Tools for Transparency: GovSM

This is a cross-post of a guest blog entry I did for the Sunlight Foundation last week.

By now, we’ve all heard about the social media wave and most of us have heard about Gov2.0 and governmental use (or their feeble attempts to use) social media. Though there have been many discussions amongst “good gov” people about government officials’ best practices for using social media, what has been lacking is a clearly defined method of determining how a government office or official can use social media to benefit their constituents. If a system of rating social media use can be widely circulated (similar to Golden Mouse rankings of congressional websites), I believe that the quality of government use of social media will rise dramatically.

Currently, there are four major forms of social media, and four major players associated with each: social networking (Facebook), microblogging (Twitter), video sharing (Youtube), and picture sharing (Flickr). Of course, there are alternatives to those particular services, as well as many additional or up-and-coming forms of social media — like location-based sharing (Foursquare) — but those four are the main players. The trick, of course, is not for officials to just open accounts on these platforms, but to use them in some way that benefits and enlightens their constituents.

This is important to transparency because a properly used Facebook page can deliver information about an official that their website or local news coverage never would — especially on issues that don’t make the front page. And officials or agencies that post videos of their routine comings and goings will help educate their constituents about how the “sausage” is not just made, but conceived of, debated over, and developed. This by definition is greater transparency.

Of course it will take a long time for officials to properly use social media in a way that benefits their constituents to the fullest, but already there are bright spots. Two important keys to improving their use are for the open government movement to produce a “best practices” report — something my project, GovSM, is currently working on — and to have constituents communicate use social media channels to say just what type of information would be most valuable to them.

I started GovSM based on a conversation I had at a politics and social media conference I attended in the fall of 2009 in DC. There was a discussion about the best practices of social media in government, and while a few examples were offered by the group, it became clear that in order to even begin to define who does it best, you need to first determine who does it at all. Creating that list is a heavy lift in terms of time – I have visited every House, Senate, Gubernatorial, and electoral candidate page in the last six months – and so it makes sense that no one jumped at the task right away. Last spring I found some free time, spent three to four months learning how to code the main Senate and House pages and decided to launched my own attempt (with some excellent help of Ben Smith at Politico). GovSM was born. For now the entire site is human-entered text – if anything needs to be updated I have to find the information myself and enter in. There is nothing automated at all.

My site has a few purposes. First, it should be a place where the Hill and the public can go to see quickly, easily and clearly who is using what platforms. So far as I know, there is no place where you can just get a sortable list like that. There are many places that track congressional tweets, but my site does not care about the content (yet) so much as the usage. Second, I hope my site will demonstrate new uses of social media to govt. offices. A congressperson who thinks that all they need is a Facebook page but learns that 75% of the House uses Twitter will think really hard about ignoring that avenue of communication. Likewise, everyone can quickly learn when one or two offices experiment with new forms of social media like Foursquare or Scribd. Finally, GovSM is working on creating the aforementioned objective system of determining “best practices,” a guide that if used by government offices will hopefully help bring even greater transparency to government.

To learn more about GovSM head to http://govsm.com.

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