New Governor, New Web Presence
Many newly-elected governors have revamped their web strategies in order to open dialogue between government officials and constituents.
Previously, if citizens wanted to know what their governor was up to, they could visit his or her website. And if citizens felt compelled to voice an opinion on an issue the governor was evaluating, they can always call, fax, or write a note via snail mail or e-mail. While these are tried and true ways of connecting government to the people, many of 28 new governors now in office are expanding the methods by which they communicate with their constituents.
With the increase in Internet use and mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, staffers realize that constituents want to access and interact with their leaders in ways similar to how they interact with friends online. One of the initial actions these new governors and staffers took was re-assessing their Web presences, aiming to provide more opportunities to interact and better serve constituents. I spoke to staffers in the governors' offices in Vermont, West Virginia and Iowa to find out what they are doing and how those efforts are working so far.
When Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin was elected, an initial point of discussion was the need to improve his office's ability to interact with citizens, says Special Assistant to the Governor Susan Allen. Constituent communication previously consisted of how to handle traditional media: the newspaper and TV reporters. "The governor himself was just so keenly aware that is just not the way it is done anymore," she says. "In fact, during the campaign, he had been very active in new media and reaching out to people in different ways to get the message across."
One of the first things Shumlin staffers did was create a social media presence for the new governor.
When the Shumlin administration came into office and took over the previous administration's webpage, Allen says they set up a Twitter account (@VTGovernor) and a Facebook page, which she described as "kind of the easy stuff." That "easy stuff" is proving popular: Shumlin has more than a thousand followers on Twitter and more than 600 people "like" him on Facebook.
Shumlin's office doesn't stop there -- they're producing photo galleries with contributions from staff photographers and constituents. "We didn't intend for this to happen, but we were posting our photos and people at the same events are sending us lots of their photos. It has been, accidentally, a two-way street, which is fantastic," says Allen.
Next up for Vermont is creating more video. Staffers already post press conferences on Shumlin's website and on YouTube, and the office is now taking Vermonters' questions. Consitutents submit questions online, and then the governor is recorded while answering the question. "That has been extremely popular," Allen says. "It's just a way for him to actually address the things that people are really talking about -- not the things we think people are talking about -- which are not always the same thing."
In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad's administration also prominently features its social networking aspects on its website. It uses both Facebook and Twitter (@terrybranstad) to converse with constituents, says Communications Director Tim Albrecht, noting that there's definitely a place for social networking in government. "It's just a matter of ensuring that our public information officers in all of our agencies and departments do have buy-in, understand what's going on, and we can move forward together with two-way component that works for these websites," he says.
Via social networking, Albrecht says the Iowa governor's office has solicited questions, such as, "What would you do to improve the business climate in Iowa?" which he says generates comments, as do questions like, "What would you do to improve education?" or questions about specific bills. Posts about press conferences and announcements about local investments receive multiple "likes" and comments.
Branstad's communications team also monitors the Facebook and Twitter comments (in addition to phone calls and e-mails) and then evaluates the responses to get an idea of the perception of the overall policy strategy. "We hope that Iowans understand that whether it's the Department of Corrections and Appeals or the Department of Natural Resources, that their voice is being heard," Albrecht says. He points to one problem brought to the administration's attention -- that many people thought communication with the Department of Natural Resources has been a one-way street. "Well maybe this is something we can work on in terms of getting feedback and input from the people of Iowa prior to the department making any particular decisions," Albrecht says.
In Vermont, Allen says that if the administration starts noticing a trend in responses (versus one isolated concern), it lets the appropriate agency know that it might have a problem so that they can remedy the concern. "Or if we get great suggestions, we pass those along too," she says. "For example, we are working -- like every state -- on a very tight budget, so we have asked people, 'Do you have thoughts about ways we can save our money?' and if a good idea came along, we would pass it along to that secretary of that agency."
In West Virginia, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's staffers also have embraced social media to be more interactive -- but they've taken it further as well. Tomblin's office incorporated a visitor survey on the state portal. "We encourage portal users to provide feedback or complete a survey by providing consistent forms across every website and application on the portal," says Communications Director Jacqueline Proctor via e-mail. "We aggregate these results, which gives us an enterprise view of how we're doing."
Proctor says that West Virginia utilizes citizen feedback in part to drive changes, improvements and new services on the portal. "We regularly evaluate feedback that is received to ensure that we're doing a good job of meeting citizen needs and expectations."
The flag status icon on Tomblin's site was a direct request from a constituent in Clendenin, W.V. and using Flickr for photo galleries was recommended by a site visitor, says Jason Johns, general manager at West Virginia Interactive, which runs the state's portals. "On WV.gov, most of the 'How Do I' questions come directly from feedback that we receive," he says. "Also, a lot of online services that are developed come from citizen requests. In 2010, we launched a suite of services for the Board of Accountancy (CPA License Renewals, Online Verifications, etc.) based on requests to the agency. We've upgraded that system in 2011 with a 'shopping cart' type function based on feedback from last year's users."
Though these new governors have received an online makeover, there's more on the horizon -- Iowa anticipates gathering input from Iowans in other ways, which Albrecht says he thinks will be a major component for agencies and departments. "We just don't know what that will look like yet." On the whole, Iowa is revamping all state agency websites so they all share a common look and feel. The ultimate goal, Albrecht says, "is to expand two-way communications with the people of Iowa."
West Virginia will continue to broaden its ability to have open dialogue with citizens, and the portal will continue evolving to more effectively brand the public sector in the state. "For instance, we offer various spotlight topics at the top of the portal to help constituents find the latest information about occurrences or annual events," Proctor says. "We'll continue to work with our partner, West Virginia Interactive, to ensure greater access to government information and savings."
In Vermont, Allen says the "Ask the Governor" tables will turn, and the administration will begin asking questions of its citizenry. "That it is definitely in the cards shortly," she says, adding that she finds the new media options a lot of fun because they're so much more interactive than talking out to people in a newspaper article or TV program. "You're actually in a technological world, having a conversation back and forth. You're getting their input and you're responding much more promptly to their concerns or misperceptions."
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