Government Ambassadors For Citizen Engagement

To the average person, government is represented by an anonymous person on the other end of the phone, a pile of mandatory paperwork, and perhaps at best a friendly neighborhood postal carrier. If you ask the average American not living inside the Beltway to name a single individual who works in the federal government, how would they reply? My guess is that the broad majority of them couldn’t give you the first and last name of a federal government employee; In reality they would find it much easier to name their local pharmacist, garage owner, or supermarket manager. And from the perspective of the government, this is a shame. How might emerging social technologies help to bridge that gap, in combination with a modification in thinking about government public relations?

The ideal end state when a citizen is asked to name a government employee would be that a person working in a micro-niche of interest to them – finance, farming, foot-and-mouth disease – immediately comes to mind. Unfortunately though, interesting and talented people working at Treasury, USDA, NIH and other places are not well-known to the public, despite the great effects their work has on everyday life in America. Why is this? Partly, it is a vestige from the days when communications were controlled by professionally trained public relations staff and mainstream journalism teams. This was understandable – equipment was expensive, channels were few, and citizens trusted authenticated, official sources for their information. But this media structure that worked well for 40 years is now outdated.

In the Web 2.0 world, every individual is empowered to be not only a consumer of information, but a producer of it. Writing is searchable, discoverable, sharable, usable, and yes, even alterable. The proverbial “pajama mafia” of bloggers has morphed into a powerful society class of listeners, questioners, writers, editors, publishers, and distributors. And in some outlying examples from the federal government, such as the TSA’s blog, we see this same power being harnessed by individual employees (with their agency’s approval, naturally) – Individuals from the TSA not only blog, but interact with citizens who comment on the articles. But this form of government-citizen interaction is, honestly, a primitive version of how social technologies can empower citizen engagement with government.

The modern citizen is not a vessel waiting to receive press releases and government website updates. Even a sophisticated government website like the White House’s new blog can only expect to attract a subset of citizens a subset of the time. Why? Simply, there are simply too many avenues of information flowing towards these people formerly known as a captive audience. No matter how compelling your government information, they are not waiting to hear from you about it. Nor are they necessarily waiting to hear from the New York Times, MSNBC, or any other mainstream organization.

How to reach the modern citizen? It is more productive to imagine them, in the parlance of “new marketing,” as networks of individuals having conversations with each other – during dinner with their families, at the proverbial water cooler, and on popular social media sites. Increasingly, people’s online and offline social networks are an important and powerful force in their lives. Trusted people within communities of interest have become filters for the multimedia vying for citizens’ attention. So to answer the question, you have to hunt down the places they’re already talking about the topic you work on.

Acknowledging that citizens have (sub)consciously formed networks of conversations that filter the information available to them, what’s next? Logically, the government would like to be a part of those conversations. But bureaucracies can’t have conversations with people – only people who work within bureaucracies can. Government employees who wish for better public relations need to find people talking about a topic of interest, listen to what they’re saying, participate in the conversation, and then start new topics of conversation. But this is not as easy as it may seem.

A poll of government employees about whether or not part of their job was “marketing and sales” would probably reveal a lot of negative responses. But when every person can be a writer, publisher, and distributor, is anyone immune from some marketing and sales responsibility in their job? Granted, the government has certain rules about what you can write about your job, and not everyone would like to participate. But some government employees already publish blogs using WordPress, belong to social networks like Facebook, and share real-time information on Twitter. How best to use them?

There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. The existing human capital in government employees already engaging an audience with social technologies should be harnessed, not punished. Such engaged persons may very well be more in touch with grassroots conversations than the public affairs office of an agency, which can tend more towards unidirectional information flow. They may also be trusted members of a community of interest, generous with help and information. It’s hard to think of a good reason to not use such pre-adapted social engagement to the government’s advantage.

Whether you’re talking about the White House, a Marine in dress uniform, or the image of NASA’s space shuttle lifting off, micro-niches within the federal government have brands, which in turn have reputations. Who’s defending them? It may now be the case that a formal public affairs office is not enough. Conversations among citizens occur at such a high velocity that a bureaucracy cannot respond nimbly enough. But empowered individuals can. Government “social ambassadors” should be fully accessible, transparent, authentic, and collaborative leaders that inspire people to cooperate and engage with their government and with each other for the sake of common concerns. As part of their missions, government brand ambassadors should conduct community-based research to better understand the grassroots interests of the average person, which are sometimes misunderstood or overlooked. Listening to online conversations is the new snap poll.

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  • Mark,

    I generally agree with what you are saying but see one important question here. What about compensation? Where do we draw the line for people using social media profiles, who may be on 24/7, and citizens engage with them outside of work hours. Are we required to pay them for this time or, even more, possibly over time?

    Where this once seemed an impossible divide between Communications and IT, I see Human Resources and Labor Relations taking on roles in the future, trying to define the dos and don’ts of social media.

    What do you think makes the most sense in the government world of exempts, classifieds, etc.?

  • Thanks for the comments, Cara. I don’t know what all the answers are, but do agree that somehow human resources or the equivalent should be involved.

    Maybe some new jobs are invented. Maybe some employees are allowed to lend 5% of their time to public affairs to do citizen outreach. Maybe people are empowered to do this in their spare time without retribution from work. And maybe people can get promotions for showing that they network or do outreach better than others. Maybe they get free iPhones. There’s a thousand ways to make it work.

    The wrong decision is to say that it can’t be done, however. That “can’t do” attitude that results in indecision being the decision is failure.

  • Mark,

    You hit the nail on the head with your concluding paragraph:

    “It may now be the case that a formal public affairs office is not enough. Conversations among citizens occur at such a high velocity that a bureaucracy cannot respond nimbly enough. But empowered individuals can. Government “social ambassadors” should be fully accessible, transparent, authentic, and collaborative leaders that inspire people to cooperate and engage with their government and with each other for the sake of common concerns.”

    My concern is that agencies are not prepared to allow this type of empowerment. At TSA we are somewhat fortunate since we are a (relatively) young agency. We have not had the decades of entrenched bureaucracy that prevents organizations from adapting to rapidly emerging opportunities.

    Ultimately, it takes enlightened leadership to empower and ultimate trust these new social ambassadors.

    twitter: IrishPrince

  • Mark, right on with the blog post. I completely agree. The government needs people who are going to be their public faces out in the community and participate in the conversations that are taking place. You see this already a lot in the corporate world, except its called being a “community manager.”

    Community Manager

  • Michael Bloom

    This sounds great in theory, but as a government worker I can tell you will never, ever happen the way you describe in many countries in the world – at least not in any parliamentary democracy.

    The reason has nothing to do with the abilities of the public service either. It has everything to do with the Westminster style of parliamentary democracy countries like the UK and Canada have – which operate their civil service very differently than in the US.

    The key difference comes from the principle of shared responsibility. A sitting government party chooses its cabinet ministers to run the government. These ministers become fully accountable for all the activities in their ministry, good and bad. And if one minister gets in trouble in the papers, accountability goes right up to the head, usually the Prime Minister’s office. If the issue’s serious enough, the PM may ask the minister to resign their position. And if the public outcry is at its worst, there’s an expectation that the PM too, should resign, and the government could face a vote of non-confidence in parliament.

    What all this means, practically speaking, is that any member of government has the potential of bringing down the current administration. Any issue from any corner of the service can escalate up dramatically – and we’ve all seen it, from spending scandals to people speaking out of turn.

    The risk of social media only adds to this risk. Now, the government’s empowering thousands of people to engage directly with the public? To voice their own ideas publicly, unedited, unfiltered, and in real-time. Smart journalists will look for their stories, observing for any differences in opinion between blogging servants and what minister’s are saying to the media.

    And the larger the organization, the harder it is for these niche workers, as you called them, to continually keep themselves up on all the latest issues and the government’s larger position on them.

    And it only takes one smart journalist to then ask a minister, “You’re saying X but I read on one of your ministry staffers blog that there’s an option for Y. What do you think of Y?” to potentially embarrass the government.

    And that’s I, for one, even if I was asked to do it, wouldn’t blog while working in government – even if you gave me all the extra compensation in the world. The CLM risk is too high! Perhaps in the US this is easier, but not where I am.

  • Michael: The notion that a tweet from a janitor could cause a Minister to resign sounds a little far-fetched to me, but I want to sincerely thank you for sharing a more “international” point of view here. I strongly encourage you and your colleagues to submit some thoughts for a talk at the upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington DC in May: It will be taken very seriously. Thanks, Mark