As we celebrate the beginning of 2012, the new year brings with it some age-old headaches for state department of transportation staffs trying to successfully roll out social media programs. I’m sure other state and local governments face similar challenges, but since I am familiar with state DOTs, I’ll focus specifically in this area for this post.
I recently finished a master’s thesis on mobile technology and government-public engagement, and quite a bit of discussion among state DOT communication staffs centered on the barriers to effectively keeping up with social media specifically and technology in general. As I mentioned recently, state DOTs are generally leaders in their home states in deploying social media tools and expanding public information and engagement. But it has not been easy to get there and some states are facing real challenges in this area.
In two focus groups and a series of one-on-one interviews conducted for the thesis study, the state DOT communication staff persons were nearly unanimous in describing three specific areas that either kept them from deploying social media tactics or significantly slowed down the process.
First, there was a recognized cultural or bureaucratic barriers in some places to new technology and new outreach tactics. Believe it or not, at least one state DOT as of this fall still did not allow all of its employees to access the internet. We’re not talking about blocking Facebook or streaming media. The agency did not let their employees access their own agency web page, the web page of their governor, or any other web page.
So, if the employees cannot access the internet, how realistic is it to think that those in charge are really concerned about greater public engagement through innovative use of internet-based tools?
The organizational culture also seemed to come into play for the communication staff persons who cited disagreements with their colleagues in the Information Technology divisions as causing delays in deploying new tactics. If the CEO or chief engineer supported expanded public outreach and engagement, the IT folks seemed to make it work. If not, foot-dragging and bureaucratic delay were very real barriers.
Additional barriers to online outreach included concerns over legal issues. Is Facebook information archived? Should it be? Should citizen tweets get retweeted? There were dozens of these kinds of questions that state DOT teams either have worked through, or are in the process of working through. The latest legal questions seem to be over whether and how social media and online engagement tools should be included in formal public decision-making processes, such as those that fall under a NEPA process.
And, finally, nearly every study participant talked about tight budgets and shrinking staffs. While social media and online tools can help us streamline some things, mostly they are added responsibilities that build additional capabilities into our communication tool kits. These tools, when used effectively, should not be automated. That means real people need to tweet, update Facebook, post photos and videos and answer public questions.
I think it is right for government organizations to hold to a higher standard when it comes to deciding whether and how the internet is used for communication. Yet, recognizing that communication tools have changed drastically in just a few years – from desktop PCs to smartphones and iPads – we can expect that government transportation communicators will be forced to live in tension between wanting to be good stewards of the public resource and wanting to keep up with innovation.