Will Social Media Boost Government Transparency?

Back in April, when I was asked to talk about social media and government transparency at this week’s Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference, one of the first things I did was make a list of Members of Congress who “get” social media.

It was a very short list. For one, most Members of Congress leave the tweeting to their staff. The other thing is that their Twitter feeds are often one-way conversations. They’re social only in the sense that they want you to hear what they have to say–but who knows if they’re listening to you. When Twitter is used effectively, it’s as a tool to not only inform and entertain but to engage.

Anthony Weiner was one of the exceptions. Before his awful implosion, his Twitter feed was humorous, insightful, engaging. It represented an unprecedented milestone–our democracy entering an age where the American public for the first time could have instant, unfiltered access to a Member of Congress. Unfortunately, it also answered the question of whether there’s such a thing as too much transparency.

What will be the fallout of Weinergate? Will it be a setback for government transparency via social media?

In the short term, we know that the amount of tweeting by members of Congress dropped almost 30 percent in the days following the scandal.

But ultimately, I think the whole Weiner episode is inconsequential. It’s not going to have much impact on whether Members of Congress or agencies in the executive branch use social media. The federal government’s move toward Gov2.0 has much bigger challenges than the awful judgement of a single Member of Congress.

Not that there’s any stopping the social media train. Two of the three branches of government have belatedly embraced social media. All of the major agencies have some sort of presence on either Twitter or Facebook, or both. Some agencies, such as NASA are leading the way. NASA has more than 200 social media accounts across the agency. Its main twitter feed has more than a million followers. An astronaut unlocked a Foresquare badge from outerspace.You can’t get much more social media savvy than that.

Similarly, most Members of Congress have Facebook and YouTube pages. And according to TweetCongress there are 387 Members of Congress on Twitter. That includes all but 15 senators.

The biggest obstacle is that government by its very nature is the opposite of almost everything social media values. Government often struggles with innovation. It’s about tradition and protocol. Government doesn’t encourage its employees to be free spirits and individuals. It encourages conformity. Government is a tangle of dense regulations and convoluted codes.

Your company or organization might have a set of guidelines or best practices about your use of social media. But government has reams and reams of documentation. There have been congressional hearings with hours and hours of testimony. There is guidance from the General Services Administration, the Office of Management and Budget, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission, to name a few.

Is it any wonder that faced with this mountain of bureaucracy, your typical government employee might be overly cautious when using social media? Is it any wonder why some staffers might be a confused about what they can and can’t do on Twitter or Facebook?

Consider that Congress failed last year and will likely fail this year to pass a law that creates rules for agencies on the preservation of email. If Congress can’t figure out what to do with email, forget about tackling questions like whether direct messages on Twitter or Facebook are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Unfortunately, all this bureaucracy has a stifling affect on the use of social media.

For me, the ones who “get” it use Twitter and Facebook to give the public insight into why they support or oppose a certain issue. They use it to create a dialogue on any topic. The important part is that the sharing of thoughts and ideas flows in both directions. Framed another way, social media when used as a free-flowing, unfiltered forum can give us a sense of a person’s values.

Ultimately, I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of guy when it comes to government and social media. Social media has tremendous potential to increase transparency. It already is helping people feel more connected to their elected officials and federal agencies.

Unfortunately, the immediate hurdles are significant. Many federal agencies are still struggling to overcome a culture of secrecy. The federal budget for the important E-government initiative has been severely cut.

Critical transparency legislation often falls victim to partisan fights on Capitol Hill. The Electronic Message Preservation Act, which passed the House last year, failed to make it out of the Senate. This year that measure has been absorbed into a broad transparency bill. However, the prospects of that bill moving forward aren’t good.

We need Congress to put aside these partisan fights, so that we can update our FOIA and records management laws to account for the new ways that people communicate. Right now, federal officials are having to make interpretations based on laws that never envisioned the rise of social media.

Ironically, social media might help us get past these hurdles. The power of the people to organize and put pressure on our government has never been greater.

Originally appeared on POGO’s blog.