Tag Archives: alexander howard

How Government Agencies and Policymakers Can Leverage Twitter

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It used to be that if a political PAC or activist wanted to place pressure on lawmakers to enact some kind of policy change, they’d urge you to “call your Congressmen.” Now they’re just as likely to launch a campaign on social media and encourage you to tweet at your local representative. At nearly every level of federal, state, and local government, it’s becoming increasingly common for citizens to not only air their grievances with government services on social media, but they also expect a response from the agency on that same medium.

Alexander Howard has covered the Gov 2.0 space extensively as a journalist, for O’Reilly Media and other outlets. We spoke about whether citizens are more likely to interact with policymakers on Facebook or Twitter and how local agencies can manage social media on a limited budget.

What differentiates Twitter from other social networks, particularly for government agencies, policy makers, and politicians? What opportunities does Twitter provide governments that, say, Facebook doesn’t?

Facebook has adopted a number of the features that made Twitter a little different. Twitter was profoundly mobile in a way that Facebook wasn’t, but in the past two years, Facebook put a huge amount of resources into its mobile app and now in many ways the social networks that are very popular, from Facebook, to Twitter, to Pinterest, to Tumblr, the look and feel is pretty similar.

But would you say that if a citizen is irate that they’d be more likely to tweet their frustration at a government agency or politician rather than commenting on their Facebook page? Like I know that when I’m pissed off at a company, I’m much more likely to look them up on Twitter and publicly tweet at them rather than going to Facebook and commenting because I think my tweet will be more likely to be responded to.

alexander howard

Alexander Howard

I don’t think so. We know the stats on Twitter use. It’s very popular among journalists. It’s popular among certain policy sets. It’s popular among certain minority populations. But overall, we’re talking about 20 percent of online users. Facebook has 1.2 billion users. I think the reason that we have that assumption that people are more likely to tweet at a politician is because it’s much easier to see those tweets on Twitter. You can easily pull up a politician’s account and see all their replies to them using Twitter search. But realistically just about every adult in the U.S. is now on Facebook, and it’s much more likely that they’ll go to that Facebook page or express themselves on their Facebook account than they will on Twitter. It’s not to say that people don’t go on Twitter to do that. There are millions of people who obviously do. But the sheer volume of people on Facebook is so much higher and if you look at the Facebook pages for any given Congressman, they’re absolutely jam packed with comments. And I remember something I was directly involved in by monitoring and reporting on Senator [Jay] Rockefeller putting a hold on the Freedom of Information Act reform bill — there was a volume of tweets coming at him. But the Facebook comments were in the hundreds. If you look at anyone in the public eye and compare the volume of responses on Twitter and Facebook, I think in general you will see just that the discussion is on Facebook. Twitter is something that a lot of people in the media are inclined to think there’s high usage of because other people in the media use Twitter.

So you think that focusing on Twitter would create a distorting effect of what the American electorate actually thinks?

Exactly. There’s a confirmation bias in effect with the media. This is something I’m hyper-aware of. I’ve myself spent a lot of time on Twitter. But that’s not the same as saying the average person is likely to log on and tweet at a politician. You might see highly engaged people be quite likely to follow their Congressmen, Senators, federal officials, maybe their state and local officials on Twitter and be engaged with them. That cohort might well do that. Your average Joe probably won’t.

Another thing to note is that most local politicians, if they have 10,000 followers on Twitter they’re doing pretty well. It’s only when you get to the national stage that you’ll see people with 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 followers, and it’s only the very top of the heap in Congress where people break six digits. The only people with more than that are presidential candidates. That’s where the final tier is.

Some local government agencies have tried to get citizens to opt in so that their tweets get sent as SMS text messages so they can receive any important information, but adoption has been pretty low.

Twitter though is still the most public of all social networks. Keyword search on Facebook, even though they’ve improved it in the last few months, is still not very good. As long as a policymaker keeps in mind that Twitter sentiment isn’t always representative of public sentiment, do you think it’s still important that they’re still running Twitter keyword searches to do research about problems or to get a pulse of the electorate? Just because it’s the only real-time network?

Yes, I think search is the thing. The intel part, the rawness of it, I think that’s why journalists love it so much because being able to do a search allows you to see what people from a certain place are saying about a certain thing and that’s really powerful. And it’s easy. Whereas with Facebook, it’s different. In 2009, I did this demonstration during a presentation where I showed that people were saying things in public that they obviously weren’t thinking beforehand about it being public. And what I do is basically pull up a search on “hungover.” And on any given day you see those people saying they’re hungover. And there’s no way a student or someone going to work would go and tell their coworkers in a place where their boss could overhear them really easily that they’re hungover.

With federal agencies, a lot of them might have the budget to hire someone to do social media, they’ll have an entire communications staff. But going to the local level, a lot of local governments have a hard time budgeting for that kind of commitment. What do you say to someone in government who says, “We don’t have enough time or resources to be on social media”?

Most people come into contact with local government. When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, I all of a sudden wanted to know what the Cambridge Public Works is doing, I want to hear from the governor’s office, the emergency management agency. These are the key outlets for trustworthy information. In this environment, having really good information is really useful. And it shifts from being the press releases you expect government agencies and every level of government to be pushing out to thinking about here is what we want the public to know about a situation. Everything from traffic to weather to any kind of crisis information. So there’s a number of ways to think about this from different perspectives. From the citizens’ perspective, they want to be able to get accurate, trustworthy information quickly in the time and place of their choosing. So that’s a really strong argument for governments to join social networks and to create outposts where they post information that people can trust in an easy-to-consume format, ideally in a shareable way so that people who see it can share it with their networks so it can have a much greater impact. That’s the case for government to be there. For citizens, they might not want to be followed or surveilled by “Big Brother.” The idea that the police are following you on social media can be uncomfortable. But the expectation that many people have is if they do ask for help in these contexts, someone will hear them. So there’s a really interesting back-and-forth. On the one hand people want government at arm’s length, but at the same time they want help from the government very quickly. The Red Cross did a study back in 2010 and found that a majority of people expect help within an hour if they’ve asked for any sort of assistance.

Do you think a policy maker is more likely to act if angry citizens are tweeting out their displeasure in a way that’s publicly viewable rather than making private phone calls to where that policy maker works?

We’ve seen example after example of the pressure that concerted online campaigns combining petitions and social media have had on corporations. From airlines to retailers to studios. Pretty much anyone with a product or service is clued into the fact that they have customers who can go online and raise their issues. Sometimes it’s in a more organized form like Yelp, and other times it’s through Facebook or Twitter. If there’s a widespread reaction to a given product or service, the consumer pressure can clearly exert a lot of force upon behavior. And it seems clear that a regulator could take similar action as well in response to complaints. The state and local level are lagging on this front, but there’s the capacity for the public to express its displeasure on social media, and those can often lead to changes in the private sector and with non-profits. Government is a little different, but I don’t think that the same sources are irrelevant. If you see a massive online upset regarding the actions of government officials, or a lack of action, it can put pretty big pressure on government agencies. You can imagine what Hurricane Katrina would be like now if government officials had responded as poorly as they did. Looking at how Hurricane Sandy happened, by that time there was mature penetration of mobile devices and social media, and as that storm moved you could see people discuss it in real time, and public agencies and officials had the capacity to respond and inform.

Are there a lot of laws that limit what government agencies can say on Twitter?

At the government level there’s this Paperwork Reduction Act, which basically has limited the capacity of government officials to ask questions. And I refer you to Clay Johnson’s post, “The law everyone should hate.” It’s basically creating a real challenge around asking questions in a public forum. Back in 2009, the most powerful agency in Washington that nobody has heard of, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, issued guidance that you can ask questions over the internet, but you can’t ask for structured feedback. And we’re still not quite there. There should be a much more significant update that enables government to collect structured feedback, which is to say data, about all the things it does. That’s certainly what every other sector of the economy is moving towards. People want to know how people are interacting with their product or service. Anything and everything that can be measured, there’s now a push for it to be measured. And if you look at it with social media, you’re really hamstringing their capacity to listen in a structured way. At the local level it’s better. They’re not constrained by that. What they’re constrained by is fear of not knowing how to use social media to listen and really good technological tools to help them do it well. But I think we’re starting to see the evolution of a number of better feedback systems. This is where the civic technology sector is really fascinating, there’s been a lot more effective development from groups like Code for America, who are creating tools like Texitzen and other text feedback tools that enable states and cities to collect feedback about their services and policies. There’s a lot of genuine use by the state and local level of that civic tech space and I think if you look at Code for America under the apps section, you’ll see a whole selection of that stuff and you’ll see several municipalities that are using those tools.

One thing I’ve been really amazed by has been how the White House has allowed its staff to tweet based on their subject matter expertise. Do you think this is a strategy that can be employed by other government agencies?

Yeah, it’s always difficult to compare the White House to everyone else, because they have a lot more budget, they have great talent — it turns out they have like two dozen digital staffers. They’re really an accomplished digital shop. They’re certainly among the top teams in the world at that. There’s some considerable angst amongst the Washington press corps that the White House is using social media to cut out the media. I think they can and should use social media to go direct to the public just as previous administrations have used cable TV, radio, newspapers, whatever. It makes sense they’re adopting new technologies. What’s not OK is when they restrict press access and substitute just the government version. What the White House is able to do though is beyond what most state and local agencies are able to do because of their budget and their capacity to bring in top talent for affordable amounts because of the prestige of the job. At the local level, in order to bring in top digital talent, it may be a stretch. That’s not to say they don’t. If you look at Blue State Digital’s client list or Edelman’s, you’ll find some government customers there. But there’s often an issue there. It’s not also to say there isn’t some awesome stuff happening at the local level as well. If you look at the discussion about social media emergency management, there’s been some great maturation at the emergency management level over the last five years. There’s been people who have built up enough credibility within their government agencies that they’re able to be more creative in terms of acknowledging citizens online and saying, ‘Hey, we hear you, we’ll try to get back to you.’”

What about the opposite problem? How often do you see an agency or government official get too fragmented in how many Twitter accounts they’re running for different departments?

I think you take it city by city. I tend to think that if a government agency is significant enough to have its own website, it’s significant enough to have its own Twitter account. That’s not unreasonable. It is a challenge in respect to how people experience government and the help they want from government versus the way that government organizes itself. That’s a challenge for every agency, that people come to the website to do these top 10 things, but the website isn’t organized that way. This is a challenge that some places have met better than others. I think we can look at the Government Digital Services team over in the UK as a really great paradigm for thinking through what are the top reasons people are coming to these government websites. And how can we improve these services or provide them online if they haven’t been providing them. Even in 2015 we’re not providing some pretty obvious services at the government level.


This article is excerpted from my book: Your Guide to Twitter Marketing. I sought out some of the world’s most powerful marketers and grilled them on their subject matter expertise. This book gives you direct insight into how the world’s top marketers approach Twitter and use it to drive sales and influence.

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