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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