Keeping It Real
More and more agencies have hopped on the blogging bandwagon. From concept to execution, here's how they did it.
In August 2005, Washington's then-mayor Anthony Williams posted the very first entry in his blog. A week later, he posted another. Then the posts became more and more infrequent until finally they stopped all together.
Consider that a lesson in how not to do a blog.
For some, blogs are an opportunity to reach new audiences on a more personal level. For others, they're the rants that just won't go away. Either way, blogs have moved from the obscure to the mainstream, exemplified by the fact that the federal government produces more than 16 blogs that the public can access online. Success rides on strategic rollout and ongoing commitment. But first, agencies need to grasp what a blog actually is.
Short for "Web log," a blog is essentially an online journal. In an era of public distrust of government, blogging offers an outlet for agencies to communicate stripped-down messages about their missions directly to citizens and colleagues. Beyond that rather ambiguous description, determining what a blog should or should not be runs counter to its whole concept. For the Smithsonian American Art Museum, it's a discussion about how art can reflect U.S. history and culture; and for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, it's an opportunity to educate people about illegal substances and the latest efforts to reduce drug use.
In other words, a blog is what you make it.
"We wanted to reach new audiences, put a human face on government and open up more conversation with the public," says Beverly Godwin, director of USA.gov content and Web best practices. Managed by the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Communications, USA.gov launched Gov Gab in September with six bloggers sharing a variety of tips and information with the public. The day before Halloween, for example, Marybeth blogged about ghost tours in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. The day before that, Jake blogged about the importance of checking batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
"These are experts in government information, because that's their jobs," Godwin says. The bloggers are all office employees of Citizen Services. "But trying to translate that into [content] that matters in people's everyday lives is the challenge. We figure out what people are talking about and try to contribute, rather than forcing what we want to talk about on them." Godwin hopes to eventually launch a similar blog at GobiernoUSA.gov, the Spanish version of the federal portal.
Technologically, posting a blog is not difficult. It doesn't even require a huge investment in software. GSA uses Apache Roller from Apache Software Foundation, one of many free open-source Java blog servers that support features such as group blogging, newsfeeds, rich-text editing, customizable page templates and comments. Other agencies develop homegrown blogging applications from existing content management systems, such as the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server or Interwoven Inc.'s TeamSite.
The bigger challenge with blogs involves planning and management. Agencies should establish goals that spell out what the blog should accomplish, seek leadership support, coordinate a skilled and committed team, and establish a process to ensure consistency and quality of content.
At the State Department, the idea for a blog came from Sean McCormack, assistant secretary for public affairs, while in Northern California's Silicon Valley. "He sent an e-mail saying, 'I want you to head up a launch; whatever you need to get it done, you got it,' " says Heath Kern, State's director of digital media. "There's unbelievable license to try new things here. It's given me the freedom to do what I want to do, without worrying that I have to have every box checked."
Kern put together a team made up of an IT developer, a Web manager, graphical designers and herself as editor. The goal was to develop a blog that broke the stereotypes at State (bureaucratic, stuffy even) but was still respectful of the department; something that was "hip, now and new," Kern says.
She recruits high-level officials as bloggers, including Andrew S. Natsios, the president's special envoy for Sudan, who wrote about meeting with Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, among others. She also recruits bloggers from junior staff on the ground, such as Rafael Foley, who wrote about his experience as a refugee coordinator in Baghdad, and Foreign Affairs Officer Tara Foley, who wrote about working counterterrorism as a woman in Saudi Arabia.
"Government tends to be hierarchical, and principals don't like to let go of their purview," Kern says. "With the blog, we've managed to make that happen."
AmeriCorps launched Lost Tribe of Green 5 in February to boost recruitment for the network of local, state and national service programs. The weekly blog chronicles the experiences of a National Civilian Community Corps team in the field. Since most of NCCC's projects have been on the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina, the blog also helped spread awareness of the volunteer response to the disaster and the ongoing need for more volunteers.
Matt Harmon, webmaster for NCCC, developed the blog from scratch, posting content from a seven-member team. The 35 entries that detailed their service with AmeriCorps logged 10,000 visitors without any publicity. NCCC is planning to continue the blog with its next class and to incorporate several more details, including photos, video and a talk-back feature that allows readers to submit questions. "In the beginning, I was writing most of the blog with input from the team," says Jared Kahan, a member of AmeriCorps NCCC. "We'd go over highlights of the day. As we progressed, more people stepped up and took on writing. From beginning to end, it went from one voice to many."
Of course, a blog can only maintain an audience with intriguing content. Government is still government, and not even a blog can offer an open forum. Agencies need to strike an appropriate balance between monitoring content and censoring the voice of the blogger. For AmeriCorps, that means no personal attacks or vulgar language and no partisan politics. And for USA.gov, it means following the rules of "general civility," Godwin says, and prohibiting children under 13 from posting comments.
"Can any topic be covered? Will you allow the public to post comments? Those things are what blogo-sphere is all about," Godwin says. "But if yes, you open up the conversation. Do you moderate? We do, and no government agency doesn't." USA.gov offers tips on blogging for agencies here.