John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
First the good news. For an institution widely criticized for being slow to adapt new technologies, government has embraced social media swiftly.
Let's recall that the main pillars of the social media universe -- Facebook, YouTube and Twitter -- came into being in 2004, 2005 and 2006, respectively. In an incredibly short period of time, these and other social media tools have been embraced by governments looking to do their jobs better, faster and cheaper.
The technical tools now available on the Web have spawned the growth of Gov 2.0. A large number of innovative approaches have been made possible, or at least cost-effective, by these new technologies. The idea of crowdsourcing, for example, or using a "wiki" approach to generate and edit meaningful content.
In light of their relative newness, the rapid diffusion of these tools through government, particularly the federal government, is nothing short of remarkable. Gov. 2.0 has radically changed how government works -- at least in certain isolated areas.
The State Department now has an Office of eDiplomacy, which oversees Diplopedia, a wiki-based encyclopedia of foreign affairs information, and the Virtual Student Foreign Service, whose goal is to facilitate new forms of diplomatic engagement. In 2009, it launched the Sounding Board, an idea-generation forum for its 63,000 employees.
Gov 2.0 has proven particularly valuable as a tool for communication. At the end of 2005, the Small Business Administration became the first federal agency with its own YouTube channel. Today, more than a dozen agencies have offerings on YouTube's U.S. Government channel -- even the dollar bill has its own channel. In 2009, President Obama became the first president to offer weekly YouTube broadcasts. Many states also have their own YouTube channels.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has shown the dramatic impact Gov 2.0 can have. In January, 2009, a deadly salmonella outbreak linked to a peanut plant in Georgia raised national concerns. In response, the FDA issued information about the outbreak using every Web tool imaginable. Not only was the information published on its own website, but through online videos, podcasts, RSS feeds, Twitter and most importantly, a downloadable widget that would provide continuously up-to-date information regarding what peanut products had been recalled. The widget was downloaded to more than 20,000 websites, and the FDA reports 20 million visitors were informed about the outbreak. Pretty impressive.
On the one hand, the FDA merits plaudits for how it managed to quickly and cost-effectively disseminate information about the outbreak to consumers. On the other hand, it would have been nice if the FDA had been able to detect and prevent the problem before the crisis.
Which brings us to the bust. Some are complaining that despite a slew of feel good stories about the innovative use of new media tools, the cost savings simply aren't there. The FDA's budget, for example, has ballooned. Critics point out that few in government are realizing efficiencies and translating these new technologies into cost reductions.
There may be something to this. Visitors to the California YouTube channel are greeted by a video from CALFIRE on safe holiday cooking. A slew of uniformed fire experts warn viewers how the holidays are often marred by tragedy. They offer sound, if obvious, advice and demonstrate the dangers of exploding turkeys. While these are no doubt well-intentioned -- and the exploding turkey at the 1:15 mark makes for good viewing -- one has to wonder if these videos are cost-effective, particularly in a state sitting in a $25 billion budget hole.
Considering that social media has existed for all of about five years, perhaps the expectation of tangible results is a bit excessive. Prior technical revolutions have shown that it often takes several years for organizational processes and practices to catch up to new technologies.
The honeymoon phase for Gov 2.0 is drawing to a close, however. The gee-whiz new website, YouTube channel and Twittering chief executive must soon yield to cost-saving, efficiency enhancing results.
No doubt Gov. 2.0 has led to some real enhancements. The focus on results must continue and strengthen, however, for Gov. 2.0 to deliver fully on its potential.