President Obama and his team deserve credit for emphasizing web initiatives. The challenge will be that the federal bureaucracy isn’t built for the nimble Web 2.0 world. It is inherently slow, and resistance to change can be buried deep within the organization. It is time the bureaucracy adjusts. Government sites that aim to inform and engage the public achieve value and increased customer satisfaction.
As former head of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs for the Transportation Security Administration, a component of Homeland Security, our agency made the foray into the blogosphere early last year. Hurdles existed including within the IT department, Records Management, and with lawyers who wanted time to review every agency post. As any seasoned public affairs pro will tell you, it is in the best interest of the organization to work productively with the lawyers, however blogging is groundbreaking and requires a shift of the paradigm. A multi-day approval process with heavy edits would have sabotaged our efforts before we were even out of the gate. We also wanted to ensure the authenticity of our posts to build credibility.
What is required for success is to have support from the top of the organization. In our case, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff had already launched the DHS Leadership Journal blog, and TSA Administrator Kip Hawley was an avid techie and web proponent who pushed the organization out of its comfort zone to make the blog a reality. We engaged a web savvy member of the legal department in our blog team. Her involvement added significant value. Those of us on senior staff loosened the reins as the bloggers established a track record and everyone’s comfort level increased.
TSA interfaces with approximately 2 million travelers a day. To say there was pent-up frustration is an understatement. Creating the blog was a bit like drinking from a fire hydrant. Travelers wanted to vent, rant and complain. Evolution of Security gave them a venue. Blogging helped the agency gain credibility in the mainstream media as well as in the blogosphere. Being afraid of criticism is not an option. Readers especially appreciated TSA’s policy of posting anything as long as it did not contain profanity or any kind of threatening language.
Successes included the ability to quickly straighten out misperceptions in the mainstream media about a laptop policy that was not TSA’s but one of another DHS component. We were able to show how screening a MacBook Air was different from a conventional laptop. TSA officers are looking for tampering and the processor in a MacBook is quite different. We also immediately changed a security procedure run amuck at several airports where passengers were being asked to remove all electronics at the checkpoint. That was not TSA’s policy and bloggers helped solve the problem by bringing it to our attention. TSA established “Got Feedback” where you can get your specific issue run to ground and resolved by TSA customer service at any airport in the nation. Even TSA’s self-select Diamond Lanes that separate families from expert business travelers were in part the result of blog feedback.
There is plenty of opportunity for the vast majority of government agencies to benefit from Web 2.0 techniques and authentically engage the public. Federal blogging advocates must overcome institutional slowness and resistance to change. Web 2.0 is quick, honest and real. Transparency hurts. Blogging is hard for the thin skinned. Some would rather bury their heads in the sand. What is needed is champions who will help break down the barriers, public affairs practitioners who are both responsible and bold, and lawyers that are willing to tread where few have gone before.
Ellen Howe is the former Assistant Administrator for Strategic Communications and Public Affairs for the Transportation Security Administration is a strategic communications consultant. You can reach her through her website at www.ellenhowe.com.