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What Does Innovative Social Engagement Look Like For Businesses and Governments?


This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on November 17, 2009.

I’ve been thinking about the topic of Government 2.0 a lot lately. Part of this topic deals with the multi-directional engagement between government and citizens. This is what the White House and others have termed a more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government.

Unfortunately, the engagement for the most part is not very authentic nor meaningful. Boring “fan pages” on Facebook are one example I’ve written about, but there are many others. Often, engagement, when it does happen has so many rules associated with it, or such a high barrier to entry, or such a limited window as to be practically meaningless.

It seems to me that everyone can celebrate the fact that government entities merely have a YouTube channel here, a Twitter account there, or a Blogger profile some other place (the so-called “TGIF revolution“), or we can think a little harder about what the goals of citizen engagement really might be, and how to go about achieving them. But first, a personal example of responsiveness and engagement from the private sector.

On the evening of Nov 2nd, I tweeted from my phone about a local DC restaurant, Co Co Sala, just as I was leaving. We had a nice experience, but the hostess had been a little, shall we say, disinterested in helping us? So I commented as much.

Less than a week later, the co-owner of Co Co Sala sent me an email and cc’d his general manager. He apologized for the treatment I experienced, assured me it was not policy, introduced me to the manager, and said he’d talk to his staff. It was a four-paragraph email. I’ve never met him before, and furthermore, my personal email is discoverable but not the most easy thing to find.

This is what real social innovation looks like. This is what customer service looks like. This is what true engagement with stakeholders looks like. I want to give this great lounge Co Co Sala a hearty shout-out for not only having a great product, but also really caring about their customers.

Now, imagine we weren’t talking about a restaurant here. Imagine we are talking about the Department of Motor Vehicles, or the Patent and Trademark Office, or your Congressman. If you tweeted, would they see it? Would they care? Would they react in any way? I think the answer in many cases is no. And when was the last time you gave the DMV a shout-out for a job well done?

Let’s look at a sliver of data. According to TweetStats.com, the people behind the White House Twitter account reply to individuals less than 2% of the time, and seem to have never @ replied to any single more than once (i.e., they have never come close to a conversation). They re-tweet others’ tweets about 6.5% of the time, but they only seem to re-tweet other government accounts and the New York Times. Granted, there are more people tweeting about White House issues than Co Co Sala, but does the above data represent any caring in any way, shape or form?

The terrific techPresident blog recently noted that actor Vin Diesel is the single most followed living person on Facebook – and that he recently passed up President Obama. Perhaps that’s because Vin Diesel’s Facebook fan page is awesome. He is engaged, his fans are engaged, and the tone is informal and fun. There are also many other high-profile people who have taken the plunge into innovative social engagement; my favorite at the moment is Alyssa Milano.

So when exactly did “serious and formal” become a substitute for “informative and meaningful” in government circles? And why is everyone scared of letting their guard down in public? People and entities that innovate and use new social networking tools to engage with stakeholders will be winners. The ones that don’t will be losers in the long run. It’s that simple.

If a goal of Government 2.0 is to provide citizens better services, and a strategy towards reaching that goal is to use social media tools to communicate better with citizens on multiple channels, it seems to me that listening and responding better to comments and complaints would be a great tactic.

The reason why people still cite the TSA’s blog as a good example of citizen engagement is because few other outstanding examples of federal government social media engagement seem to have emerged in 2009. What does 2010 have in store?

It is somewhat outside the scope of this post, but my guess is that more and more local government responsiveness and engagement is happening. We heard some of those stories at the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase in September. What are some new ones that the feds should hear about?

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