Craig Newmark on better government through enlightened customer service

Would you “like” a government agency on Facebook? Would you “like” a service delivered by a .gov website? How would you feel if a government official “liked” you back? How would you like to be identified online?

Craig NewmarkThere are no easy answers to these questions, as anyone who attended the FTC privacy workshops or recent “privacy camps” in the District of Columbia or San Francisco knows. Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist.org, attended the privacy camp in San Francisco and shared a few thoughts about issues of trust, identity, social networking and government.

Online privacy is now even more top-of-mind for tens of millions of users, as Facebook’s social plug-ins roll out across the Internet, along with its instant personalization pilot. Thirty-three government agencies are on Facebook, with more than 400 pages between them. Those government agencies may not have added “like” buttons yet — but they’re interacting with citizens on Facebook, Citizen Tube, Google Moderator, Twitter and beyond.

Electronic privacy is much more than social media privacy, as White House e-privacy priorities on HIT, smart grid and education show, but the topic has been red hot since Facebook’s f8 developer conference. When Jenna Wortham asked the readers of the New York Times to ask Facebook privacy questions, for instance, nearly 300 of them responded.

When Craig Newmark visited Privacy Camp SF, he used characteristic humility in observing that he saw a whole bunch of people “much smarter than him interested in real privacy issues and how to do something about them.” Newmark, who founded craigslist more than 15 years ago, has seen how online culture has evolved as the Internet and web has experienced exponential growth. “That culture respects privacy, though the concept is being redefined,” he said. “It’s a moving target. It’s important to know what information exists about you, know how it is being used, and be able to control that information.”

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010Newmark was thoughtful about privacy controls for social media platforms, deferring specific technical questions to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Sunlight Foundation, where he sits on the board of directors. He also saw potential in Facebook’s new features. “For example, Facebook’s open social graph stuff could be a good tool for democracy,” he said. “It allows someone to work with a wide network for good effects, mutual benefit and for the common good. In addition, if someone uses a Facebook profile — or something similar — to participate in national agenda setting, it provides transparency into their identity.”

Many actions online require identities, particularly for engaging with government entities or making transactions. Should citizens use identities from a trust framework like the Open Identity Exchange (OIX), social network profiles, or virtual versions of government-issued IDs, like social security cards or driver’s licenses? “I prefer to have a choice, like public-private partnerships,” said Newmark. “People are still finding out what works.”

Is Facebook a trustworthy entity to be an online identity provider? “I think Facebook is trustworthy,” said Newmark. “But absolute power corrupts absolutely in practice. We need a number of trusted options for identity providers.”

On this count, Newmark expressed a similar position to the one Vint Cerf, Google vice president and “the father of the Internet,” articulated during his keynote talk at the Future Web 2010 Conference in April. “Not for a moment do I believe we have a single unique identity,” said Cerf. “I want multiple strongly authorized identities.”

The paired issues of e-privacy and trust and reputation systems have often appeared in Newmark’s writing and interviews this year. Newmark recently spoke with GigaOm senior writer Mathew Ingram about the web’s next big problem:

Public service, meet customer service

In the interview, the most famous customer service representative in the world also offered simple tips to government officials — or anyone faced with helping customers, consumers or clients online, for that matter. “First, listen,” he said. “Figure out if their concern is valid. If it’s valid, you solve it. There will be people you can never make happy. You help them in good faith but you need to know when to give up.”

What if government agencies, employees and elected officials can’t “give up” on providing online services? “That shouldn’t be an excuse for not delivering good customer service,” said Newmark. “A related problem is trying to help someone who is having trouble articulating a problem. You need to proceed in good faith and listen.”

How would he like to be contacted by someone in government? Again, Newmark kept it simple: “Tell me who they are, where they work and what they want to know.”

Newmark grounded the value of craigslist for towns and cities in creating a platform for communities to interact online. “It requires people running cities to stay engaged with communities, listen, then act. That pattern then repeats.”

Newmark also pointed out challenges specific to government in engaging through online forums. “There are a number of problems where government is impeded in attempts to serve the public,” he said. “Laws and regulations, like the Paperwork Reduction Act, get in the way of providing good customer service. People in Washington are working on that now.”

Newmark was spot on. Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), issued a memo in April on “Social Media, Web-Based Interactive Technologies, and the Paperwork Reduction Act” that made it easier for federal employees to use public social software platforms. A PRA primer was also released to “give a clear, simple, transparent understanding of the law’s central requirements.”

The bigger problem, said Newmark, is that “until the last year or so, people were told government is the problem, or that government doesn’t matter. People in government were told that providing good customer service could be career-limiting.”

Newmark described some areas where that’s been changing in the federal government. “Where I see things beginning to work better are in Veterans Affairs, under Peter Levin, the new CTO,” he said. “Or Todd Park, CTO of Health and Human Services, or with federal CTO Aneesh Chopra and federal CIO Vivek Kundra.”

Newmark spoke to CQ Politics about “how the Internet will make you a better citizen.” Video of the interview is embedded below:

What are the risks and rewards of open government in practice?

“It’s a complex situation,” Newmark said. “The danger is that a very, very small organized minority can try to game the system to make it seem like their position is supported by a majority. There are front groups that specialize in that kind of thing. They represent special interests and add spin. We need better ways to counter that. One method is to rely on fully populated [social networking] profiles, because those are expensive to create. That’s only the beginning of the solution, since it’s still quite possible to build profiles. It’s more difficult to sign up for email than to build a profile that has social capital.”

What recommendations would Newmark make to agencies using internal collaboration software? “I have used internal discussion boards and ideation software,” said Newmark. “People can oppose new ways to do things, other people can revise suggestions and everyone votes them up and down. Another approach is to use internal wikis to share knowledge about how to do things.”

Newmark is bullish on the potential for social media to improve government.
“I’ve seen it already happening, for example with HHS and Veterans. I would like to see that use spread everywhere in government, including state and local levels,” he said.

For more on Newmark’s thoughts on the future of public service, read his interview with Micah Sifry or watch the following video of him speaking with Alan W. Silberberg at the Gov 2.0 LA unconference earlier this year:

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  • Ben Tremblay

    This may be redundant. But in case not, Craig on HuffPost:” Some thinking about effecting real change via social media“.

    @bentrem

    p.s. “ideation” and such … some of us have been hoeing away on that sort of thing for years/decades. (“Somewhere between helmet-fire and abject boredom” is what I came up with at some point.)
    But fact is, simply, folk like Craig are wey busy. Mutati mutandis, we need excellent communications to talk about how to implement excellent communications. (When I was on NORAD/SAC, when I needed to get Cheyenne Mtn’s attention, I just picked up the correct telephone. No-brainer. *sigh*)

  • Stephen Buckley

    Gee, fifteen years ago, when Craig was just starting Craigslist, I was moderating an email-listserv of over 1,000 members about the Clinton-Gore 8-year program to improve “customer service” by federal agencies.

    However, fifteen years later, Craig’s experience (notoriety?) is treated as if, suddenly, he knows more about this topic than people who have been workng on it for their whole career!

    Even though he may know customer service, there is more than a little difference between government agencies and posting want-ads for used furniture. And it’s going to take more than Facebook!

    So he’s a relatively newbie to this topic! His remarks indicate that he is has no clue about the Clinton-Gore effort on “customer service” (and what worked, and what didn’t).

    Those who do not learn from the past (e.g., clueless) are condemned to repeat it. And that’s what I’m afraid will happen if “Gov2.0 rock stars” like Craig continue to take up more bandwidth than their experience warrants.

  • Alexander Howard

    @BenTrem – thank you for the link. Knowing which phone to pick up and who to call isn’t likely to stop being important and time soon.

    @Stephen – Thank you for the comment! Do you have a link to archive of that list-serv? It would be useful to put the efforts at customer service made today on social networks within the context of historical e-government work.

    If you would like to share with the community (or just me) what you learned from the Clinton-Gore effort, you can reach me at alex@oreilly.com.