Venture Beyond the Wall: People Do Want To Follow Federal Government Online

A theme is emerging in the discussion around the federal government’s use of social media: the average citizen has no real incentive to follow federal departments online. There are any number of theories out there, but they seem to center around the notion that Federal agencies are just too big, too disconnected from our daily lives to matter. Denise Eisner, of Systemscope, in a recent post said “aside from maybe one or two notable exceptions, there’s scant evidence that users want to follow an entire department.” She also states that agencies are “large organizations with multiple services that may or may not translate into discrete tasks performed by users with different needs.”

Ms. Eisner goes on to suggest some social media tactics federal agencies might want to implement are “alerts and recalls, border crossing times, harmful chemical substances in consumer products, air quality readings in my geographic area, vaccination clinic locations and hours of operation, [or] upcoming deadlines for public consultations.”

While syndication of alerts and deadlines and broadcasting general information is essential and certainly valuable to the public – and can be done very successfully with social media tools (along with RSS feeds, emails subscriptions, SMS, IVR phone systems, etc.) – these are services that can be automated because they are, by their nature, short-lived and one-way communications. They are not social. They are not engaging. They are also built on the notion that getting the most subscriptions or followers is the goal.

The number of eyeballs – or impressions – seeing any individual piece of content as a measure of success is antiquated and has quickly faded as a relevant metric. It is the same measurement newspapers used for years and still offered as evidence to sell ads. KD Paine, one of the leading voices on social media measurement, says counting impressions is both impossible and irrelevant to your communications goals.

Being Too Safe

Government is playing it too safe with social media. Syndication and sharing office hours and links to press releases is safe: record keeping is simple, Paperwork Reduction Act violations are easy to avoid, and it does not require any additional, specialized, demand-driven content and hiring the staff to create it.

So what’s missing? Customer service.

These automated, impersonal outreach efforts do not break the perception of bureaucracy. They do not let people get behind the wall or let government employees venture out beyond it.

Whether it’s helping people navigate your website, finding out where to find a document or how to fill it out, answering questions or providing unique insight about proposed or current regulations or a recent decision, providing context to a breaking news event, pointing researchers in the right direction for data, or showcasing the results of a contest for smarter light bulbs, government needs to really listen and respond.

A lot of accounts now are just shouting out into the internet.

A great example of customer service engagement is what the White House is doing with the #WHchat daily office hours on Twitter. They are putting experts – not just communicators – into the channel, legitimizing the channel, listening and responding.

Why aren’t all federal agencies doing this all time?

Just like we'd route questions to the appropriate expert if they came in through snail mail, phone call, or email, agencies need to remember that people don't just want to follow them for news. Social media channels needs to be on equal footing with other channels.

I Got It From The Government

People will follow you if you give them more than information and help them. They’re also more likely to share the information they got from you. And, most of all, they’re probably more likely to tell people about the great customer service they received from the government.

And it’s also easy to focus on the “average citizens,” but state and local governments, businesses, contractors, and other significant stakeholders are also using social media to conduct business. They want to engage too.

Government departments need to be part of these conversations – big and small. This customer service component – which is vaguely referenced in the recent Customer Service Executive Order – is what’s missing from many federal social media programs and keeping people from having a productive relationship with their government.

It’s also keeping people from hitting the follow button or having a real conversation on your Facebook page.