Engaging e-Citizens in Dynamic Conversation
The ongoing ‘digital revolution’ gives rise to the emergence of truly social media, in which the vast majority of information exchanges are conducted by individuals acting in private, rather than institutional, capacities. As participation has steadily increased, the technical capacity to communicate with almost anyone, regardless of location, breeds an expectation that most individuals will regularly engage in these communications.
Commercial interests, keen on reaching potential customers, have played to this expectation and devoted considerable resources toward engaging active and responsive e-citizens through social media. Government agencies, weighted with the responsibility of representing the collective will of the people, have been much slower to dive in. Recognizing this shortcoming, President Obama ordered federal agencies to embrace Open Government, including greater direct public engagement.
Although Federal Twitter accounts remain largely limited to Web 1.0-style one-way dissemination, they have started to engage citizens in direct conversation. The Coast Guard now approvingly comments on people displaying its decal on their cars, TSA clarifies whether you’re allowed to carry on hummus, and Customs and Border Protection fields questions about bringing medication into the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses IdeaScale to solicit citizen ideas and back-and-forth discussion. The White House petitions site has become famous for providing a forum through which the common person can receive a response from the highest levels of government, whether about vital topics or the feasibility of constructing a Death Star.
At the same time, challenges abound. Extreme and irrelevant comments inundate Federal Facebook pages and Youtube entries, while concerns and uncertainty over what might constitute government censorship constrain efforts at administrator moderation.
As the expectation of government online engagement with its citizens grows, agencies need to devote increasing attention and resources to such efforts. This can’t be merely a gesture or formality. It should be an integral part of policy planning and vetting.
Tapping into companies that understand the Federal Government’s customers and have had success in engaging e-Citizens is an essential tool in moving from information delivery to a dynamic conversation.