Social networking still a learning experience for agencies

Leaders should be encouraged to experiment and make missteps with public engagement efforts, experts say

Using social media tools to interact with the public is still new to federal agencies, and minor problems and missteps should be expected as the technology and policies governing their use are developed, several officials said today at the FOSE conference in Washington.

Officials at the Housing and Urban Development made launching the HUD Ideas in Action Web site the priority, rather ensuring the idea-collecting Web site was perfect, said Tim McCarthy a program analyst at HUD.

“For us, it was more important to stop worrying about the details and just get the ball rolling,” McCarthy said at a panel discussion about online dialogs. “You can sit around and figure out the details for months on end and get paralyzed without making any decisions.”

The first version of the site collected ideas about broad topics such as how to improve the housing market and how to meet the demand for affordable rental properties. In the future, more specialized engagements are planned, such as one about how to reduce homelessness, McCarthy said.

Even though HUD officials didn’t aim for perfection with the launch of HUD Ideas in Action site, it has been popular, McCarthy said.

“We received 1,500 ideas in a couple of months, which far surpassed anything we thought we were going to receive,” McCarthy said. “We are very excited about that, but it also presents a set of challenges about how can we respond to as many these ideas as possible so that people know that we’re listening?”

One way to handle input from the public is to get subject matter experts in agencies to respond to the ideas and suggestions, McCarthy said. Involving more people in an agency gets more people invested in the concept of engaging with the public, he added.

Agency leaders also should understand that modern engagement tools don’t jibe well with the traditional way thing work in the federal government, said Elizabeth Olmo director of the Office of Strategic Plans at the Homeland Security Department.

For example, input from the public was used to help draft portions of DHS' Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, she said. "As we developed policy recommendations and notions, even before it was vetted to the leadership, we shared it with our stakeholder community and got their input,” Olmo said. “I think this is truly what open government is supposed to be about.”

However, many in government still prefer to draft policies behind closed doors and then present them to the public, she said.

“We did not do that,” Olmo said. “We engaged early, often and throughout the process. Some of the lessons we learned, first, government ain’t ready for that. That is a very unusual way to do business in D.C.; it is uncomfortable and it is messy.”

One way to overcome that problems is for agencies to share best practices, said Dan Munz a public dialogue specialist with General Services Administration.

For example, GSA provided 23 agencies with their own examples of the public engagement tool IdeaScale. The idea was to make it easy for the agencies to comply with the public engagement portion of the Open Government Directive, Munz said.

GSA worked with IdeaScale to customize the product to adhere to federal government requirements such as for usability and accessibility, he said.

“We were able to do it once in a way that really let agencies get the technology stuff out of the way and really focus on doing the engagement,” he said. “One big lesson for us is we think this is a sustainable model; this idea of doing things once, setting up the capability for everyone and then transitioning control back to the agencies.”

Federal Computer Week’s parent compay, 1105 Media Inc., owns the FOSE trade show.

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