July 14, 2024

Government Needs to Embrace the Social Web – Principle #6 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

As Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that – it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The Federal government shutdown has, at least temporarily, shed light on the valuable day-to-day work done by the Federal government and its employees. Now is the time for the Federal government to strengthen the connection between the public and Federal employees. The Federal government should embrace the social web as a part of its employees’ work lives.

To this point open government has generally meant that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. Open government should include people too. Putting a human face – along with professional contact information and areas of expertise – as a part of Agencies’ public facing websites will facilitate transparency. Employees should have something like a Facebook-lite or more open version of Linked-in, where everyone’s profile is visible. Certainly, there will be limitations. For example, employees with military or law enforcement responsibilities will continue to be largely anonymous. As with e-mail, Agencies will develop oversight mechanisms. Even so, the public and Federal employees should have better access to each other.

Why is this important? First, it is important as a long-term recruiting tool for the Federal government, which needs to move beyond its post-WWII incarnation. Many of the government’s current and future employees have grown up on the Internet and social media. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, where everyone from middle schoolers to LeBron James to Madeline Albright is curating their personal brand online, giving Federal employees a forum to be recognized for and communicate about their work on-line will positively effect morale and is something that potential employees will expect going forward.

Second, increasing social media use by government employees will improve information sharing between the Federal government and the public. As one of my friends said a few years ago, “government needs an advertising campaign.” This could be it. When non-profits and philanthropists do great work in the U.S. and around the world, they tweet about it and make videos. Why can’t a government employee who does similar work do the same? If a status update can be a public good, let’s take advantage of that. It will make the work of the Federal government known and relevant to a wider variety of Americans.

Third, a Federal government more engaged with the social web will share information more effectively within and across Agencies. Understanding the history of a problem or developing a legal theory can require conversations with other experts. Today, those experts can be hard to identify, sometimes even within one large agency. Government employees themselves need more than just a “contact” box in the corner of an Agency website to develop broader networks that will save them time and improve their expertise. Law firms, for example, routinely make lawyers’ contact information and career highlights available on-line.

At some point soon, this government shutdown will end. Federal employees will go back to work and the public will go back to not thinking about the people who ensure food safety, conduct weather monitoring and inspect airlines every day. Let’s not lose this opportunity. As individuals and businesses adapt to the social web, government must not lag behind.


  1. Jeffrey, I agree with you on this principle. Unfortunately I see it as nothing more than pipe-dreams.

    Our government doesn’t want to be open, neither in transparency of documents nor in open communication by employees. I have found it near impossible to get a federal employee to give a straight answer to even the most basic question; if I ever get them on the phone in the first place. And forget about making a personal appearance; if I try I get kicked out of every office.

    The only think the shutdown has taught me; is that the government wants to be less open. Now you can’t even go to a park without getting kicked out.

  2. They high profile politicians have another good reason to use social media. I’m not fully familiar with US democratic system, but in my country almost every politician/ high profile job has a Facebook profile set as a public figure and contacts very effectively with the public, significant amount of them are regularly answering questions that are sent to them via social media. A very small amount of them are sarcastically answering to trolls as well.

    Social media has a lot of influence on the public image of an individual or a party, and even to the extent of influencing the political views of people (rarely, even change them in some individuals of groups)

    I don’t necessarily agree with the fact that it’s good for us as much as mentioned above, but it has it’s pros and con. For example, a large amount of people’s view is more likely to be influenced by baseless posts (even lies) people actually fall for it pretty often (even me once :/)

    bottom line, I agree the advantages of social media to the public are significantly greater than it’s disadvantages/side affects, and it’s helps to create more interaction between the public and the figures