Twitter: A standard-issue tool for government leaders

Todd Park on how he integrates the real-time web into his communication suite.

The first chief technology officer of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is doing more than just working to make community health data as useful as weather data. HHS CTO Todd_Park (@todd_park) is using Twitter to accomplish the core goals of his role at HHS: innovate, communicate, and iterate.

“I just think that it is a fantastic way to get interesting messages out there, to get the word out about key things, to get feedback — all in an incredibly open, real-time way,” he said in an interview at the mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C. “I’m so enamored with it, actually, as a vehicle for interacting with the public and folks who are interested in improving healthcare that I actually think it should be a standard issue part of being a 21st Century government leader. I think every government leader should have a Twitter account and really be using it to talk to folks and get insight about what to do.”

Does it take a lot of time to tweet? “It’s not something I do separately from anything else,” said Park. “Communicating and getting feedback is part of what I’m supposed to do. It’s another vehicle in the suite of tools that help me do a core part of my job, which is communicate what we’re doing and get feedback on what we’re doing and try to make it better.”

For example, Park tweeted about a new goal for text4baby yesterday, which has now grown to be the biggest mobile health platform in the United States:

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Next Text4baby goal announced today: 1 million moms enrolled by 2012 www.text4baby.orgless than a minute ago via web

Park’s adoption is by no means ground breaking, of course. Politicians, tech executives, academics and the media have been joining the ebb and flow of more than 175 million Twitter users. The State Department’s Alec J. Ross is known for his use of the medium for digital diplomacy, leveraging the web to share information about technology for Internet freedom and foreign policy. What’s significant about Park’s use is not simply the existence of his account: it’s that he just sees it as part of his job, and a useful tool at that. It’s not revolutionary, it’s evolutionary.

That perspective is symbolic of a larger shift toward social software that’s making its way into government. In a widely read post from last week, MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee wondered if a sea change had already washed over technology executives:

As I listened, I realized that a fundamental shift had taken place: these executives were no longer talking mainly about their concerns, hesitations, or reasons for caution around Enterprise 2.0. Instead, they were talking about their frustrations that their companies weren’t moving faster toward it.

There’s still a ways to go before microblogging, wikis, and ideation platforms are the norm in every workplace. As McAfee has himself observed, Gov 2.0 is up against the beast of bureaucracy. When high profile public servants like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (@Schwarzenegger) or Newark Mayor Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) show the nation what can be done in real-time, however, others will follow. One of these days, perhaps President Obama (@BarackObama) will even join the conversation himself.

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