GCN Interview | Bev Godwin

White House friends GSA, comments on social media

GSA's Bev Godwin discusses social-media efforts at the White House

When the Obama administration took office, officials already knew a thing or two about how to use Web 2.0 tools. But many in the administration were still new to the way the federal government worked. So they called Bev Godwin in from the General Services Administration for a six-month detail to explain this new world. In many ways, Godwin is the perfect translator. As director of GSA's USA.gov government Web portal and an active participant in the federal Web managers community, Godwin is as familiar with the new tools as she is with the traditions of government. Recently, Godwin returned to GSA, and she discussed her experience at the White House and new media in general. 

GCN: How did it go at the White House?

Godwin: I think it was a really good marriage. I had been in the government for a long time. As a director of USA.gov, I've had a bird's eye view of the government Web space. I was able to convey what the requirements are, where the landmines are, what the best practices are, who the good people are around government, and who is doing innovative things.

Meanwhile, I learned an enormous amount from them. They had learned the tools from the campaign, and they were ingrained in implementing [technologies] very rapidly.

One of the things I was working on while I was there was a terms-of-service (TOS) agreement. Many of the new media products, like Facebook, when you set up an account, you click on the terms-of-service agreement. As an individual, this is not a problem, but if you are signing on behalf of a federal organization, you are agreeing to things in there that don't comply with federal regulations, indemnity clauses, jurisdictions. There were things that were problematic — that kept every agency from using these tools. So we started this process to overcome the legal barriers with the terms of service.

There are still other laws that people have to comply with — Section 508 accessibility compliance, privacy and security of records management. But this was to deal with the legal terms of service. YouTube was the first one that we did, and now we have 23 others. Some of them are smaller tools (such as) Socrata, a way to display data on a Web site (and) Cooliris, a way to share photos.

It really did break a logjam. It was a great learning experience that I want to take back to GSA.

What were the main lessons that you learned?

That there are a lot of free, open-source products out there that can help the government online presence a lot. And they are not that hard to deploy. If you bring people together — the legal team, the IT team, the program team — around the same table with the attitude of, “We can do this,” then it can be done.

What challenges did the new administration face?

The White House's Office of New Media does things very quickly. They bring a lot to the table. Rather than saying, “We can't do this because of x, y and z,” they say, "Let's do this. Let's figure out how.”

But they had some challenges. We have laws on records management. Everything that the White House staff [gives] to the president must be saved in the archives (under the Presidential Records Act.) There are systems in place to save everything we do on WhiteHouse.gov. But what happens when you start using a Facebook, a Twitter, a YouTube? Those issues had to be solved before the White House started using those sites. They figured out a way to do it, but it took a while.

Taking the White House's lead, what could an agency use Facebook or another social network for?

One huge advantage is that you are meeting people where they are. You are not asking people to come to your Web site. The numbers of people on Facebook or YouTube dwarf the number of people going to government Web sites.

Another advantage is that it is a way to get feedback. You can get comments from Web sites, by e-mail. But with the social-networking sites, there is a way for people to talk to you. For example, the First Lady does a music series from the White House. And they broadcast it not only from WhiteHouse.gov but from Facebook. And they allow the people to comment and talk with each other. So it was pretty phenomenal to see that.

What happens when employees who participate on a social network, such as Twitter, leave the government?  How do you manage turnover in government in this new social-networking world?

There are two issues here. First, there is the issue of government employees signing on as themselves and identifying themselves as government employees on their account, but it is really their personal account. I have a Facebook account that says I work as GSA, but it really is my account, and it will follow me when I leave.

Then you have government employees who have set up organizational pages themselves. I'm an administrator for the USA.gov [Facebook] page. In these cases, we share passwords. We have a database of passwords to all of our properties. First of all, it takes more than one person to manage these sites. Tweeting you do in real time, and someone may be out when something major happens. So we share the responsibility of managing these. In this case, the account wouldn't leave with the person, the duties would have to be reassigned, just like any other duties would have to be reassigned.

What about records management?

The National Archives [and Records Administration] leaves it up to each agency to define what a Web record is. So agencies define that in a couple of different ways. One is to not put anything on a social-media site that is not on a Web site. I know the [Environmental Protection Agency] does this, as do other agencies. Others are doing things like sending every tweet to a separate records management mailbox. Others are doing screenshots on a regular basis.

Social networking can generate a lot of feedback, especially with high-visibility sites such as WhiteHouse.gov. How do you handle that?

There is always the fear of the massive input. When WhiteHouse.gov does open questions, they get [a huge response]. And there are some tools to help the community moderate, by allowing them to do such things as flagging posts that are inappropriate. You don't have to have the government completely moderating.

In the off-line world, the lobbying groups have [a lot of] power. The [AARP] talks for the senior citizens. And online that is happening, too, where you have strong social groups that self-organize and can overtake a conversation. And they can overtake it in a way that you know it isn't what the majority of people care about. But they have become vocal and self-organized, whether it is the group to legalize marijuana — it is an important issue, but it is not the top issue in people's minds when you are asking about the economy.

I don't know what you do about that. But I think we'll see an explosion of new tools and improved tools to handle these issues.

What is the most exciting aspect about Web 2.0?

I'm most enthused about how we use these tools to really achieve the missions of agencies. Everyone is excited about having dialogue with the public, but you have to plan for what you want the dialogue to be about and how you are going to use it.

The Transportation Security Administration is a great model, both with its public blog and with its private internal IdeaFactory. They are getting lots of information from the public. One of the posts talks about an example of a blogger who told them something that they weren't aware of and helped them fix a problem.

They are using IdeaFactory to get suggestions from employees. They have five full-time people in the administrative office who read the comments and get back to the people who submitted them. They have real-life examples of suggestions that have been implemented.

I think there is a huge area of growth here. Things that weren't possible five years ago are now possible. Government business can be done in a whole new way.

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