I had a chapter in Twitterville about government in Twitter. My research for the book took place in about February. At the time I saw great promise in government using social media to get closer with constituents, mostly in the day-to-day conducting of government government business and information distribution.
Two examples of this that I used in Twitterville were the San Diego Metro Transit System, which is one of many public transit systems using twitter to giver passengers real time information about delays, snags and changes. I also liked Newcastle [UK] City Council's whose secretary Alistair Smith tweets school closings, with greater currency than than the BBC can provide.
But since I wrote the chapter six months have gone by. The size of Twitter has at least doubled and by some estimates tripled. And I was curious if government, which usually lags behind other segments in tech adoption has been keeping pace.
So I went back to Twitter and I asked a couple of times for examples of government using Twitter--any part of government in any country, state, province or municipality. Beyond that I was intentionally open-ended and vague.
I received over 50 responses in a 24-hour period, which is a lot higher than my requests usually generate. But as was the case six months ago, about half the suggestions were for politics, not government. The two are of course, closely related. But my interest is not in social media efforts to sell a cause or candidate; nor was it to see how well organizations are raising money or pushing messages.
I just wanted to see if much of government. in its day-to-day operations was adopting a tool that could allow it's mid-level workers to serve the needs of constituents with greater efficiency. I was wondering about the barriers and fears that have been prevalent, not just in government, but in all the organizational segments including business, nonprofits, education and so on.
I found there has been a great deal happening in the western developed world. I have yet to hear about government using social media in Asia, Africa or South America. There were some encouraging and surprising examples.
I was curious in part, because I had a couple of private visits with government officials in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, where I found representatives of both national governments well-informed and looking for useful, pragmatic insight and information. Both gave me lots of examples of how they are using social media and both had just begun. In Dublin Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board is exploring ways to use social media to educate constituents as to where and how and why food is raised,in a time where local grown and organic are emerging complex issues.
Northern Ireland has become active in social media as well in the last six months. Their web-based NIDirect, has started using Twitter and in October used it to get accurate information out quickly related to swine flu.
In Ireland and Norther Ireland where I found absolutely nothing six months ago, I met privately on a recent trip with government officials who were well-informed and dedicated to using social media in a variety of ways ranging from education on how food is raised to information about swine flu to handling license fees online.
Neither group was looking at lofty "world-changing" approaches, but upon the day-to-day interactions where government interacts with constituents, often to the frustration of both sides.
I got several other stories through Twitter of activity where there was none before. New Zealander Katarina Sorstedt educated me how government keeps people current on earthquakes and geologic activity in the South Pacific via Twitter . New Zealand's Parliament has posted a mere 15 times, but has begun a bipartisan effort to post information to Twitter.
In the US, there is a great deal happening on state and local levels. Mayoral offices in at least a dozen cities have blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts where they directly, usually promptly and somewhat transparently answer constituent queries and comments. I liked Washington State's Department of Transportation's use of social media to to let people know of any changes regarding any public way, be it roads, water, airports or tracks.
In the US Federal government a majority of Congress uses social media with varied levels of direct conversation and self-serving promotion. The Obama Administration's White House has several promising initiatives, but so far seem more intent on sending messages out than listening to what people have to say. All executive wing departments are now using social media to varying degrees as are most state governments.
Six months ago each of those areas were at less than the 50 percent mark.
Law enforcement in the US, UK, Canada and Mexico are using social media. Fire Departments are too and seem generally focused on using social media as a set of new communications tools to warn people of impending disasters to avoid. The Los Angeles Fire Department, a pioneer in using online and conversational resources, recently warned residents of fast shifts in the deadly path of the recent Station Fire.
What interesting is that I found little conversation of grandiose social media activities such as, say, a national town meeting on healthcare. The idea that we could have big audience/big issue simultaneous conversation never seemed realistic to me. We have too many cases of government issues that have been sullied by people with agendas and everyone talking at once.
In governments of the West, what I am seeing is softer, less dramatic and entirely realistic. Social media is being used to help midlevel government workers help constituents with every day, recurrent issues. It is becoming normal in some quiet frontiers to guide constituents away from the phone and email and website and onto the Twitter and Facebook accounts.
And in tiny spoonfuls like those, social media is starting to make governments just a little bit better.