Twitter may not be an ideal platform for conversations between city government officials and citizens, given its 140-character limit per post. But despite that limitation, Palo Alto, Calif., has found success using the social media tool to host in-depth chats for Silicon Valley residents.

The city held its first Twitter Q&A on Feb. 27. Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh and City Manager James Keene fielded questions ranging from street planning to high-speed rail issues. A second session was conducted on March 29, which received broader participation and increased media attention. A third Q&A is scheduled for May 2.

Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, introduced the idea based on the success he has seen the business world have with similar Twitter chat sessions. Having spent his entire career in the private sector before taking his current position with the city, Reichental believes using Twitter for Q&As in city government is “leading edge” and interesting to try out at a civic level.

“We’re still in what I call the experimental phase,” Reichental said. “We’ve made no conclusions yet with regard to effectiveness and whether or not it is a sustainable, viable communications channel between the city and community. But so far, the results are good.”

The initial Palo Alto Twitter Q&A ran for 30 minutes and took place during the workday. But the timing wasn’t as effective as Reichental hoped. He recalled not having enough time to answer all the questions and less participation than expected, likely due to the time of day when the Q&A was held.

So the second session was expanded to one hour starting at 7 p.m. Reichental noticed an immediate difference. The quality of the questions was improved and there was an uptick in the number of people taking part in the session. In addition, the event was covered extensively in the local media.

Reichental also said that he, Yeh and Keene were better with their responses the second time around. Because Twitter messages need to be 140 characters or fewer, they must be thought out and presented in a way that doesn’t mislead someone or create confusion. It takes some practice.

“If you want to make broad points, you have to think through it and abbreviate your point within that constraint,” Reichental said. “So it’s a little bit of experimentation. … You learn from what you could have done better. We spiced it up with a little bit of humor where it was appropriate, and we had an effective session.”

Challenges Remain

One of the drawbacks of using Twitter, however, is that it lacks a tracking function that could be useful to measure just how effective the chat sessions are. To overcome the lack of metrics and provide transcripts of the Twitter Q&As for those who couldn’t attend, or don’t want to start a Twitter account, Palo Alto is using Storify.com.

The service takes content from across social media and aggregates it into stories that can be read later. As people access the Storify.com archive of the Twitter Q&As from a link on Palo Alto’s website, the city is able to track how many people access the transcript, giving Reichental some indication of how much interest there is in the chat sessions.

Those new to Palo Alto’s Twitter Q&As also need to know the importance of using hashtags. In order to view the questions and answers, any tweet made during the chat has to be followed with “#AskPaloAlto.” Otherwise, a question could be missed. That happened repeatedly in the first two sessions.

“What we discovered is that many people just hit the reply function on Twitter to the question and asked a follow-up question and we did not catch those,” Reichental said. For the third Twitter Q&A, he plans to emphasize hashtag usage and will keep an eye on all replies, just in case some questions slip through.

Future Twitter Q&As may also feature city personnel other than the mayor and city manager. Optional invites have been extended to additional department directors to take part in the sessions. And if the format takes off, Reichental envisions topic-specific Twitter Q&As, so that the city can get more detailed on a particular subject.

The Palo Alto CIO also emphasized that Twitter isn’t replacing any other form of municipal communication. It’s simply another tool for citizens to engage with city leaders.

“Getting involved and participating in government is perceived to be hard,” Reichental said. “So how can we make it easier and more fun? Twitter is one of the ways we’re exploring, and we’ll explore others.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.