Municipalist loves blogging about NASA. This time, we must thank NASA Watch. One of the smartest and least angry NASA critics out there. Check out this post on how NASA responds with "a certain grumpiness" when asked "why it is, after a decade of having the Internet surprise NASA [public affairs office] again and again with news getting out ahead of NASA's planned release, that the agency has still not learned to adapt to this ever shifting fact of life in the 21st century." Nicely done.
"Many of the folks who send us comments seem to be using the products we’re working to prevent Americans from using, so their grammar, vocabulary, and syntax are unpublishable," says Rafael Lemaitre, deputy press secretary to the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the first Cabinet-level agency to launch its own blog.
"It was clear that if we did not do so, we would quickly lose our ability as federal officials to be effective influencers and communicators of public policy information in this new media landscape," Rafael said. The director of ONDP is more typically referred to as White House Drug Czar. Rafael, who played a key role in the blog's creation, answered our questions this week:
What is the brief history of Pushing Back? Whose idea was it and what were its goals? After seeing the incredible impact that citizen journalism was having during the 2004 political campaigns, I decided to see if we could apply that model to our communications strategy. We began our blogging project with the intention of making our blog a central source of timely news and analysis for journalists and citizens seeking a steady flow of content about national efforts that “push back” against the illegal drug problem.
I knew that our stakeholders, fellow public servants, and concerned constituents were talking about our policies every day online. On the Web, they have been engaging in heated debates about what we do and how our drug policies work to reduce the consequences of illegal drug use in America. With this in mind, I worked with my colleagues to begin the process of adapting to this new environment through blogging.
Politico is shocked, shocked! A federal cabinet-level blog has apparently landed some strong blows against opponents of one of its major initiatives. So now those opponents are calling all the media they can find to announce: No fair! "It’s one thing to have officials question a lobbying group’s motives behind closed doors," harumphs the Politico piece. "But, as the Society for Human Resource Management found out, it’s quite another to be slammed publicly on a government blog."
Well, wait a second. Plenty of private sector advocacy groups use the Web to slam federal agencies across the issue aisle all day long. This is called politics. This is called business as usual. This is called rallying the troops, fighting the good fight, etc. So when the other side returns the fire, it must do so "behind closed doors," just because it is the government?
This raises all sorts of new issues for these private-sector groups. We say, of course, that when goverment learns how to blog, especially at the highest levels, that's a good thing. But it will mean major adjustments for many of these large membership organizations who are not at all prepared to deal with a host of new challenges, chief among them: targets that hit back.
The details involve a post to the Department of Homeland Security blog called Leadership Journal written by Stewart Baker, assistant secretary of DHS, defending the E-Verify program, set up to allow employers to check immigration status of employees. Here is part of Baker's post:
“SHRM lobbies for the HR execs who do corporate hiring. It also opposes E-Verify. I suppose corporate hiring is easier if you can hire illegal workers, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that SHRM wants to kill a program that makes it harder to hire illegal workers.” The offended national association immediately activated its membership to write and call their members of Congress to complain about Baker's characterization -- which is also completely fine. Again, this is how these groups work their email lists, fire up the base, and try to get noticed, to break through and gain some attention for their issues.
But goverment is now blogging. Which means it's a new ball game. Which means these advocacy groups must develop new tactics, and better strategies, from new ideas. Beyond calling the media and complaining that some smart-mouthed assistant secretary took you down big time on his blog. And so we cannot help but wonder: Which side will be slower to adjust to this new reality: private sector or public sector?
Municipalist previously wrote about Leadership Journal here, when it took on the New York Times.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory blog, just begun, is a good read. The group of contributors stacked along the right side look like one happy bunch. That is no surprirse given the impressive projects they are writing about. The blog offers photos, video and animation. Lots of Mars stuff. Some of the reader comments include some questions that we hope these new bloggers will jump in and answer.
Municipalist initially mentioned Govloop here. Even though I am not a government employee, I joined anyway, as GovLoop is open to all. It's focus is networking among federal government employees. Check it out.
Yesterday we were quoted in an article by Greenwire, a Washington, D.C.-based news service that covers environmental issues and policy. The headline is "Federal agencies find a voice in the blogosphere." The reporter asked me about a number of issues, including the Department of Transportation blog called The Fast Lane.
Craig Colgan, editor of "Municipalist" and an advocate of public sector blogging, envisions the possibilities for a large agency such as the Department of Transportation.
"DOT could have plenty of public blogs, each addressing an important issue or initiative, aiming to produce a continual dialogue with the public, as well as with select publics such as trade media, the issue advocacy community, etc.," he wrote in an e-mail. "Why just have one?"
Greenwire is a subscription-only site, alas. Municipalist addressed The Fast Lane here.
A social networking site for federal government employees is attracting some attention. It is called GovLoop:
Aside from just being a pretty cool site, this is A Big Deal because it demonstrates the power of web 2.0 not only to tackle specific problems, but to bring together communities in ways that totally transcend individual agency walls. The challenges facing our nation are increasingly bigger than any one office, agency, or department. While more formal coordination wouldn't hurt, it still depends on traditional hierarchies. What GovLoop does is to go around that, and begin building the kind of informal, diverse, networked, socialized community that's going to be critical to maintaining the vitality of the federal government in the 21st century. While it's aimed at government, anyone can sign up and join this fascinating dialogue.
Here is a plan to get government comfortable with Web 2.0: Deploy these applications in-house, get comfortable with them, use them to build collaboration between employees, then deploy them publically. That is one lesson from the apparent success of the Intellipedia project, which is that government agencies -- uncertain about Web 2.0 -- would have a great chance to look before it leaps.
There has been a lot of talk lately about Intellipedia, including quite a bit of that talk by its founders themselves. Which seems odd since Intellipedia's home is in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That agency apparently enjoys sending spokespeople to tech conferences and yacking about it's Wikipedia-like internal collaboration space, which seems to be a hit.
Intellipedia and other “web 2.0” tools available to the Intelligence Community are making individuals more productive and efficient. Intellipedia’s vibrant environment has played an important role in improving morale, unleashing creativity, and helping officers across the world feel more connected with their colleagues.
Federal Computer Week's Ben Bain reports: In addition to its best-known Intellipedia application, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence offers five user-generated Web 2.0 tools that analysts use for collaboration, including:
A YouTube-like video-sharing application.
A photo-sharing application similar to Flickr.
A tool for bookmarking Web pages that is similar to del.icio.us.
“The real power comes from integration of all of these tools,” Robert Waller, chief of the customer team for ODNI’s Intelligence Community Enterprise Solutions, told Bain.
These tools were built to be used by the intelligence community alone, in a secure space. Deploying any Web 2.0 applications out there into the public space is admittedly a different challenge to achieve different goals. But the plan of internal first, then external, would seem to hold loads of potential.
At the Army Corps of Engineers Web site, very busy with plenty of Mississippi River floor updates, a prominent link is labeled "Chief of Engineer's Blog," called, apparently, "Corps-e-spondence." The problem is when we clicked on it with Internet Explorer, we are taken to this message:
"There is a problem with this website's security certificate. The security certificate presented by this website was not issued by a trusted certificate authority. Security certificate problems may indicate an attempt to fool you or intercept any data you send to the server. We recommend that you close this webpage and do not continue to this website."
We are not technical experts. So this may not be as bad as it sounds. But we wonder why whatever is going on is not fixed. Right away.
Update: We were able to get to the blog using Safari, on a Macintosh. And this is a blog that is doing some things right. We are going to take a look more extensively at a later time. We still do not know why our Internet Explorer for Windows XP cannot get us there.
The blogs on the PC site are approved by the agency. Some blogs are passed over for content. For example, critical of Peace Corps.
Municipalist is configured so I know the email address of the commenters. I replied to the address left by this commenter, but the email bounced back. The email address does not exist. Charming. This has happened here before. It is unfortunate.
To the issue at hand, however, that a blog by some agency is actually controlled by ... that agency. Blogs were born to be tools for individuals. But they can certainly be used effectively by large organizations. And they can certainly be edited or approved before going live, like any other type of Web content. I sense a generational issue here.
Government and government agencies should blog. This ethic of openness should go beyond official documents and files. Openness should be part of the work habit of government officials and conversation with constituents should be an ethic of government. The open blog is merely a tool and a symbol for this — and a more efficient tool, I’ll add, than individual letters and phone calls.
The entire post goes on to offer several smart ideas "about the future of government online." Jarvis is worth reading daily.
The Office of Management and Budget, where caution and precision rule, has embraced Wikipedia as a model, hosting an online place where federal officials can swap information and ideas outside traditional boundaries, reports Stephen Barr of the Washington Post:
With the wiki, federal agencies compiled a database of 13,496 earmarks in 10 weeks. In the old days, it would have taken six months to get the information to the OMB.
Subscribe here to regular updates by category from the United States Environmental Protection Agency Web site. RSS is a powerful tool, efficiently delivering content directly to readers, with no email spam to worry about.
Here is one civic project that could benefit from input by forward thinkers who understand how to make use of the Web to build community and consensus: Fixing the National Mall. This sad but important story has been in the news constantly here in Washington lately. And it is quite a tale.
The National Mall, the lovely but too often forlorn open stretch between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, encompassing the city's major memorials, has suffered plenty from lousy planning, overuse, and overbuilding, mainly because it is managed by several overly bureaucratic competing agencies, the worst of which is the Congress itself. Last week, the drum beat for change continued in testimony before a House committee. [News coverage here and here. Great list of recent stories here.]
And for a terrific overview of the problem, with plenty of history, check out this piece from 2005.
Those behind the Trust for the National Mall, a private organization, have just this month begun a project to raise half a billion dollars. The organization sports a lovely Web site. It needs a blog. One with energy and passion. It needs a whole Web 2.0 strategy to get the word out and build awareness and enthusiasm. If political candidates can build excitement for their campaigns through innovative use of the Web, and raise mountains of cash online as well, why can't such an organization pursuing such a worthy cause do so as well?
Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt has been blogging since August 2007. Recentpostshave been from Leavitt's visit to China. Including one post about "traditional Chinese medicine."
A number of months ago, Municipalist made a request with Leavitt's staff to have the secretary participate in an email Q & A. The staff member was hopeful, but after a couple weeks then finally told us that the answer is no. The staff member said he had no idea why. The offer still stands, Mike.
Bev Godwin, director of USA.gov, the subject of a Q & A by Municipalist in December 2007, is earning kudos for pushing federal agencies to explore use of Web 2.0 tools. The Politico is impressed, in a post about a training session Godwin played a major role in a few days ago:
These hard-working and dedicated public servants deserve a redesign of the federal regulations that govern the way government agencies are allowed to publish information and solicit public comment so that it catches up with the practices of the private sector.
The Politico estimates the total number of blogs published by public officials across the country at about 200. That number seems low. But perhaps it more closely reflects, as in Municipalist's experience, only the good ones. Or even the ones that are regularly updated. But it is true that blogging by local government players are more numerous and just better than those at the federal level. At least there seems to be an effort for the feds to catch up.
Library of Congress Blog celebrates its first anniversary. Municipalist profiled LOC Blog and blogger Matt Raymond here. LOC Blog has inspired and influenced other federal government blogs, as Raymond details in his one-year anniversary post. Congrats.
Debuting last week: The latest cabinet-level department blog The Fast Lane, the offical blog of the Secretary of Transportation. Who happens to be Mary Peters. The blog lists 12 top department officials who will contribute. During its first week, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley were guest bloggers. One issue: The official blog of General Motors is called FastLane Blog. Kosher to grab the name of another high profile blog? Or is the name of your blog not a big issue these days?
Sooner or later, big federal agencies are going to get good at this. At that point, the fireworks should be entertaining. This post in Leadership Journal, a blog "sponsored by" the Department of Homeland Security, swings back at this recent editorial in the Times. The blog post is signed by Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who is the target of the Times editorial. Gonzalez calls one section of the editorial an "outright fabrication." Judge for yourself who gets the better of the exchange.
Does the Times care? Should it? Municipalist doubts it. Should the rest of us care? Better question: Can a large federal agency actually figure out how to make use of the Web to seriously and regularly and effectively strike back at critics in mainstream media?
Also: DHS Director Michael Chertoff joins in the media critique with this post from April 4, on a story the mainstream news media is burying. Chilling stuff. As are the comments.
Municipalist himself has undergone less than satisfactory experiences with hospitals over the last year or so. To say the least. So we were intrigued with news of a new Web site published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that allows users to search and find how their local hospitals fared in a large consumer satisfaction survey.
HHS has previously published hospital mortality rates and clinical measures of performance, indicating whether hospitals appropriately treated heart attacks, pneumonia and other conditions, but this is the first time the government has provided comprehensive data on consumer satisfaction, reports the New York Times. More info on the site here.
At first glance, the site is bland and uninviting, but it does offer plenty of info. Of course, no blogging element. Too bad. Blogging would be a great way to engage the public around this important data.
Nancy Sternberg oversees Business.gov, and stays busy. She was recently called a "rising star" by Federal Computer Week magazine:
She coordinated collaboration among 22 federal agencies to produce a single access point, www.business.gov, for businesses to easily find government information, including forms and compliance assistance resources and tools. The site pulls together more than 30,000 compliance links from about 100 federal Web sites. Business owners surveyed reported time savings of about 2.6 million hours thus far in fiscal 2007 from using the site. Senior federal IT leaders praised Sternberg’s motivation to constantly improve the site so that visitors are satisfied and return frequently for more assistance and information.
Trust us: Running your own small business is no picnic. That's why Business.gov can make such a big impact. The site is continuously evolving and growing, as it offers to small business owners fast access to crucial information.
Business.gov employs no blogs yet, but that would seem to be a natural next step. Nancy's title is business gateway program manager for the U.S. Small Business Administration.
What is the history of Business.gov? When we launched in 2004, Business.gov focused on helping small business owners with starting, growing and managing their businesses. In October 2006, we re-launched to focus on helping businesses comply with federal laws and regulations – a need that users told us was not being met by any other Federal program.
More from D.C. blogger Extreme Mortman here on a State Department spokesman trying to explain to mainstream media members just what a blog does. [Municipalist post here from March 12.]
This all came about after the state department blog, called Dipnote, asked its readers a controversial question: Should the U.S. engage Hamas in the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians? For this, the criticism has been constant, i.e., Are you people actually putting U.S. policy up for a vote? Which is an idiotic response.
Blogs are about discussion. If a blog published by a cabinet-level deparment would have instead posted its daily talking points and nothing else, it would have been slammed. These people instead took a risk and dared to engage in a topic that matters. In a way that is utterly benign: By asking simply, what do you think about this? The Mainstream Media is losing control of the discussion, because they were never interested in a discussion to begin with.
So, we say raise your public sector blogging glass in a toast to Dipnote, the federal government blog that is doing many things right. While it is still around for you to do so. And by the way, Dipnote wrote earlier this month about a group of Cuban dissidents called Ladies in White, which is made up of women whose husbands and other relatives are political prisoners. Raise your hand if you heard, saw, or read anything in the mainstream media on this recently. Take your time.
Plenty of positive comments at LOC Blog here. A comment from the Q & AMunicipalist likes: "It seems like government agencies get lots of publicity for what they do wrong, but not nearly enough credit for trying stuff to see if it works out."
News of the government blogging its way to better service was met with skepticism, but questions on the blog recently prompted TSA to make sure screeners know that only laptops need to be removed from bags, not iPods, smart phones and other electronics.
Calls for 'government blogging' are mocked when they come from Hillary Clinton. But the evidence is beginning to show that even large agencies can do this. And can make positive impact. Municipalist took a look at Evolution of Security here.
Belgrade is burning. "Tens of thousands" of demonstrators in the streets. [Including two men who enjoy mooning the helmeted law enforcement.] The United States embassy has been broken into, and several other embassies damaged as well. Lots of live video all over TV. So why is the blog produced by the U.S. Department of State completely silent on this? As of 2 p.m. EST, no mention whatsoever about what is going on. No analysis, no additional info, no list of links for readers to go to for history, understanding, etc. Silence. In fact, the last post is from three days ago.
At this hour, main State Department site has zip as well on today's events. You can read a daily press briefing, though. From yesterday.
Update: Notes from briefing posted later in the afternoon here at main site. Still nothing on state department blog. Which Municipalist believes is the perfect vehicle to post short updates on what is happening during an assault on an American embassy in a very dangerous corner of the world. As we all must wait for what we must settle for: a transcript from an official briefing.
Update II, the next day: Better late than never. But barely. The headline is just inadequate, to say the least: "U.S. Embassy In Belgrade Attacked." The world knows that by now, a day later. Give us more. The world wants more. The world is simply far, far ahead of the state department blog.
Federal Computer Week "The blog is an expansive collection of posts about government’s use of Web 2.0 at the federal, state and local levels, and it is worth a look for the contacts and projects lists alone."
Personal Democracy Forum "If you haven't yet, check out Craig Colgan's Municipalist blog which claims it is 'Fearlessly investigating the dark and mysterious world of public sector blogging.' And indeed it is, with over two-dozen profiles of public sector bloggers. I didn't even know there were that many!"
Slate "Municipalist, a blogger who blogs about, um, blogging, ..."