By Ted Wheeler of Portland, Oregon. Ted is the county chair for Multnomah County. He can be found on Twitter here.
Now that I’ve extricated most of the battle-flak out of my backside over Multnomah County’s recent effort to hire a Social Networking Coordinator, I want to answer the basic question posed by the Portland Tribune:
"Ted Wheeler, what were you thinking?"
Simply put, I was thinking that government should get with it and embrace the future.
Local governments, in particular, can capitalize on the amazing opportunity that web-based technologies, including social networking (SN), provide. These tools are quickly reshaping the way we communicate and interact, and government would be smart to adapt.
Recognizing that millions of potential customers are signing up for tools like Twitter and Facebook, forward-thinking companies like Intel, Apple, and Nike are already making significant investments to cultivate SN strategies. These companies are literally building communities around their brands. They improving customer service and getting input on product and service enhancements. (Here’s a recent story on KATU about Intel’s local SN Team.)
The opportunity for government is obvious.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently used Twitter to inform local public health authorities of the spread of the Swine Flu and provided real-time data on local outbreaks. President Obama has effectively used SN for his grassroots organization.
The current use of SN tools in the public sector only hints at their full potential. At Multnomah County, we will use Twitter and Facebook to keep citizens informed and to get feedback on basic policy questions. Strategically aligned with now-traditional communication tools like the web and email, SN tools can spark a renaissance in civic engagement and government accountability.
Consider the status quo. Fewer people are reading newspapers. Television news lacks resources to cover local political issues in depth. Hectic personal schedules often don’t leave time for public meetings. If the public doesn’t know what elected leaders are doing, or why they make the decisions they do, how can they hold government accountable?
Another disturbing national trend is the failure of local government to engage young people. Despite strong efforts locally by grassroots organizations like the Bus Project or the Multnomah Youth Commission, young people often take a skeptical view of government decision-making processes and don’t feel included.
For many of these so-called “Digital Natives,” social networking isn’t just a tool – it’s a lifestyle. As one young Facebook fan recently told me, “It’s where we are. If you want to talk with us, you better be here.” The numbers tell the story: Facebook, founded in a college dorm room in 2004, now boasts over 200 million members. Twitter, just over two years old, now boasts over 17 million members. Government leaders need to reach out to people where they are. And increasingly, they are in SN communities.
Every time I “tweet,” (send a message on Twitter) I reach far more people than will attend all Multnomah County meetings over the course of an entire year. Although we are starting modestly, Multnomah County will use SN tools to help shape budget decisions, improve customer service, get real-time feedback on specific policy choices, and build specific interest groups to interact as decisions are being made. Multnomah County will also use SN tools to communicate performance measurements and be more accountable to our citizens. We will build more dynamic relationships with the public we serve.
While I am optimistic about SN helping to shape the future of the Town Hall, government must view SN as another tool in the box. New technologies are not equally available or desirable to our citizens and not a replacement for traditional outreach and community engagement efforts. Equity and access must remain top values for government.
If getting to this point has not been a comfortable process, it has opened up a timely and necessary dialog in our community. The future is here. I say let’s embrace it.