Fellow Georgetown University adjunct and SEC social media wonk Mark Story aptly dubbed the current post election government 2.0 craze a meme. And in doing so, he tagged me. It’s been a while since we’ve updated our ongoing coverage of the federal government’s adoption of social media, and the current excitement does prompt a new post. Why? Because, 15 years of DC-based experience tells me what a great challenge Obama faces bringing open online conversation to the world of federal government — in spite of his social media savoir faire.
To answer Mark’s question, I think the great social media promise for the Obama administration lies in freeing data. Tons of taxpayer data from poverty figures to weather information should be available to us all, but it’s trapped in ancient legacy IT systems.
Freeing data and serving taxpayers with access and usage will create a new world of context for Americans. Tim O’Reilly’s dream of a democratized web can come true. This will allow true governance and service to the taxpayer.
Social conversation with the government seems much less stimulating. While useful to governance, like most business or organizational social media it will be one dimensional. Consider the TSA blog.
More importantly, Obama has a great task ahead of him. I’ve sold more than $30 million worth of communications contracts to the federal government. I know how public affairs and IT departments conflict over web communications. And I know how legal precautions, procurement and legacy contractors can absolutely kill change in the government.
In reality, because of the way the federal government works, a good expectation for aggressive, systematic communications change in the government is two to three years. Consider that the Navy is leading the charge with the first set of social media guidelines for an entire agency.
Here are six reasons why Obama isn’t going to be turn the switch on walking in the door:
1) Sheer Girth: We’re talking about 26 federal agencies here, each the size of their very own automobile manufacturer. Think changing those organizations are hard? Try moving a bureaucratic organization that’s got no adherence to Wall Street, no real accountability to anyone (please don’t say Congress), with decades of strange processes and legal entanglements, legacy contracts already in place, and demoralized staff that have been abused for eight years by incompetent political appointees.
2) Culture of Fear: Government employees are afraid that if they do communicate, they will have their butts handed to them courtesy of the Washington Post or some other “investigative reporter” seeking to expose government ills. Think that’s wrong? Welcome to beltway reality, where scandals and incompetency are written about and discussed regularly. Every communication must be filtered through public affairs to protect agencies from embarrassment. The command and control ethos reigns here.
Just like any traditional enterprise, controlling the message and negative feedback will be huge issues for the bureaucratic public affairs departments. Often these folks are the last to adopt. Expect the public affairs department to fight for control on the government communications front for years.
3) Welcome to the World of Beltway Bandits: Sorry Silicon Valley. We actually have more IT workers than you do, in large part because of the federal government.
Massive IT companies hold legacy contracts in almost every agency, and big companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon won’t be quick to allow their private billion dollar systems be replaced by web app du jour. These local giants will do everything they can to protect their contracts, including lobbying and leveraging deep relationships throughout the agency procurement cycle.
4) CIOs: Government officials like to protect their budgets, and not yield them. Like a feudal system, the CIO’s office can function like a warlord, holding sway over multi-year million dollar contracts. Opening IT to the socialized web will not be easy here for a variety of reasons, but most importantly surrendering budget — even in a time of restricting budget — will not happen.
5) Security and Privacy: Securing government data is not just a priority, it’s essential. The more defense and security oriented, the harder it will be to sway government bodies to open data and information for the social web. Beefing up technologies like PHP-based WordPress will be a must.
6) Appointees and Procurement: These processes will slow down the process, too. Consider the following points:
No, the challenges for Obama are deep and significant. I expect change we will, but we won’t quickly. Think the 2010-2011 timeframe.
Because the conversation to date has been dominated by non beltway insiders, I’d like to tag some folks in the know. Andrea Baker, Chris Dorobek, Mark Drapeau and Helen Mosher, what do you think social media can do under Obama?