Obama's Transparent Government to Be Built on New Media

SPECIAL REPORT: Transparent Government Solutions

By Jeff Erlichman, 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media.

Transparency, participation and collaboration are the cornerstones of the new way government does business.

On the day after his inauguration, President Obama turned longstanding promises into action. His now famous January 21, 2009 memo to all department and agency heads clearly spelled out what he expected
government to do to make it more transparent and open.

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government,” wrote the President.

And he gave marching orders that by May 21, 2009, OMB and GSA are to collaboratively develop recommendations for an Open Government Directive that will be issued and implemented by OMB.

So, with the stroke of his pen, the President took New Media mainstream.

New Media Mission
“We started to use the term New Media,” said Teresa Nasif, the acting deputy associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services at GSA in a recent interview with 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media.

Nasif explained the White House now has a director of New Media and that most agencies will have directors of New Media to guide the movement to a transparent government.

Nasif defined New Media as not TV, radio and print (traditional media), but a complete online presence including Web 1.0 and new social networking tools (Web 2.0). “The whole online citizen experience is covered by the New Media.”

Nasif is also a member of the Federal Web Managers Council that has authored two position papers Putting Citizens First: Transforming Online Government; and Social Media and the Federal Government: Perceived and Real Barriers and Potential Solutions. (Download from http://www.webcontent.gov)

She urged her federal colleagues to go to www.usa.gov and check out the Web 2.0 page and to http://www.webcontent.gov to read these thought leadership papers of how agencies are using online and New Media tools to achieve agency objectives. “Going and seeing what others are doing is a fabulous first step, because the next few years are going to be transformational.”

Nasif said that this is an exciting time for the community because the Administration believes in Web 2.0 and Government 2.0 and that the time between now and the May 21 deadline is being used to look at the obstacles, see how to overcome the barriers and offer possible solutions to help agencies be more transparent and citizens to become more engaged.

Web 2.0 is a communications tool, it is not IT infrastructure. When at your computer you log on and give your opinion. Wait, you don't even have to be at your computer – your laptop, PDA or Smartphone will do.

Inconsistency in government policies meant that agencies had different rules for using New Media social networking tools. Some agencies did not have access to Facebook or YouTube. “What we are doing is to encourage agencies to examine their missions and think about how they can use New Media tools to get information about what they are doing out to the public and then engage them,” said Nasif.

Goals & Obstacles
Government agencies have to be where the people are declared Nasif.

“There are 175 million on Facebook. How can we not want to be in a room with 175 million where you can talk about your programs, what you have to offer and describe your mission? You have to be part of conversation; you have to be there because that is where the people are.”

Nasif advocates establishing Web communications as a core government business function so that the public can:
*Easily find relevant, accurate, and up-to-date information

*Understand information the first time they read it

*Complete common tasks efficiently

*Get the same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, live chat, read a brochure, or visit in-person

*Provide feedback and ideas and hear what the government will do with them

*Access critical information if they have a disability or aren't proficient in English.

But there are obstacles which the implementation of the new Open Government Directive will have to overcome.

Nasif said the government will have to overcome obstacles such as cultural issues and a lack of a strategy for using these new tools; providing employee access to online tools; developing governmentwide terms of service; how to deal with advertising on social networking sites; how to procure tools governmentwide and not have each agency develop its own solution; how to protect privacy; how to deal with persistent cookies; providing access for people with disabilities and general administrative requirements during rulemaking.

One major obstacle according to Nasif is that many of Social Media providers have terms of service agreements that agencies would have to sign that would present problems for federal users.

To solve that issue Nasif said there is an interagency group working to come up with a governmentwide agreement so a YouTube wouldn't have to work out individual agreements with every agency. At the same time this will offer agencies a standard agreement that works across government, which they could sign or not sign.

“Getting It”
The idea of having governmentwide New Media tools illustrates the fact with New Media tools it won't be “business as usual”. Obama's memo says the policy will be governmentwide, so agencies will have to embrace openness and transparency.

Nasif said this will be a challenge for the vendor community. “The vendor community has to think about developing and selling governmentwide tools. There is an inclination to use agreed upon costs and make available of a standard set of tools that agencies can tap into, so that agencies can save money and be cost effective and won't have to start from square one.”

If your agency is just getting started with New Media, Nasif counseled that you start with your mission. “Ask what is it that I want to do and how you go about it with New Media.” 

She thinks agencies should look at the CDC website. “They started with this is our goal and how are we going to use the tools. They aren't using them for the sake of it, but for getting information out to public.”

For example CDC used New Media during the recent peanut recall. “I'm standing in line at the store and I get a text from CDC saying 'don't buy that product'. How cool is that.”