Should the government tweet?

Ted Wheeler is getting some heat for his desire to have a modern media expert on staff at the County, working with tools like Twitter and Facebook. He’s doing a pretty good job of justifying his position, but it’s pretty ridiculous that he should even have to do that. Let me explain why this whole discussion strikes me as being completely ludicrous.

Last week, a bill I’d been working on (unpaid) was before a legislative committee in Salem. I had expected it to be heard on Tuesday, but at about noon on the previous Friday, I learned that it was going to be up at about 3pm that day.

So I canceled appointments with clients, and arranged to get from Portland to Salem. I then delivered my testimony, reflecting about 6 months of volunteer work facilitating a discussion among a broad group of business, policy, and government experts.

The committee chair did not listen to a word of my testimony (maybe 45 seconds); he was talking with the committee secretary about something more important.

On the whole, a massively inefficient, and somewhat humiliating, interaction. It’s fun to learn the steps to an odd 19th century ritual, but pretty frustrating to be required to do it just in order to sum up my work to a decision-maker.

I didn’t let it stop me, but many people with something to offer do. They don’t even consider the possibility of meaningful communication with their government institutions.

I, for one, applaud Ted Wheeler for daring to ask how government can become better at leveraging modern technology to better communicate with the public.

Am I suggesting that I should have been able to “tweet” my testimony? Of course not.

But here are just a few groups that have recognized that Twitter is an important dish on the modern communications menu, and have invested substantial capital or sweat into getting it right:

  • The Obama campaign
  • Innumerable news outlets
  • Innumerable retail businesses
  • Many elements of the Portland small business community
  • Any modern communications consulting business
  • etc., etc., etc.

To those of you who claim you’re “too old” or “too unhip” to get it, you’re wrong. If you think Twitter is a trend, or diminishes personal interaction (rather than enriching it), you’re wrong. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the midst of a communications revolution — and many of the tools that emerge represent significant progress. 20 years ago, you were telling me that email was a toy for academics and computer geeks, and would never catch on. 5 years ago, you were saying something similar about blogs. Pardon my lack of interest, but admit it — your track record isn’t that good.

If you genuinely want to understand how Twitter or related tools can fit into an effective communication strategy for the County or any other institution, I’d be happy to sit down and have a discussion.

But, fair warning: I’ll charge you a lot of money for that discussion. That kind of consulting is in pretty high demand these days.

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7 Responses to “Should the government tweet?”

  1. Martha Forsyth Says:

    I read an interesting comment to this post on Facebook – dunno how to link to it so will quote the bulk of the message:
    “I worked for DOE for 7 yrs; my experience was that the agency spent millions on software development that didn’t work for it’s needs, held myriad planning mtgs on new IT projects that, years later, were shit-canned, majority of IT employees were unable to implement critical programs such as network security and database… Read More integration, and was not held accountable by overseeing agencies for financial irresponsibility and inability to implement some of the most critical of programs. It is my experience that an agency that is unable to even update it’s public website efficiently has no right starting new communication programs. Just my two cents.”

    My two cents: If you can’t manage what you already have, don’t go looking for more stuff to mismanage! just get busy and either learn to use it well, or ditch it.
    But if you CAN and ARE managing it….and can add something without losing – then I’d say, go for it!

    Now to the critical part of my comment: I haven’t been able to parse how the State Legislature anecdote relates to Pete’s question about gov’t involvement in Twitter. Both points seem valid, but I don’t get the connection.

    BTW how is the state legislature issue going?

  2. Mike Welch Says:

    I’d agree that governments need to make use of emerging technologies to engage their electorate, but I don’t think Twitter is the right model.

    Twitter is essentially a one to many medium. I’m sure it could have a place as a channel for a government to pass information to the electorate, but that’s a problem that needs another solution. We already have press conferences, 24 hour news channels, government and quasi-government spokesmen ready to stand up and push the party line on any subject. Twitter may reach a different demographic but I don’t see whoever is twittering on behalf of the government reading the tweets of those who reply.

    I think the real problem that needs to be solved is how the views of the electorate are made apparent to those in power.

    Technology could make it possible for every decision made by government to be put to a referendum almost instantly. Is that really what we want though? We should select our leaders based on their ability to lead, to make better decisions than we would. If every government action becomes an X-Factor popularity vote it’s only going to be so long before the question “Should we nuke France?” gets put up for a vote and the answer from the public comes back as “yes” :)

  3. Mom, Layne, Mike:

    I can see that we’re coming to this discussion with radically different things in mind, and I guess I should take the blame for that, for introducing the topic in a sloppy way.

    Mom: The connection is basically this:

    Currently, communicating with the government involves many antiquated communication structures — perhaps most notably, the need to attend various meetings in person, with sometimes impossibly minimal notice, and impossibly great distances to travel.
    There is a vast menu of communications tools available to any government official who is willing to explore them.
    Ted Wheeler is one of the rare few officials who is willing to explore them.
    Ted Wheeler’s original introduction to the issue included the words “Twitter” and “Facebook,” which started a ridiculous debate about who thinks what platform is the wave of the future. That was never the point, and it’s unfortunate that debate has clouded the more general issue of “is it worth public dollars to hire somebody who has expertise in the full menu, and is capable of evaluating which ones can be used to good effect in solving the County’s problems?”
    To which the answer should be a resounding OF COURSE IT SHOULD! (Unless you happen to mistrust Wheeler’s motives — which is likely why this became such a hot-button issue, due to the inflammatory rhetoric from far right shock jock Victoria Taft. If you follow the thread this story has taken through local media, which far too few people have bothered to do.)

    Layne (that’s the DOE employee): I share your concerns, in fact they are a big part of the reason for my position. This is the beauty of modern social media: It allows communications people to do communications activities, without an excessive reliance on IT people. In fact, zero reliance. One of the many reasons to make strategic, good use of social media is to reduce reliance on expensive, complex, and often poorly-implemented IT solutions.

    Mike: I didn’t really mean to focus entirely on Twitter (I know, my headline might just possibly have given you the idea that I did.) But, in the case of Twitter, there are myriad ways to use it, and I disagree with your summation of it as a “one to many medium.” I’d outline the ways it could be used, but really, isn’t that the job of whoever gets the communications job with the County?

    Sorry if these replies seem insufficient — but there are so many possible tangents to explore in this discussion, and I am unfortunately pretty cramped for time…and also, I’m becoming convinced that the detailed discussions of how to use one platform or another don’t serve much good except when done in the context of making a specific decision, toward a specific goal.

  4. Martha Forsyth Says:

    Thanks for the explanation, Peter. Anything that improves communication is a good thing, but fer cryin’ out loud DON’T saddle people who “don’t understand Twitter, etc.” with the responsibility for handling it well! And I did go and read the original post by Ted Wheeler.

  5. conspiracyzach Says:

    Like Cabbage Patch Dolls and the Pet Rock tweets will be yesterdays hype in a few years. It will rule the world like Michael Jackson for a bit and like a bad hairstyle or bell bottoms we will all be ashamed to admit we were twats back in the old days. The government cannot do anything right. Bridges will fail and trains will pile up while we chirp away. Complete folly.

  6. Great post.

    I too support wheeler – he’s been doing a great job without that position – all on his own, BTW.

    Also, yes, testifying before the legislature – or any govt. body is quite humiliating. Sigh.

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