What Does Innovative Social Engagement Look Like For Businesses and Governments?

I’ve been thinking about the topic of Government 2.0 a lot lately. Part of this topic deals with the multi-directional engagement between government and citizens. This is what the White House and others have termed a more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government.

Unfortunately, the engagement for the most part is not very authentic nor meaningful. Boring “fan pages” on Facebook are one example I’ve written about, but there are many others. Often, engagement, when it does happen has so many rules associated with it, or such a high barrier to entry, or such a limited window as to be practically meaningless.

It seems to me that everyone can celebrate the fact that government entities merely have a YouTube channel here, a Twitter account there, or a Blogger profile some other place (the so-called “TGIF revolution“), or we can think a little harder about what the goals of citizen engagement really might be, and how to go about achieving them. But first, a personal example of responsiveness and engagement from the private sector.

On the evening of Nov 2nd, I tweeted from my phone about a local DC restaurant, Co Co Sala, just as I was leaving. We had a nice experience, but the hostess had been a little, shall we say, disinterested in helping us? So I commented as much.

Less than a week later, the co-owner of Co Co Sala sent me an email and cc’d his general manager. He apologized for the treatment I experienced, assured me it was not policy, introduced me to the manager, and said he’d talk to his staff. It was a four-paragraph email. I’ve never met him before, and furthermore, my personal email is discoverable but not the most easy thing to find.

This is what real social innovation looks like. This is what customer service looks like. This is what true engagement with stakeholders looks like. I want to give this great lounge Co Co Sala a hearty shout-out for not only having a great product, but also really caring about their customers.

Now, imagine we weren’t talking about a restaurant here. Imagine we are talking about the Department of Motor Vehicles, or the Patent and Trademark Office, or your Congressman. If you tweeted, would they see it? Would they care? Would they react in any way? I think the answer in many cases is no. And when was the last time you gave the DMV a shout-out for a job well done?

Let’s look at a sliver of data. According to TweetStats.com, the people behind the White House Twitter account reply to individuals less than 2% of the time, and seem to have never @ replied to any single more than once (i.e., they have never come close to a conversation). They re-tweet others’ tweets about 6.5% of the time, but they only seem to re-tweet other government accounts and the New York Times. Granted, there are more people tweeting about White House issues than Co Co Sala, but does the above data represent any caring in any way, shape or form?

The terrific techPresident blog recently noted that actor Vin Diesel is the single most followed living person on Facebook – and that he recently passed up President Obama. Perhaps that’s because Vin Diesel’s Facebook fan page is awesome. He is engaged, his fans are engaged, and the tone is informal and fun. There are also many other high-profile people who have taken the plunge into innovative social engagement; my favorite at the moment is Alyssa Milano.

So when exactly did “serious and formal” become a substitute for “informative and meaningful” in government circles? And why is everyone scared of letting their guard down in public? People and entities that innovate and use new social networking tools to engage with stakeholders will be winners. The ones that don’t will be losers in the long run. It’s that simple.

If a goal of Government 2.0 is to provide citizens better services, and a strategy towards reaching that goal is to use social media tools to communicate better with citizens on multiple channels, it seems to me that listening and responding better to comments and complaints would be a great tactic.

The reason why people still cite the TSA’s blog as a good example of citizen engagement is because few other outstanding examples of federal government social media engagement seem to have emerged in 2009. What does 2010 have in store?

It is somewhat outside the scope of this post, but my guess is that more and more local government responsiveness and engagement is happening. We heard some of those stories at the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase in September. What are some new ones that the feds should hear about?

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  • Thanks, Mark for the post. Yes, it takes much more than just technology to become a true Gov 2.0. Change of attitude is a must. Luckily, technolology will help to amplify the publicity of cases of irresponsiveness and wrong attitude.

  • This sounds like an excellent question for Tim O’Reilly to ask Beth Noveck, United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, tomorrow at Web 2.0 in NYC.

    You can vote and ask here: http://w2e.crowdcampaign.com/

  • Carissa Frasca Cutrell

    Mark, enjoyed your blog post. Co Co Sala is a great place to visit in D.C. – best chocolate martinis out. But I think Government 2.0 is alive and well – at least it is in Virginia Beach, Va. Last week, we had a huge Nor’easter blow through our area and our Web 2.0 tools played a huge role in service delivery and communication with citizens. Additionally, being a tourist town, we often find folks contemplating visiting Virginia Beach on Twitter. Many of them get a personal response from the City of Virginia Beach with links to events, our Convention and Visitors Bureau site (for hotels) and more. I think that’s the responsiveness that many governments are lackinng. We’re doing it here, and (trying) to do it well. Check us out, http://www.facebook.com/CityofVaBeach and http://www.twitter.com/CityofVaBeach.

  • Hi Mark,
    I agree that you received superlative customer responsiveness from Co Co Sala, but I wouldn’t call it “innovative social engagement.” You expressed dissatisfaction and received a satisfactory response that indicated a change would be made. But you weren’t solicited, or engaged, in an institutionally-supported dialogue–you had to create that opportunity yourself. And it was out of your control whether Co Co would respond or not, and in what form.

    When I think of what “innovative social engagement” means to me with regard to businesses and governments, it’s about laying the groundwork for continual, open, human interactions in an ongoing dialogue about how decisions get made and change happens and where opportunities for public influence exist. Yes, it also includes institutions listening and reaching out of their own initiative. But you should be able to trust and depend on growing relationships, not haphazard (if very nice!) surprises.

  • Terry

    Yes, what Nina Simon said. It doesn’t seem as if a restaurant scouring Twitter for mentions, and then responding to them is all that innovative. The behavior should be lauded, but not necessarily held up as an exemplar instance of social media-fueled engagement at work.

    What then, might be “innovative social engagement”? In my mind, its structural shifts toward platforms which facilitate open participation and interaction, in which users have the ability and POWER to change the platform if needed or desired (hey, like the Internet itself).

    Too often it seems “innovative social engagement” seems to stand in for better public relations campaigns or better ways for involving consumers and citizens. All I see there are institutions putting new strategies to work in a transforming media environment on how to best control brands and creative capacity of customers and networks (this could go for mybarackobama.com too).

  • Articles like this give me great hope. Within the municipal government of the City of North Charleston, SC, I am attempting to bridge the gap between our citizens and their government through the means of social media.

    Active and persistent engagement is key. I feel that much of the time agencies and cities will begin a social media campaign and give up soon after because they do not have 1000 followers in a week.

    Patience fellow civil workers.


  • Mark,
    Thanks for the great article. I’m an MFA candidate in the Design+Technology program at Parsons School for Design. I’m currently working on a collaborative thesis project that addresses this very question. Our central concern is how to present legislators with some sort of platform declaration created by self-organized, issue-based groups within our system. The idea is that presenting a lawmaker with a communication that reflects a slightly higher transaction cost than say a tweet or an email (even if the actual transaction cost for a user to contribute to that communication isn’t higher) will indicate to a lawmaker that this is a group that cannot be ignored. It speaks to the weight that lawmaker give to a letter delivered via regular mail versus an email. As Mr. Shirky points out, a representative in congress can assume that one person who takes the time to write and mail a letter can be equated to about 2,000 voters. That same cannot be assumed by an email or a tweet. At the end of the day, what we are experimenting with is trying to uncover the electronic expression of a hand written letter and the level of meaningful intent it implies.

    Anyway, you can check out our progress here http://www.gregpod.com/thesis. It’s, of course, all academic at this point as we work to refine and solidify the concept. But we will be moving toward implementation by the holidays.

  • I agree with the article and big fan of innovative social engagement but I concur Nahum Gershon’s thoughts.

    It’s about attitude.

    The attitude of many governments stink.

    In the UK, it is SO empirial that us social innovators are still something of a cult group that hang around in the fringes.

    Furthermore it’s all about power and control. With an ‘open’ and ‘transparent’ system, people can’t ‘get away’ with as much as they would want to.

    That’s life and that is people but if we scream loud enough, hopefully the revolution will be jumped on by more than a small dedicated minority.

  • Mark,

    Great commentary! I think one thing that we seem to be missing from the equation is the ‘WIIFM’ (‘What’s In It For Me?’) perspective from the government side. It is pretty easy to justify the WIIFM from the citizenry, however, what’s in it for the government is a little more nebulous.

    Is it ideas they can use to be more effective? Are they even motivated to be more effective? One could argue that the threat of being voted out is a motivator, but I think that’s the same for either party in power.

    Just expressing a desire for more ‘transparent’ government isn’t enough to make it happen (even by executive fiat) – I’m not sure that the value proposition has really been defined or internalized from the ‘govvie’ perspective.

    I wish I had more thoughts on how to define the WIIFM for the government, but I believe it is a critical place for us to start in making gov20 happen.

  • Dennis Linnell

    I know why the TSA’s blog is a good example of citizen engagement. I had the pleasure of listening to Neil Bonner, TSA Manager for Applications Development, speak at the recent Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) in Washington DC. He is a civil servant who truly understands the power of open source and the Web. And he has enjoyed notable success, which sets him apart from the crowd. (Disclaimer: I have no connection with Mr. Bonner or his agency.)

    Until a lot more people at all levels of government show Mr. Bonner’s degree of passion, we’ll just keep plodding. Judging from what I saw at GOSCON (and what I see every day on my job), a handful of passionate folk are pushing for progress in a few agencies (Defense, NASA, State, and EPA come to mind). But because passion is so rare and many incentives in government oppose meaningful change, I wouldn’t hold my breath until the feds embrace true social networking.

  • Nice writing Mark!

    I’ve thrown in my two cents to improve Citizen Engagement with iCensus2010 – an iPhone application to complete Census Surveys electronically…


    Brought to you by my start-up:


    I was able to do this because the Census Bureau was kind enough to share the form online:


    Public Service 2.0 enhancements are key to efficient Government.

  • I think a good example on online government-citizen interaction is online voting, this just needs to be expanded a little more. Online voting is much more likely to get lazy voters to vote more often and reach those people who never bother voting at all.

  • Thanks for all the feedback!

    Carissa and Ryan, thanks for the local government examples. As I wrote, that’s where I suspect this is going on, but it’s hard to find the good examples if one doesn’t live there. I’ll check them out!

    Nina, I think you’re being a bit hard on “innovative social engagement” here. The fact is, I mention all sorts of businesses and government agencies on Twitter, in my blogs, and so forth, and very few reach out. So this was unusual. Further, what I didn’t write is that the initial email has led to me meeting management and chatting with them, and them frankly treating me like a bit of a VIP. I think that’s the start of “continual, open, human interactions in an ongoing dialogue about how decisions get made” right?

    Dennis, You’re absolutely right about TSA’s blog, but there are few other great fed examples like that. I know Bonner and he is indeed a great guy!

    Guy, thanks. That’s some great stuff to think about. This isn’t a complete answer, but let me just start by pointing people towards this HBS article: http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/kanter/2009/11/power-to-the-connectors.html

  • Interesting post. My take is that the post office and the DMV experiences are horrible because the people who work there don’t really care about what they are doing.

    Do you think technology can fix that?

    I think that takes leadership, not technology. :(

  • Hmm… I thought WE were the Gov’t. Sorry to see the discrepancy between the governed and the governing. I was under the impression is was WE the people. Sad to think the “officials” have to talk about transparency when they work for us. You know, public servants.

  • Sam Penrose

    Dear Mark (and @timoreilly, who featured this post on Twitter):

    Ever worked in food service? In many restaurants, the “host” position is as poorly paid as any. Often it is staffed by young women attending college full-time who can’t get hired as servers (which pays better — say $20/hr instead of $12) and are paid for, to be blunt, being sweet young things as opposed to having marketable skills. Now, I don’t know the details of your experience, so maybe this is wrong, but here’s what I hypothesize:

    1) Starving student working 25 hrs/wk on top of school behaves unprofessionally to influential tech guy several rungs higher on socioeconomic ladder.
    2) Tech guy uses his megaphone to call her out.
    3) Management happens to be tech savvy enough to do twitter searches on self, realizes some dude with 13,000 followers has criticized them.
    4) Management is also PR savvy, falls to knees in front of megaphone, figuring odds are good megaphone will now portray them better. (Hey, it worked!)
    5) Management stands up, finds starving student, has extremely unpleasant conversation with her. Possibly final conversation she will have with them. But that’s OK, because it’s a great time to be looking for a job if you are a 21 year old with no marketable skills.

    I suspect you are confusing a new story you’d like to tell about technology with a very old story about how the powerless in service industries interact with the powerful. “Kiss up, kick down” is not “culture change.” I’m not sure you’ve established anything about Web 2.0, but you may have gotten a young person fired from a job she really needs.

  • Your example hits the nail on the head. The problem with Gov 2.0 is the asymmetry of data flows (I have blogged recently about this myself). Having an “institutional” presence on social media – such as Twitter account or a Facebook page – is not really important for a government organization. What is important is (1) to gather information that others collect about it elsewhere and (2) to empower employees to engage with social networks where such information is generated.

  • Mark –

    Here’s a municipality example. The City of Manor has set up a site to collect its citizens’ ideas, called Manor Labs. It just got a nice write-up by OpenGov Deputy CTO Beth Noveck on the WhiteHouse.gov blogs:


    Manor’s “citizens’ innovation” site is provided by Spigit (http://spigit.com). The city has set up 8 idea categories:
    – Administration
    – Development
    – Information Technology
    – Municipal Court
    – Police Department
    – Public Works
    – Utility Billing
    – Economic Development

    It’s an entirely new channel for tapping citizens’ perspective and knowledge, outside the election cycles. It’s more efficient than attending hours-long city council meetings. And it’s more visible, searchable, open and available for collaboration than sending a letter or email to city hall.

    Anyway, though that might be interesting for you.


  • Sam: I worked in food service when I was in high school. I don’t care if you make $10 or $100 an hour, if you are rude to customers you suck. And I don’t care if you have 13 or 13,000 followers, you have the right to call them out. Thanks for the comment.

  • Question: Did you and the Co Co Sala guy chat? Or was it one email from him, and maybe one reply from you?

    I’m wondering how much the two of you would really want to chat. And what you would talk about.

  • Andrew: Turns out, yes, since the initial email I’ve chatted on a more personal level with management. As it would happen, we know a number of people in common. Sometimes it’s hard to predict the effect of adding one new person to a social network!

  • Hutch: I’ve heard about that example, it’s great. Thanks!

  • Mark,

    I echo your sentiment in the lack of actual engagement from our government. While the White House’s New Media Director, Macon Phillips goes on about their fantastic YouTube channel for having so many videos & views and for their twitter channel having so many followers…. they act almost exclusively as a more modern bullhorn as your statistical analysis shows.

    Come read the rest of my reply to this post here:

  • Paul Novak

    http://seeclickfix.com has had real impact here in New Haven. Read about it here: http://newhavenindependent.org/archives/2009/03/web_innovation.php

  • Good managers want bad news to travel fast. Empowering good managers to deliver for the common good vs. empowering existing power-holders to maintain status (whether or not they’re delivering) — is something that is still in the balance right now.

  • I wonder if it’s helpful to frame the prospects for Gov2.0 by so exclusively focusing on the citizen as a consumer of government services? I know that’s how many people have come to view government (and have been encouraged to do so by politicians, commentators and civil service leaders), but if you’re going to start your post by talking about “engagement between government and citizens” and then limit the framing to that of a business providing a service to a customer (and, to be clear, I do frequently use exactly that language when working with government clients on business transformation projects), you could be implicitly dismissing the other aspects of Gov2.0 where there is potential for robust citizen engagement and more effective public management.

    Those other aspects? I think a useful typology would at least include the use of Web2.0 technologies and frameworks to support:
    • improved civil service management and administration (e.g., internal social networking functionality to enhance collaboration across agencies),
    • enhanced democratic engagement (e.g., as applied to communication, deliberation and voting),
    • the policy analysis and formulation process (principally as an internal function, but with capacity for linking to the democratic engagement function), and
    • the policy advising and decision support function (to move away from the traditional linear conduit model of advising to an iterative, discursive, collaborative approach).

    I know I’m commenting as an outsider to the US Gov2.0 system, but I guess I’m just surprised to have this post referred to by @timoreilly as “One of the most important pieces ever written about #gov20” when it implies that the principal function of a citizen in a democracy is as a customer.

  • Kathy Sierra

    I’m all for “social media engagement” as a tool for government, but even “business 2.0” is feeling the backlash, with tweets like, “@comcastcares twitter acct did not make comcast suck less”

    Another example played out before us all on Twitter when the mega-followed @missrogue complained about a company’s awful automated customer support phone-tree. When someone from the company tweeted her back with an offer to help, she suggested that rather than hiring a human to respond via twitter to complaints about non-human phone support they hire that human to… answer the phone.

    Social media can be a huge help, or just one more distraction. And comparisons between government and customer service is tricky; when companies tout their “amazing customer responsiveness”, it’s often because their product or service has problems that NEED response. In other words, the very BEST products and services often don’t have good customer service or “social media engagement”… because they simply don’t need it. There’s a problem when we celebrate companies using social media to respond to problems MORE than we celebrate companies that don’t have problems worth tweeting. Many of the companies making their users more successful, empowered, and happy are already doing what’s needed, and most likely using social media to LISTEN, not necessarily “engage”.

    If government agencies start engaging and twittering a lot more *before* fixing other things, it will feel a lot like the software app with a ton of bugs but some really cool easter eggs. You cannot help but think, “shouldn’t they have spent their time/resources working on the core problems?”

    Government X.0 needs a massive shift in how it frames *us*. And like Justin, I’m not sure that “we the people” as consumers or customers is what I want. I do, however, believe it’s useful to think of us as learners/users/participants. I don’t want my government to give me good “customer service”– I want my government to help me kick ass. To help me become better. To educate, inform, motivate, and enable me in ways that matter deeply and sustainably.

    Social media can be an awesome tool to support that.

    The model I prefer is not the one where a company responds when you complain… although that does make you “feel” better. But I really don’t want the one that makes me “feel” better… I want the one that makes me better. When/where social media helps provide that (and it certainly does), I’m all for it.

  • I agree with all that, Kathy. I am also one of those who says that Comcast doesn’t truly care. Food for thought. But there is a happy medium where tools can get deployed in ways that help citizens in a meaningful way that also helps agency missions without being all smoke and mirrors. And I think that’s what O’Reilly’s Gov 2.0 events are trying to get at.

  • Mark thanks for continuing to move the dialog forward on this topic. Your post and the entire thread is bringing some interesting points out. I tend to like the metaphor of a restaurant. I worked in restaurants and bars for years and agree that if you are rude to customers you suck. Any part of the government, at any level, in any branch, should understand that rule. I guess the most important folks that should be interacting with us are the people we elect to be in charge of government. I wonder if you or others have views on what innovative social engagement looks like when it comes to the fed legislative branch. From what I can see our representatives are still just dabbling in social media. Seems like they could use more focused thought and best practices from the community so they can keep moving forward there.


  • Mark, great topic. I think there are plenty of opportunities for effective use of social engagement-building tools when “citizens” and “stakeholders” are more narrowly defined as those within a particular community of practice. Expertise still counts for something, doesn’t it?

    To illustrate with a project that my colleagues and i are working on: We developed two open source tools that are supporting California’s Marine Life Protection Act Initiative in its goal of designating a network of marine protected areas in state waters. Open OceanMap is used to collect and aggregate spatially specific local knowledge, and MarineMap is used to provide real time decision support in facilitating deliberation among stakeholders.

    Not as sexy as tools that are more broadly accessible, but getting the job done.

  • Mark: While I appreciate your irritation as conversational channels are being used as bullhorns, and lamentations about boring Facebook fan pages, I’m also immensely pleased to see a willingness to experiment on the part of government. And I hope we can tolerate a few mistakes that enable all of us to learn. We’re not just adopting new tools, but learning how to engage in very different ways (there are early adopters and laggards in both government and business). I just wrote a post about the launch of the US Department of Labor’s Facebook page here, for which I give them a lot of credit. What I didn’t say was that when this page launched, there were a whole lot of tweeters excited about it who appeared to be under 30 – not the typical agency meeting demographic I suspect. And how fantastic is that?