Open Government in California: Connecting Citizens To eServices with Social Media

Can state governments deliver more services with constrained budgets? How can social media and collaborative software be used to engage citizens and lead to better policy decisions or investments? Can open government lead to better e-government?

Open government, e-government and We government

That’s a reciprocal relationship I wondered about earlier this year, when I visited the Social Security Administration.

My central analysis after the visit was that open government is a mindset.

Thinking about that topic brought me back to the a day earlier this year when I interviewed Carolyn Lawson about precisely these issues. Lawson is the Deputy Director, Technology Services Governance Division, Director of the eServices Office of the state of California.

Our interview is embedded below. Following is a longer discussion into the ways that California government agencies are using social media to connect citizens to e-services.

Earlier in the day, I’d reported on her talk at the Gov 2.0 Expo.

“What we have to do is open up the conversation about what it means to be a public servant,” said Lawson, kicking off the Expo’s first session. In “Navigating the Maze, Lawson offered guidance, perspective, case studies and, appropriate to the topic of social media in government, lively give and take between the audience and presenter. Lawson explored the many ways that the state of California has employed e-services and online engagement strategies, along with a simple driver: cost.

“Our workforce is furloughed three times a month,” said Lawson. “It’s really painful. Our exploding population really needs services.”

The reality of California’s budget woes come at a time when the expectation for government to be responsive online has never been higher. “Immediate access to data has become a cultural expectation,” she said.“The expectation is there now that government will be open, honest and will communicate.”

Lawson described how both the California Unemployment Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles have used social media and online platforms to deliver better services without additional cost.

“You can tweet @CA_EDD and get answers like how long until you get a check, where to go on the website or job fairs,” said Lawson. “I don’t think the creators of Twitter thought it would be a helpdesk for EDD.” That social response is paired by e-government services that enable workers to file for unemployment online. Lawson said that online applications for unemployment went up by about 1.8 million from the previous year. “What would have happened if we’d blocked that?”

California is using other online platforms and technologies to deliver services that have been affected by budget woes. California couldn’t afford to offer driver training in schools, explained Lawson. “Something had to be cut. What the DMV did, since they already had YouTube videos, is to create an entire curriculum.” The California DMV YouTube channel provides the means for every high school to watch training videos like the one below without additional cost:

“We were thinking of this a culturally relevant tool, not as a forum for expression” said Lawson. “These videos have more than nine million views. If we weren’t government, they’d be calling that viral. It’s all about being where people are.”

And, on that count, the @CA_DMV has developed an iPhone app, DMV Now.

Lawson strongly defended both the importance of the role that social media engagement plays for the California state government and its utility. “Technology is not driving Web 2.0, Twitter or Facebook.,” she said. “People are driving these services. And blocking Web 2.0 isn’t going to solve your problems.”

She made the analogy to the conversations about the telephone in the workplace in the early 20th century, or email in the 1990s. “What we do as a government when we cut off the ability to communicate through the Web 2.0 world is to remove our ability to be culturally relevant,” she said.

Adopting social software or connection technology usage that emphasize protocol over common sense can be problematic as well.

“One of the things that kills government’s ability to use social media is speaking to employees in terms of thou shalt, thou shalt not,” said Lawson. She shared a public available wiki of government social media resource that offers some best practices and frameworks for discussion or practice.

Lawson observed that California itself is still evolving in how it uses social media. “We still have many departments blocking the governor’s Twitter,” she said, alluding to Governor @Schwarzenegger’s massively popular account. The challenge, as Lawson posed it, is to show how government use of social media combines with open data initiatives. “What are we afraid of? The consequences of transparent. We were really afraid of crowdsourcing ideas to improve California IT with Ideasalce. We got beat up – but we also got ideas. We’re the government: we’re going to get beat up. You can’t take it personally.”

Lawson broadly described a cultural shift going towards open government brought about by the Obama admin, though she recognized that many efforts had gone on before. “This is being pushed through by Obama’s transparency initiatives,” she said. “It used to be revolutionary for public documents to be available in a municipal building to people walking in. No more.”

So how should an organization tackle objections that put social media age into a technology issue, rather than a management challenge? “That’s where I have my ‘activity or accomplish’ conversation,” said Lawson. “Is this that conversation about the telephone in 1920s? Or is it something that we need to do to protect our data and information? You have to get people engaged in the conversation. That took us more than a year. If you can relate behavior to behavior to technology, that’s where you have a win.”

The bottom line is that nobody has this all figured out yet, said Lawson. “You just have to work your way through it.”

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.