Feds take to Twitter to talk to the public
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WASHINGTON -- They're from the government and they're here to tweet.
Have a question about federal student aid? Need to get your State Department news in Russian? Want Vice President Joe Biden to explain off-shore drilling policies?
If you can ask your question in 140 characters or less, you're good to go.
Government officials from all sectors are reaching out to the Twitterverse to engage citizens on all sorts of issues from student aid to Turkish diplomacy.
"Sitting down, ready to chat," David Huebner, ambassador to Samoa and New Zealand, chirped Thursday at the start of an online session advertised as a chance to ask about human rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.
He got only one question on that topic. Instead, the Schuykill County native was asked whom he's rooting for in the Super Bowl and how a kid from a coal mining town grew up to be a lawyer.
"Have always preferred 'amateurs' to 'pros.' Plus, raised in Nittany Lion territory where the only sport was #PennState football," @DavidHuebner tweeted with 13 characters to spare.
To the latter, he responded: "Liked to argue. Perceived lawyers as making a difference in govt. Saw lawyers during 1970s doing great good."
A half-hour earlier, Martha Kanter, Education Department undersecretary, opened a separate "Twitter Town Hall" to answer questions about filling out Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
"Should students fill out a FAFSA every year, even if they did not receive aid the first time?" came one question, to which Ms. Kanter responded moments later: "There's NO income cut-off for federal student aid. Everyone should fill out the FAFSA."
Her office is one of the newest in the Twitosphere. The @FAFSA account was created just a week ago and already has more than 1,200 followers.
Ms. Kanter's boss, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has been tweeting a lot longer. He had 25,391 followers at last count. Since October 2010, Mr. Duncan has held a series of Twitter Town Halls to take questions and to ask a few of his own.
"One of the great things about Twitter is that it really is two-way communication. It is not just about us pushing a static message out," said Daren Briscoe, deputy press secretary for the Education Department. "It's very much putting things out there and taking feedback from folks who are interested."
With its 140-character limit, Twitter does have constraints. Mr. Briscoe doesn't see that as a bad thing.
"In some sense, it can focus conversation in a way that other media cannot. In 140 characters, you really have to figure out what you want to say," he said. "Economy of language is not necessarily a bad thing."
The Departments of State and Education aren't the only federal agencies with a presence in social media. Compiled by the nonprofit Experts Lab, the Federal Social Media Index tracks 125 federal agencies with a presence on Twitter. The National Endowment for the Arts (@NEAarts) and the Army (@USArmy) were the most prolific tweeters last week, while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (@NASA) has the most followers by far -- 1.8 million and counting.
The index doesn't include the White House Twitter (@whitehouse), which has 2.6 million followers, or Vice President Joe Biden (@VP), who invited his 53,000 followers to his first Twitter chat on Thursday. He took questions on off-shore drilling, foreign subsidies and which team he's rooting for in the Super Bowl (Giants).
The Turkish embassy will be next to go online with a live "Twitterview" Tuesday with Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. tweeting from his new account, @ABDTurk. Don't bother trying to follow along, though, unless you speak Turkish. His is the State Department's 10th foreign-language Twitter feed.
"We are always seeking to expand the ways in which we can inform and engage with the people of Turkey," the ambassador said last week in a statement announcing the live Twitter event.
The foreign-language feeds are part of the department's "21st Century Statecraft" initiative, which seeks use of digital technology in worldwide communication. As part of that effort, the Foreign Service Institute now offers ambassadors training in digital media alongside more esoteric courses on topics such as monitoring migration and evaluating humanitarian assistance.
"We see [social media] as a tremendous tool. Technology allows our diplomats to reach huge numbers of people and in the language that they speak," said Victoria Esser, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy. "Foreign policy isn't just discussed in embassy reception rooms anymore. Technology has really enabled citizens to have a more direct and real-time voice in the policy conversation."
Recently, the department has held Twitter chats on nuclear security, World Wetlands Day, Haiti's recovery from the 2010 earthquake, the Peace Corps program in Malaysia, global Internet freedom, refugees and other topics.
Starting this month, the department is incorporating a video component, too. Computer users around the world can use the twitter hashtag #AskState to ask questions -- in any of 11 languages -- and then watch department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland answer them in a YouTube video. Ms. Nuland answers in English, but translators post a subscript in the language in which the question was asked. Videos are posted at http://www.youtube.com/user/statevideo .
Other agencies across government are using Twitter to explain policy, send news alerts, announce grant awards and seek opinions on everything from economic policy to what Meal Ready to Eat citizens would choose if they were soldiers deployed over Thanksgiving.
They're trying to fulfill a mission President Barack Obama outlined in a memo on his second day in office.
"Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public," he wrote. "Public engagement enhances the government's effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions."
The State Department already had been on Twitter for a year when that memo came out, and other departments were adapting to new technologies, too.
"We realized this is a tool we could use to engage with the public. No one had to tell us to do it. It just made sense," Mr. Briscoe said. "It made as much sense as installing phones in our buildings."
First Published January 29, 2012 12:00 am