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.