Why the Government Will Fail at “Web 2.0” and Social Media

So I was reading an article earlier about how great of a job the Government was doing by using Social Media and engaging their audiences.  Not only did I literally spit out my coffee because I was sort of in shock but I also went on a mini rampage on Twitter.  Not only was I shocked that someone would think this, but apparently a lot of people actually agreed because they were complimenting the author.  Then you also had people who were being sarcastic with their comments.

I was on a panel the other month with the people in charge of Social Media for many of the most well known Government agencies.  I am tempted to post the pic so you can see who they are, many of you would easily recognize a couple of them from TV, but the reality is that it was more of a joke to hear what one in particular called an accomplishment.   With that said, there were two people there who had their head on straight and actually had and used their brains.  The problem was that the Government jumped in and prevented them from actually being able to do anything either good or bad.

Being on that panel further solidified my opinions of the Government and their approach to social media.   By listening to one person in particular rattle on about accomplishing what in my opinion was absolutely nothing, if anyone will not succeed within Social Media it has to be the Government.  It isn’t their fault though, they just don’t get what Social Media is and that it actually allows people to have a voice.  Anyways, enough venting and time to explain three of the reasons why the Government may never actually be successful with Social Media.

1.  The Government is Scared of the People.

This is one of the saddest things about our Government.  They are actually scared of the people that they represent and don’t want us to have our voices.   The thing they are scared of most is that the people will speak up and voice their actual opinions which may not be what their Lawyers and PR people said that us as a people are saying, doing or thinking.  I won’t say who said this, but two people from large organizations actually said something along these lines during their speech and verified that this is a huge concern.

Politicians have to play the dumb card or hire a spin firm when they screw up and Government agencies are to scared of their own employees suing them, or an employee saying something that will get them sued that they don’t want to let them embrace Social Media.  The other fear they have is that none of them want to get a public backlash when something does happen so they hire expensive contractors to maintain and keep their brand under control.  God forbid they ever tell the truth instead of letting people start and spread rumors and then panic.  (H1N1 and other outbreaks).

Social Media is about the community being able to say what they want and respond when, where and how they want.  Instead of participating in discussions about issues which are relevant to them, Government agencies try to bottle it up and hide it.  What scares them the most about Social Media is that they all of the sudden lose control and have to actually do work to address issues and concerns.  What they fail to realize is that if they would actually embrace social media and start to be proactive and respond to people looking for outreach, we’ll get into that in the next point, then they could do more damage control than the damage they do to themselves by avoiding it.  Let’s use Unicorn Meat as an example.

ThinkGeek published an april fools joke on their blog about Unicorn Meat being the other white meat.   Not only did some association or group get pissed because that was their tag line, but the USDA sent a letter threatening a lawsuit.  Here’s the story on the NY Times Blog.   Not only did it make it to the NY Times, but many other well known sites and blogs picked up on this and the story went viral.  The reality is that after this started to blow out of proportion, all the USDA had to do was to come out and apologize or let people know that they made a mistake.  If they would have just apologized and admitted they were wrong then this would probably have blown over and I probably wouldn’t be blogging about it right now.   Instead they gave themselves an even worse PR nightmare and in turn ThinkGeek a ton of exposure.   If they would have just come out and apologized or said that they overreacted and apologized for the lawsuit, the drama would have died off.  This goes into my next reason why the Government won’t succeed in Social Media.

Too Much Red Tape With Even More Lawyers to Prevent Progress.

Social Media is in real time and if the person complaining has a handle with a blocked IP and fake email, they can be very hard to track down.   The issue with this is that the Government’s first reaction is to make things disappear or discredit them so that they no longer have any validity and the Government can go to bed easier.   That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll kill the person, but they want things that they don’t want to see or don’t like to go away and by discrediting or threatening the person they can usually do this.  The problem with social media is that when a threat like this happens, it can and usually will backfire.

Not only can the organization get roasted by the community, but the spokesperson may get destroyed with a huge influx of bad PR and complaints.  Look at what happened with Cook Source.  Not only did something that could have been resolved easily get blown way out of proportion because the Magazine people refused to understand Social Media and why stealing content is wrong, but imagine if it was the Government and they threw their Lawyers in on top of it.  It would be an absolute nightmare.

A company who actually engages their audience and helps create a positive out of a negative complaint in social media can usually build a loyal fan base and army to defend them.   Because they understand the value of not letting things get away from their control and by addressing and apologizing for their mistakes, these loyal fans will come to the company’s rescue while the company has to deal with Lawyers and internal red tape.  By having a loyal army of fans there to defend you while you are waiting for your Lawyers you can help to not only build and strengthen your brand, but you can rely on them to defend you if someone tries to trash you unfairly.

Because the Government does not react in time or realize that they need to engage the public and let them speak freely, they end up not building that group of people that will come to their aid when they need them.  Whats even worse is when their Lawyers who are way to lawsuit happy jump in and escalate the issue with threats.  Nothing will anger a mob of angry Bloggers and Tweeters than a threat from a Lawyer, especially a Government one.  That is one of the biggest obstacles and problems with the Government entering into social media.  Everyone in the Agency needs to have their say and because of this nothing ever gets done and they usually make issues worse.

3.  They Don’t Trust Their Own Employees.

If the Government doesn’t trust their own employees enough to be able to say what they want or feel like saying, then whats going to happen when other people try to say something to an employee?   One way that they can test how their employees would react to having them live on a public social network would be to test it out on an internal and private one like Yammer or by installing Ning onto their servers.

Not only will they be able to watch and see how their employees may and will react, but they will also be able to build the confidence that the people they hired will represent them in the way that they would approve.   They should really ask themselves something before hand though, if I cannot trust these people that I hired to to speak well on my behalf, then why did I hire them in the first place?

Many Government employees laugh when asked to do work because of the fact that they feel it is almost impossible to get fired from a Government job.  Maybe it is time to change that and make them actually work by making it easier to fire an Government employee.  For those of you who have had to deal with the bullsh*t because of lazy Government employees who just don’t care because their jobs are not on the line, wouldn’t it be a nice change to watch them actually have to work or get fired just like you or I would?

Not only would being able to fire lazy and unprofessional Government employees easier be a motivator for them to actually work, but it may help the Government weed out the people that they wouldn’t be able to trust to speak on their behalf on a social network and get rid of them.  My biggest issue with Government employees is that not only are many of the ones I have dealt with lazy, but they get amazing benefits and tons of security for doing nothing beneficial for the people they are supposed to be serving.  There are plenty of other hard working people out there who would kill for this kind of job, work harder to keep it and also help to keep a good name on the social media sites for the Government agency.  Tons of unemployed people would be grateful to be working there and would proactively represent their Government agency in a positive light.   Maybe its time the Government rethinks how and who they hire and then take away some of the security blanket that their lazy employees depend on.

With that said, not all Government employees are lazy.  There are plenty of hard working ones.  Unfortunately for them the few lazy ones, which also happen to be many public facing ones, give the rest of them a bad name and make it so that the good employees don’t get to enjoy social media as part of their work life.  I completely understand not wanting people who work on top secret clearance projects to be able to tweet about them, but people in PR, Marketing and Customer Support could do a lot more for Government Agencies if they would let them do their jobs and help calm people down when they are upset and on social sites.  Another thought would be to actually let them answer angry customers questions when they ask them, instead of putting them on hold or sending them to a million other departments.

Until the Government realizes that Social Media is about the public getting to voice their opinions and that they cannot just quiet people not that they have a way to voice their opinions, they’ll never be successful in working with social media.  When the Government Lawyers stop trying to sue everyone and they start letting their employees do their jobs, that is when they may be able to begin to effectively enter into social media.   The reality is that they give out huge contracts to build websites and get guidance from “Experts” on how to enter social media.   Anyone can stamp a Government Agency seal on a document and the press will pick it up, you don’t need an expert for that.  What they really need are the non giant agencies who can build a buzz for an unknown company.  They need a personal or smaller agency who actually does legit Social Media work to show them the actual ways that they could enter into social media and help make social media work for them.  The main problem that they’ll run into though is that non of the people who could actually do it would actually probably work with them.  I was asked to help two of the agencies out and instead of taking the contract I turned it down. It just wasn’t worth dealing with all the bullsh*t.

Government agencies are a mess and not worth the hassle in my opinion.  You get stuck in a ton of bureaucracy and people who just want to be told that they are smart and amazing.  I would rather get real work done for companies that deserve to succeed.  Until the Government can change and actually want to work with and listen to the people that it is supposed to represent, it will probably never succeed in social media.  This is just some food for thought and a way for me to vent after reading that article.

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