Open government is a mindset

Analysis: Connections are forming between social media, open government and e-government.

I recently talked about the role social media can play in open government at Social Security’s Open Government Employee Awareness Day. My presentation is embedded below:

As I said in my talk at the agency, what I’ve seen in my reporting over this year suggests a nascent connection between the evolution of social media, open government and e-government. The economic meltdown of the past few years has pushed state governments to do more with less. The federal government has explicitly — and sometimes implicitly — endorsed the use of several types of online social software as tools for open government. The top-down open government directive has come at a time when there is an active network of civic hackers finding innovative ways to use free services, open data and partnerships with social entrepreneurs.

There’s an emerging cycle of reciprocity between those governed, the e-services infrastructure provided by government entities and the open government approach adopted by municipalities and agencies. That relationship is worth considering as citizens turn to the Internet for data, policy and services in increasing numbers.

Example: How an agency (Social Security) can become more social

I talked with Social Security CIO Frank Baitman about open government and social media earlier this month. As my interview with Baitman revealed, access to social media is currently blocked for most Social Security employees, with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis. The risks and rewards of Web 2.0 for federal agencies are substantial for Social Security, given the fundamental role the institution plays in American society.

“We’re understanding that social media is becoming another means to communicate with a wide range of citizens,” said Baitman. “Since Social Security touches virtually every American at some point of their lives, social tools are critical to communication.”

The medium could be particularly relevant to senior citizens, who after all receive the lion’s share of their income from Social Security, with elderly citizens in the bottom quintile receiving 88.4 percent of their income from that source.

The issue of data leaks through new communication channels is not a negligible concern within the Office of the CIO, particularly as open government efforts move forward. Asked about that issue, Baitman said: “Open government is about communicating with the public, not sharing sensitive data. To the extent that we do share data, we extensively scrub it. Open government has nothing to do with personally identifiable information (PII). That has to do with what government is doing for and behalf of its citizens.”

To address those concerns, Social Security may well look to the example set for the secure use of social social media by the Department of Defense or the guidelines for secure use of social media by federal departments and agencies from the Federal CIO Council.

If open government is to continue its progression at Social Security, more online interaction between citizens and staffers is inevitable. Right now, the agency is taking careful steps, as evidenced by its relatively quiet @SocialSecurity feed on Twitter or Social Security Facebook page. They’ve marketed their news about the top baby names to outlets like @CNNBrk, @ParentsMagazine and @ESPN, personalities like @RichSanchezCNN, and administration officials or entities like @whitehouse, @PressSec, and @BillBurton44. But they haven’t replied to anyone. The agency currently is broadcasting on both forums, not engaging, responding or moderating comments or replies. With care, Social Security might take some notes from NASA on negotiating the frontiers of social media.

While online tools and digital platforms that enable greater transparency, collaboration and citizen participation will continue to improve beyond those used in 2010, the culture of openness within agencies will also need to evolve in order for open government to achieve any measure of success.

There are reasons to be hopeful. After I talked about the increase in location-based social networks, a young Social Security employee asked if I thought a live data feed of waiting times for branch locations would be useful if it was mashed up with an online map. I thought that sounded useful, and said as much.

Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue listed three open government initiatives during his speech at Awareness Day. All are important, meaningful and likely achievable. But if the Social Security Administration wants to evolve into a true 21st-century institution through better use of information technology, those initiatives will need to be the tip of the iceberg.

As Greg Pace, deputy CIO at the Social Security Administration, said at the end of Awareness Day: “We must examine the principles of open government with an open mind. It’s not about technology but about the people who use it. Be open.”


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  • Amy Wilson

    Interesting your slide number 42. Based on the Pew report results you claim that “higher use of government websites led to more trust”.

    However, this is not the same as saying that “heavy government data users have different attitudes about governments in terms of it being more open and accountable”. Correlation does not mean causality.

    Also, supposing there was to be a causality, could it be in the opposite direction, that is, “all other things equal, those who have better attitudes about government are more likely to be heavy government data users”? Research evidence suggests that this might be the case.

    The most recent statistically rigorous studies on the relationship you suggest are inconclusive, which makes me think that claiming that “higher use of government websites led to more trust” is a bold statement, although not really evidence-based.

    Apart from that, realy interesting slides and post.

  • Alexander Howard

    Thank you for the comment, Amy! I reported on research from the Pew Internet and Life Project back in April, which indicated that citizens turning to Internet for government data, policy and services. Their research on government online is free to download. The specific

    Here’s the key bit from my post and interview with Aaron Smith, the lead researcher on the report:

    The Pew Research report found, however, that those who are heavy government data users have different attitudes about government in terms of it being more open and accountable. This differs from people who are not online or people who are online but not heavy government data users. That perception, however, is heavily biased around ideological lines, which gibes with historical trends.

    “That fits with some research that our colleagues over at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press put out last week,” said Smith. “They went all the way back to public opinion data as far back as the Eisenhower administration. Basically, what they found is that people tend to trust the government when their party is in power and they tend to distrust it when the other party’s in power.”

    “What we see happening is that, at least at the moment, when you look at Democratic voters, they’re giving credit to the government for making that data out there. When you look at Republican voters, they’re a little bit tougher sell. The upshot to government is if you put your data out there, people will clearly use it.”

  • Chuck

    Great presentation! A useful addition would be to note how the federal Internet tech community (via people from ARPA and NSF who worked to build, lived and worked in the ‘net) led the federal IT and agency operations folks to the Internet and its applications. That is summarized at:

    The report is called:

    Reengineering Through Information Technology,
    Accompanying Report of the National Performance Review, Office of the Vice President, September 1993.

    From that came the intial “e-government” directives, organizations, applications, benifits and problems whose decendents are buzzing along today. At the time, NSF already had on-line proposal submission working, and getting IRS forms online was a huge initial win!

  • Alexander Howard

    Thanks, Chuck. Here’s that link:

    17 years ago; how times flies.

  • Chuck

    You need to understand that there was still debate back then about:

    1) the technical and economic viability of the Internet (at the time the set of connected federal research networks and the couple of initial private commercial TCP/IP ISPs);

    2) the existance of a market for home computers (!!);

    3) the entire environment of federal IT (just emerging from having been dominated by a couple of monopolist suppliers).

    It took some “imagineering” to educate everyone about what was about to hit them. All the roots were only 20 years old, but the browser was just being invented in the basement (of a federally funded supercomputer center). While IT was still too geeky to be the “main event” of the NPR Report, strong seeds got planted.

    The interesting thing is how durable the goals and issues are.

  • Mike Barris

    Attention: Alex Howard (not for posting – for internal use only)

    Mr. Howard,
    I’m writing a book with Rutgers University professor James Katz on citizen
    participation and the Obama administration’s social-media initiatives. I would like to interview you for your thoughts on the government’s efforts to stimulate citizen participation in policy-making through social media. My credentials include writing for The Wall Street Journal, and Dow Jones Newswires. My co-author, Dr. Katz, is professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Rutgers, where he also directs the Center for Mobile Communication Studies. If you choose not to participate in this project, could you please recommend someone
    else with your organization with whom I could speak?
    Mike Barris