Blog post

Open Government… To Whom?

By Andrea Di Maio | July 15, 2010 | 9 Comments

social networks in government

Yesterday I just my day visiting clients in Sacramento (the state capital of California), where I had a chance to discuss about both cloud computing and social media. On the latter topic, I met an agency that seems to be still getting its arms around the basic concepts and that bans employee access to all social media sites. Not an unusual picture, as there are still several government organizations that take the same prudent attitude.

As I usually do in these cases I took them through a number of examples showing how banning access from the corporate network does not make most risks go away, since employee can use their smartphones or home computers for the same purpose. It was an interesting conversation, not unlike most that I have with clients who are at the early stages of their social media development.

I left the meeting with the impression that not too much had happened in the state since when I had tackled the same topic about a year ago with a large audience from multiple agencies.

So I was quite surprised when, waiting at the airport, I came across a tweet pointing to an interview with the State CIO mentioning a couple of examples of use of social media (such as the use of YouTube by the Department of Motor Vehicles to provide training videos for learners). Following another link I found an earlier interview with the Director of E-Services, which gave further examples, including some quite intriguing use of Twitter.

So how come that while innovative citizen-oriented services are being developed (with a healthy focus on reducing costs for government, rather then just adding thrills and frills), employees in the some of the same agencies cannot even access social media?

Once again this proves that most jurisdictions are not getting yet that the first target for their government 2.0 initiatives should be employees rather than citizens.

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  • Steve Radick says:

    “So how come that while innovative citizen-oriented services are being developed (with a healthy focus on reducing costs for government, rather then just adding thrills and frills), employees in the some of the same agencies cannot even access social media?”

    Because all too often, employees within the same agency, department, and/or government view their colleagues as competitors (for funding, attention, awards, billets, etc.) instead of as collaborators (on content, on ideas, on best practices, etc.). Until employees at large orgs (this isn’t just a government problem – this mentality exists somewhat within my commercial organization too) start viewing each other as resources instead of adversaries, we’ll also have these issues.

  • Alex Howard says:

    First, thank you for the links to the interviews, given that I conducted them. Some of California’s senior IT leadership has indeed decided to test the waters of public-facing social media, following the governor, and that its DMV/EDD has success with various platforms.

    I’m left a bit confused by your position: on the one hand, you write that an agency “that bans employee access to all social media sites” is an organization that has “taken the same prudent attitude.” I’d gather then that a ban on government employee access to online social media is prudent, in your assessment.

    On the other hand, you end by advocating for access to those platforms for those same folks, including the position that government 2.0 initiatives that involve engagement using social media should target those *govies* first, not citizens.

    So which is it? Innovative social media use by government staff that leads to cost savings or connects citizens to e-services is a good thing?

    Or is access to social media associated with too much risk and should be banned?

  • Andrea -There’s a reason our parents gave us similar names…because you and I are asking similar questions. This morning, I queried in a GovLoop forum:

    If citizens created a crowd-sourcing tool and invited government employees to respond, would they? (

    You take that a step further to ask: “Could they?”

    So there seems to be an irony or paradox here – open government seeking to encourage more citizen feedback, but at the same restricting access to those very same tools of engagement.

    In a nutshell: open government starts at home.

  • Alex Howard says:

    Another nugget for discussion, from what I’ve gleaned through reporting on CA gov: social media access there really is a smörgåsbord. Each agency can block or unblocks independently.

    The official social media use policy 10-01 DOES allow use but does not mandate it:

    Access seems determined by business purposes, which reflects usage in much of the private sector.

  • @Alex – Not sure why you are confused. Indeed government organizations that ban access are prudent because they do not know yet or understand risks and rewards of opening access on their networks: sometimes this is for bandwidth utilization reasons, not necessarily for liability reasons. Some do not realize that this does not change a thing in terms of exposure to risks: indeed fewer people will use social media, but those who do through personal means can still expose their agency and themselves to a number of risks.
    What I found ironic in this particular case (far from being the only one), is that such a “prudent” attitude coexist with a willingness to explore the use of social media from an “institutional” perspective. Incidentally in your interview you point out that Governor Schwartzenegger is a very active user of Twitter: it is weird that his employees cannot follow his tweets (incidentally, this varies across agencies).
    Coming to your final questions:
    – yes, innovative use of social media by government leads to both cost savings and better engagement
    – as a consequence this can improve the way citizens interact and trasact electronically with their government
    – banning access is pointless, as the train has already left the station. However I can understand that government organizations want to ban access until when they have articulated risks and adjusted policies. This should not stop innovative employees from presenting a good case for having a waiver on the ban, and accepting to show the value that this creates for their agency within a reasonable timeframe.

  • @Steve – You hit on a very important point. Which is why I say that HR departments should lead on gov 2.0, and not communications depts.

  • @Alex – Re. the CA policy, it does make absolute sense, and in a relatively decentralized model it is most appropriate for departments and agencies to take their own decisions. My only observations are that (1) as I said, this does not shield those who ban from the very same risks they are trying to prevent by banning and (2) one cannot be a beacon of citizen-oriented innovation and ban access to its own employees at the same time.

  • I love that a debate has broken out about the use of social media within the State of California. Andre I have been a fan and follower of yours for several years. I have to say I was very surprised to hear how surprised you were by the small crumbs of information related to California’s progress contained in the articles you referenced.

    Here is a broader view. California just released consolidating the social media within the state. The new site links to several collaborative features, including widgets, social networking websites, news, and information provided by state agencies. Some of the features include:
    -83 Twitter accounts, with total of 2.3 million followers,
    -40 YouTube channels, with a total of 11.1 million video views,
    -36 Facebook pages, with over 305,000 fans; and
    -Nearly 100 RSS feeds and email subscription services

    I love the passion expressed when you ask “How come employees of the same agency can’t access it…” I share your sense of indignation when confronted with bifurcated communications. Yes, as expressed by whomever you spoke to, many individual departments and agencies block access to sites like twitter. Yes, we have policies which as noted by @Alex which allow, but not mandate the use of social media. Well put is his comment “Access seems determined by business purposes, which reflects usage in much of the private sector.” Indeed, the State of California is actively exploring the hows and whys as well as the benefits and ramifications of social media just like other public and private entities.

    I have to agree it has always seemed “weird” to me too that state employees have no view into the governor’s public conversations on platforms like twitter. We have solved that problem through the recent release of Not only is this the first in the nation statewide news and social media aggregator, it is also the first in the nation aggregation of social media designed to provide access to those same conversations to government employees through a recognized state channel. We thoughtfully and carefully created in a manner which would allow this kind of access without overriding autonomy.

    You ask “So how come that while innovative citizen-oriented services are being developed (with a healthy focus on reducing costs for government, rather then just adding thrills and frills), employees in the some of the same agencies cannot even access social media?” The answer is they can and they do. There are several inter and intra agency uses of social media and have been for years. Most of these are behind the firewall and not often discussed.

    The first target for our government 2.0 initiatives, well before the phrase government 2.0 was coined, was our employees rather than citizens. You and I first spoke about this way back in 2007. What I am referring to is the state’s webmaster community. The community, centered around an unpopular mandate grew to over 400 in six months. At the time you told me you had never seen anything like it in government anywhere in the world. This community, was built via and continues to thrive upon, the types of conversations and interactions found in commercial social media platforms – a true implementation of government 2.0. More importantly, this community is not an anomaly.

    We may not have used a singular social media web site or marked it with a particular label but government 2.0 is alive and well in California. What you have been looking of late appears to me to be very limited view of what is really happening in California. What I see is a much broader and deeper use of social media tools and approaches by state agencies connecting employees to employees.

    I would love to dive into details, but that is a much longer and broader discussion than this forum allows. I invite you to come the California and spend a day with me. I will be happy to open to you the world of social media within the state. Now that will surprise you.

  • @Carolyn, thank you for your response. Indeed I do remember our meeting and I do remember the early web community example.
    In my post I did not mean to say that California is not doing anything, in the contrary. With over 200,000 government employees and many initiatives started years ago, I am more than confident that several employees are actively using those tools.
    This is why I am still surprised to meet agencies where a ban is applied, and in domains where I find that – in other jurisdictions – there is a pretty strong business reason for them to be engaged with their constituents.
    I think we can agree that this is an evolutionary process, and by its very nature is in the hands of employees themselves. The dichotomy between the picture you paint and what some agencies do is just striking, as if they do not know (or do not find relevant to them) the many examples you can bring to the table.
    One last point. is a great site and the numbers your mention about Twitter et al. are quite impressive. However they refer only to government providing information, and less to actually two-way engagement. Unless employees can join social media platform they will not be able to reach out to people who spend time on those but do not (yet) care about following government on government’s virtual turf. Which proves that also the most active jurisdictions are trapped in the gov 2.0 asymmetry.