Are Agencies’ Social Media Actually Furthering Openness?

For government entities both large and small–from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to the Department of Defense–social media accounts are being advertised as transparency and openness initiatives. Facilitating conversations between the public and the government is a great step towards greater openness and access. Asking for input and response in the public view could globalize the town hall structure of public access and community. The federal government’s social media presence should not be reduced, however, to a check-the-box requirement for agencies, nor should it be the main stage event for transparency and openness efforts. It is essential that agencies recognize the difference between tools and substance.

This difference is most clearly shown in the redesign of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) website. The ODNI’s new website shifts the platform of the site to Drupal, which opens up the site’s information for easier use by citizen developers or researchers. This change is a substantive move towards openness. The press release, however, also claims that the new ODNI website “reflects the ODNI’s increased emphasis on web 2.0 tools such as Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/dni.gov), which allow greater reach and transparency,” and a space to better communicate intelligence activities. But the ODNI’s Facebook page is more a repackaging of material already on its website and aggregation of news stories. Social media’s value as an openness tool is dependent on the substance it disseminates and the avenues of communication it constructs.

There are definite challenges to using social media as a tool for openness, and they are clearly outlined in the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) second Open Government Plan. Using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter as direct, conversational links to government officials does open up resource challenges and raises questions about the increased expectations of responsiveness. Will they be 24/7? What should the policies and processes be to efficiently ensure proper, accurate responses? Social media “connects” government to the public, but if the connection does not include greater engagement of the public and relies on one-way communication stream, it only stands as a straw man for true openness progress.

Some agencies are using the tool well, taking steps toward openness via social media. The National Archive’s “Social Media Strategy” centers on the use of technology for bettering access to their resources. Properly done, social media should inform the structure of an openness strategy—one that incorporates proactive disclosure, easier access to records, simplified contact with government officials. NASA demonstrates government social media’s best practices. Granted, the agency benefits from a flashier subject matter than most agencies, but NASA’s account does not rely on that: it answers questions from users, posts links to documents and reports, publicizes live chats with staff, tweets about new contracts for studies, and more. The Census Bureau, even without pictures of constellations, uses social media to increase openness by answering questions and responding to critiques on its Facebook page. Both entities take advantage of the conversational platform and gives the public greater access to information that might not be presented, prominent or accessible otherwise.

As OPM’s Open Government Plan details, successfully employing social media as an openness tool is a challenge, complicated by resource limitations, internal processes, and more. As agencies look to utilize social media as a vehicle for openness, they must recognize that presence on a social network is not enough, and look to the agencies that have had success for guidance.

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