They are, after all, a huge part of the government — I should know, I grew up military, with a dad who’s still serving.

While I was visiting my parents over Thanksgiving, he was excited to show me a new recruiting video featuring some of his people, in a real-life scenario where they stop a piece of debris from colliding with a satellite. My dad doesn’t tweet, but the fact that he was excited about a video showing the real inner-workings of what we monitor in outer space suggested to me something beyond pride in his team. It dovetails with one of the reasons General McKinley gave for his tweeting habit:

“The young men and women joining the service today don’t know what the world looked like before Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter. They are transforming the way we do our work. As a leader, if I am not personally engaged in the communications evolution, then I cannot expect the organization to follow.”

Considering that national defense is the largest recipient of our tax dollars, I say it’s about time we got a little transparency. I also like General McKinley’s take on what some would say are the security issues involved when social media comes so close to classified information. He says this type of interaction with the public is necessary, and not going anywhere, so he tells the tech folks: “Figure it out … Some of the brightest minds in the country are focused on securing our networks and lowering this risk. I am confident they have the skills to both empower users and protect critical systems and data.”

Hopefully as change trickles down through the government, more people will begin identifying with McKinley’s school of thought. And maybe one day I’ll even see my dad on Twitter …