Barack Obama, widely heralded as the first "Internet president," is inseparable from his BlackBerry and delivers a weekly address on YouTube. The White House has its own Flickr stream. Senators now duke it out via Twitter. (The Supreme Court, or at least its Web site, seems firmly moored in the late 1990s.)
But in government agencies, where civil servants and agendas are correctly outside the influence of whoever resides in the White House, the online revolution is moving a bit more slowly. On a rainy fall day, some 100 agency workers gathered under sparkling chandeliers in the ballroom of Washington, D.C.'s Willard Hotel for a day-long seminar on the finer points of using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even virtual worlds such as Second Life.
"You can personalize your avatar to look similar to yourself, although I don't know many people that do it exactly the same. I'm much thinner, younger, have flowing black hair," said Paulette Robinson, an assistant dean at National Defense University who goes by Paulette Darkstone in Second Life. She logged in to show the audience one of the virtual meeting places NDU has set up.
"I'm going to do flying, but I'm not very good at it; I'm just warning you," she said. The raven-haired Paulette Darkstone avatar promptly smacked into a tall pine tree.
Welcome to the brave new world of Government 2.0.
The seminar, put on by the nonprofit Potomac Forum, was billed as an introduction for civil servants to the ever-expanding world of social media -- online tools (such as YouTube for videos, Twitter for short updates, Flickr for photos, Facebook and My-Space for social networking) that anyone can use to create and share content.
"[The Obama administration] is definitely leading the way. [But] I would argue it probably would have happened regardless," Dennis Papula, director of the Information Technology Policy and Compliance Division at the U.S. General Services Administration, tells me. The GSA is a bit of a gap-filler agency -- formed in 1949, it manages federal buildings, sets procurement and travel policy, and administers government Web sites. Papula (who joked at the start of his panel that he is the "token guy in the dark suit and red tie") says GSA is the first agency he knows of that has come out with a comprehensive social-media policy.
While it's laudable that agencies want to enter the 21st century, some questions remain: Why should anyone care if Federal Emergency Management Agency employees have a presence in Second Life? Would anyone want to befriend the Transportation Security Administration on Facebook? Does anyone really want to read the GSA's Twitter updates? (Boredom in 140 characters or less: "Save money this fall with these no-cost and low-cost energy-saving tips.")
Kyle Carothers, a media producer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, started the agency's YouTube channel in 2006, making NOAA one of the first government agencies to sign an official partner agreement with the service. But even he acknowledges that agencies should use social media only as it's applicable to their agency's mission. "If your Web site doesn't produce video-friendly content, why produce it?" he asked.
The problems government agencies face as they start using social media are the same issues faced by any organization that wants a significant online presence: dealing with comments, coming up with content, and striking the right tone. FEMA's Jodi Cramer described the agency's comment policy without missing a beat: "If people say, 'FEMA, you suck,' we'll post it. If they say, 'FEMA, you f---ing suck,' we won't."
By design, social-media tools promote interaction between citizens and the often byzantine world of federal agencies. When the TSA launched its blog in January 2008, it received more than 2,000 com- ments in the first three days. "Kudos to TSA for starting off on the right (albeit a shoe- and bootie-less) foot," wrote Wired magazine of the site, creatively named The TSA Blog. "Passengers were finally able to vent to the TSA -- they aren't really comfortable doing it at a checkpoint," said Curtis "Blogger Bob" Burns, who helms the blog. He admitted that he still struggles to strike a conversational tone. "Just like if I met you at the grocery store, that's how I try to write," he said.
The blog has provided a way for the TSA to rapidly respond to its critics -- of which there are many. When a mother's account of having her son taken from her while going through airport security began making rounds in the blogosphere, Burns posted a response. "As a father of two small children, I empathized with her about the alleged circumstances," Burns wrote. However, he also posted a full video of the woman's screening, which showed that her account was, in fact, false.
Still, agencies cannot always play by the super-confessional rules of social media. "One of the biggest challenges for a government blogger is to be transparent. There is some information you just can't share," Burns told the crowd. He cited the 3-ounce rule for liquids in carry-ons -- he's been thoroughly briefed on the reasons for the measure, but he's not allowed to tell his readers.
While the government is scrambling to adjust to emerging technology, that technology might have to do some adjusting to government (and its myriad regulations). Federal IT is required by law to be accessible to those with disabilities and "frankly a lot of the services themselves aren't accessible," Papula says. "If you're blind, and you use a screen reader, if a page isn't coded right, it can't make sense of that." If social-media sites are forced to comply with the government's standards, accessibility would likely increase.
Getting agencies to use social media is also increasing the availability of government data -- a rich source that's already being tapped. Everyblock, a start-up site that was recently acquired by MSNBC, syncs up city government data with news feeds and street-level maps. When Google expanded its popular Google Earth mapping and aerial-images feature to the oceans, it used NOAA video.
Creating a Twitter account isn't the same thing as flinging open the files, but it's a start. Just as you may never have known about your co-worker's obsession with early '90s R&B in the pre-Facebook era, maybe social media can illuminate some of the dusty corners of the federal government.
After explaining the hoops he jumped through to launch the NOAA YouTube channel, Carothers loaded it up, showing the seminar attendees a video of deep-sea creatures. "We have a shot of some nice critters. Isn't he cute? This nice little shrimp?"
Maybe government is getting the hang of the Internet after all.