When President Obama signed an executive order instructing federal agencies to disseminate more information online and open more channels for feedback, the media duly applauded while good-government groups breathed a sigh of relief. But agencies are already using social media; most just haven't been successful.
Bureaucratic inefficiency is partly to blame, as are a handful of outdated and inflexible laws. One of the most onerous and anachronistic, the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, requires the Office of Management and Budget to approve any government survey of 10 or more people, meaning a simple online customer satisfaction poll must submit to a months-long review process.
Still, the biggest problem facing most agencies isn't the trap of outdated regulations but the failure to attract an audience. Take the Commerce Department, which spent months negotiating a special end-user license agreement with YouTube and became one of the first federal agencies on the site last year.
Agencies have to recognize that the Web is no longer a fun afterthought, but a critical component for public interaction.
It was an achievement for the department to make it to YouTube, but its videos haven't taken off: Its channel has 14 videos and three subscribers. Its most popular? A seven-minute clip of then-Secretary Carlos Gutierrez speaking to the Manufacturing Council in July, with just over 100 hits. (Compare that with the roughly 500 views garnered by an amateur slide show about Oakland Technical High School's junior-varsity baseball team in California set to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline.") Content experts suggest Commerce instead post how-to videos to help Americans apply for government loans or learn about helpful programs.
The Commerce Department has made considerable gains online and come up with other ways to interact with users, but even it isn't immune to the idea that the Internet is a dumping ground for existing content, no matter how ill-suited it might be for the Web.
"It doesn't make sense to be using Web 2.0 tools for the sake of using Web 2.0 tools," says Sheila Campbell, co-chair of the Federal Web Managers Council, which advises government techies on Web outreach. Of the Commerce Department's YouTube struggle, she adds, "that's something that agencies need to look at -- to make sure they're developing compelling videos that resonate with their target audiences."
Too many agencies using the micro-blogging site Twitter treat it like a "glorified RSS feed," says Mark Drapeau, a research fellow at the National Defense University and a government 2.0 consultant. By providing links to blog posts and press releases instead of developing a dialogue with the users "following" them, Web managers aren't grasping the difference between "new media" and "social media." The State Department may have more than 900 Twitter followers, but since it doesn't track anyone itself, there's no back-and-forth.
"Any of them can point to the numbers and say, 'We have 326 people following us, and that's 326 more than we had before,'" Drapeau argues. "You might as well not use the tools if you're not going to be social, because it can backfire on you if people think you don't get it."
Federal agencies are still struggling with outmoded tech bureaucracies, experts say, which need to be realigned to recognize that the Web is no longer a fun afterthought, but a critical component for public interaction.
It's difficult to improve government Web sites when they're viewed "as an IT project rather than as a core business function," reads a white paper [PDF] written in November for the Obama-Biden transition team by the Federal Web Managers Council.
The white paper also says the government maintains too many Web sites -- estimated at 24,000, though "no one knows the exact number" -- and that too few of those sites have a dedicated budget or editors in chief who focus on improving content. Changing all that will take money and time -- more time, government technology gurus say, than the 120 days that OMB and the administration's still-unnamed chief technology officer are given under Obama's order to formulate a federal Web strategy.
In the meantime, the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Communications is trying to bring federal, state and local Web managers up to speed with workshops on topics ranging from managing blog comments to crisis communication online.
Some agencies, like the Transportation Security Administration, are figuring out the Web on their own. Most Americans feel about as warmly toward airport screeners as they do the Internal Revenue Service, but the security agency is helping lead the way in public outreach online. The agency launched its Evolution of Security blog last January to explain the byzantine airport security system and offer tips for travelers.
"The day we launched, we had Blogger set up to e-mail our BlackBerries every time someone posted a comment," said TSA spokesman Christopher White. "We had 800 comments in the first 24 hours. We had to turn it off."
The TSA blog covers everything from the reasoning behind liquid bans to whether holiday travelers can transport pies (they can). Posts average 3,000 pageviews and 100 comments, according to the agency. Not surprisingly, many posters use the blog to vent ("Why is pie exempt from liquid and gel restrictions?... Is it because barring pies from flights would be pointless, stupid, and do nothing to make anyone safer? Neither do TSA's other liquid policies.") But simply having a valve for passenger angst can help dispel the image of a faceless -- and heartless -- bureaucracy.
The agency has also rolled out an internal Web site where employees submit ideas to improve security and customer service that are then voted on, with the most popular submitted to the TSA brass. A number of submissions from the "Idea Factory" have been pressed into service, White said, like an idea for a special basket to help urns go through X-ray machines.
Since most citizen-government interactions occur in the real world, half the battle for online success is offline. So government offices are expanding their real-world efforts to bring in Web visitors. The TSA advertises its blog at airport security lines with stickers that read "Got Feedback?" The District of Columbia lets homeowners apply for building permits online, but it's also set up computer terminals at Home Depot to reach the right people at the right time.
Not every agency should expect to attract sizable audiences, given the specialization of most government offices, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, says Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and the blog TechPresident.
"We don't really know what the effect is of reaching a couple hundred people if it's the right couple hundred people," he says. "If the government makes it easier to find obscure information, but the only 200 people in the country who need the information find it, that's good."
The federal government still has a long way to go, but given the steps it's taken so far -- and the growing demand for online civic interaction -- Sifry is optimistic.
"Right now you can point to some failures of some interesting experiments, but six months to a year from now things will be very different," he said. "And it's about time."