How to Create Effective Government Blogs

Seattle Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier and others talk about their blogging experiences.

by / July 19, 2009

Back in high school, do you remember parents who tried to be hip by dressing like their kids? You wondered why the parents bothered, because they just looked silly.

A similar fad that has grown legs in government IT circles: public officials blogging. After all, the coveted Millennial generation reads blogs. Government technophiles promoting this may enjoy showing off how in touch they are with Web 2.0, but how in touch do they really look to the people blogging is supposed to attract?

Blogs that catch fire typically project a casual personality and feature provocative commentary. But getting that type of language past a public information office, whose job is to keep things uncontroversial, can be difficult. Consequently most public-official blogs tend to be extensions of press releases, said Seattle Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier. He considers public-servant blogs that offer only scrubbed, official-sounding prose largely pointless.

"The best blogs are ones that carry a personal point of view, reveal what an elected official is thinking and have a little bit of personality and edge to them," Schrier said.

He writes a blog called Chief Seattle Geek.

"I blog because I like writing -- putting my thoughts coherently into an argument. I like pushing the envelope in terms of how city government ought to use technology and how we should be adapting technology to better take care of citizens," Schrier explained.

Schrier doesn't even check his Web traffic. For him, blogging is not about volume, but sharing his personality and insights with anyone who's interested. He spends roughly four hours of his personal time crafting each post.

However, Schrier contends that for agencies especially prone to contentious media coverage -- like law enforcement, transportation or the mayor's office -- freewheeling, pithy commentary might not be worth the trouble.

One also might question whether public officials who use blogs as fashionable Web 2.0 vehicles for press releases are only kidding themselves.

Small Dog World

The people in government who are freest to create enticing blogs are usually officials working under the radar, Schrier said. He occasionally breaks unfavorable news about Seattle on his blog. Nobody tries to muzzle him because the IT department isn't a hotly watched agency.

"I tend to expose things that happen internally to city government that otherwise wouldn't see the light of day. We had an incident in November where our data center went over 108 degrees because of a failure in the cooling system. I blogged about that," Schrier explained. "I don't know how interesting or uninteresting that was to people, but obviously it would have made headline news if the data center actually melted or had we lost several thousand dollars worth of servers. That's an example of an incident you normally wouldn't read about."

Lakewood, Wash., Councilmember Walter Neary said an elected official risks his career each time he blogs in the true sense of the word.

"The people who read your blog most carefully are your political opponents. If you blog right, you make yourself a bigger target," Neary said. "You go to a lot of trouble to get elected, and then when you open yourself up, it gives people a lot more information they can use to try to unseat you."

This raises a question: Should closely watched agencies skip blogging altogether? Pithy opinions often cause unintended controversies. Responding to those can be taxing and counterproductive for an agency's staff. Furthermore, should voters be paying public servants to spend time vetting and approving blog posts just so government can look Web 2.0 savvy?

Andrea Di Maio, an analyst for the IT research and advisory firm Gartner, recommends agencies quit blogging altogether.

"They're trying to put information where people are more likely to look for it, but blogs are really hopeless stuff. Blogs are good for politicians, but from a government organization perspective, they don't really make much sense," Di Maio said. Anything hosted by or linked from a government site can't help but come across stiff and institutional, he said. That's because content coming from an institution has to run through bureaucracy.

The Web 2.0 Alternative

Di Maio predicts social-networking sites like Twitter and Facebook will be more effective for government officials. He suspects agencies will feel more comfortable keeping employee communications as-is on those sites. When workers post on social networks, the perception is shed that their comments represent the entire agency, in Di Maio's view. He said existing Web communities, like Twitter and Facebook, will give government officials more incentive to post with personality. Crafting original, thought-provoking posts is more attractive when a community of interested users already exists to respond to them, Di Maio said.

He said the key to stimulating employees' interest in social networks is to encourage them to blog for their own sake instead of the agency's sake.

"An individual employee will want to participate if he or she has a compelling reason to do so. That's when the ball starts rolling. If it's more of an official thing, meaning you have to do it because it's fashionable or because the minister or governor likes it, that's not going to work," Di Maio said, later adding, "There's been too much focus on whether something is the right thing -- the cool thing."

He recommends employees find discussion groups that can bring them usable benefits, like information for doing their jobs better or even advancing to higher government positions.

Interacting on those sites in a way that won't get the employee's agency into trouble is simply a matter of establishing codes of conduct, Di Maio insisted.

"There are other countries, like the UK, that have developed codes of conduct for government employees when they go into these communities. The codes are not that complex," Di Maio said. "If you already have a code of conduct for employees, meaning you already have a set of rules for how to talk to the press, the public -- deciding when to publish or not publish information -- all you need are two or three additional points on how to react to posted comments."

Whether or not state and local agencies can establish the type of presence on social networks that Di Maio advocates is uncertain. Agencies have been on these sites for a while, and Di Maio acknowledges the content they post isn't much different than the lackluster prose on government blogs.

"The [Twitter] tweets look like press releases or announcements -- official stuff. Again, they miss the point, but the good thing is they've started using these tools," Di Maio said. Many agencies acknowledge to him in private that their posts miss the point, he said, and they want to improve. The problem is they're still uncertain what the code of conduct should be.

Blogging in Private

People usually think of blogs as mass-media vehicles. However, many small groups subscribe to invitation-only blogs. A limited audience eliminates the danger of public controversies from brashly worded posts. Schrier is considering a few private, internal blogs targeting two different Seattle groups, one being his IT staff.

"I'm really not well known to most of them. Over the next couple of years, it's going to be a scary time to be an employee in any company. Layoffs and budget cuts and those things," Schrier explained. "I want to have more of a personal perspective that I'm able to put out there for the employees in my department about what's going on and my thoughts on how the department is managed."

The second internal group he'd like to blog for is his agency's end-users.

"There are 11,000 employees in Seattle and probably 38 departments and offices. I'm the chief technology officer for setting standards across that organization," Schrier said. "I do publish a newsletter now, but I might consider blogging for people interested in technology elsewhere in the city, and where we as a city government ought to take that technology."

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.