Governments Experimenting With Twitter

As Twitter experiences almost exponential growth (Nielsen estimates 1,382 per cent year-on-year growth from in website users alone), I’m seeing a rapid growth in corporate use of this emerging communications tool. Companies like Zappos, Dell, JetBlue, Comcast and others have done a great job of providing customer service, establishing relationships with their customers and putting a human face on their brands.

Still, even though Twitter has been around for more than three years, I’ve seen few examples of governments using Twitter with the kind of success that some companies have seen.

Resources

Steve Lunceford at BearingPoint runs GovTwit, a directory of government and related accounts. It’s growing regularly, and has a large number of US and UK-based accounts; however it currently has few from Canada.

Alexandra Rampy published a great list of US government Twitter accounts late last year, but again few standout examples and no Canadian examples (which is fine; it was deliberately a US list).

Mike Kujawski runs the excellent Government 2.0 Best Practices Wiki, which features a few Twitter-related examples from the provinces.

Potential uses in government

The lack of case studies doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening or no interest. I did a little digging and found a whole bunch of people and departments experimenting with Twitter. Being an Ontario government alumnus and having participated in efforts like an increasingly social news release, YouTube videos and even real-time social media monitoring during crises, I focused there.

My sources tell me there is still resistance to Twitter within the government, largely from people who haven’t really given it a cursory try, which is unfortunate. However, the variety of people experimenting is encouraging.

I can forsee a variety of uses for Twitter within government, including:

  • Early-warning issues management – identify emerging issues early before they bubble up to the media;
  • Monitoring reaction – through persistent Twitter searches, departments can track sentiment, content and other trends in reaction to announcements;
  • Direct-to-citizen communication – Twitter, and other social media tools, can help organizations communicate directly with their target audiences rather than going through the filter of the media;
  • Put a face on the organization – government often suffer from being faceless organizations, while politicians seem aloof. Social media tools in general can help to counteract this;
  • Emergency management – emergency coordinators need to get information out quickly to people in an emergency; Twitter could even work at a hyper-local level;
  • Raise awareness of resources – government websites can be impenetrable mazes, designed by committee to placate competing silos with information buried deep inside the site. Twitter can help to point people to the right place;
  • Identifying resources and information – a more individual use, which worked for me – Twitter can be invaluable for finding answers and identifying resources for those last-minute requests (contrary to popular opinion, government communications can move very quickly at times) – just throw the request or question out there for a rapid response;
  • …and many more.

Twitter isn’t going to be the right tool in every case. No social media tools are. Just as not every announcement necessitates a media event or news release, Twitter (like the social media release)  is an extra tool to add to your toolkit. Different functions will find different uses for this tool, and like other tools, it won’t be right for every one.

It’s ridiculous to think that a blanket one-size-fits-all approach would work for organizations that function in such a broad array of areas. It would be equally stupid to outright dismiss it and assume that because it doesn’t fit in one situation that it won’t fit for any.

Still, I’m encouraged to see the government’s communicators giving it a try to see what works.

Ontario government trying Twitter

From a quick search I found:

  • 11 organizational (non-personal) accounts
  • 28 personal accounts covering eight ministries and one agency

Organizational

  • @FoodlandOnt – Foodland Ontario
  • @ontarioparks – Ontario Parks (also see the Ontario Parks blog) – despite following no-one and posting zero tweets, this account has 122 followers
  • @oac_cao – Ontario Arts Council (surprisingly, despite the bilingual name, it features only English tweets) Thanks to the Arts Council for clarifying – the account is indeed bilingual.
  • @onfieldcrops – Ministry of  Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs – Field Crop News
  • @onhortcrops – Ministry of  Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs – Horticultural Crop News
  • @MNRcentral – Ministry of Natural Resources
  • @OntarioREV – Ministry of Revenue
  • @OntMinFinance – Ministry of Finance
  • @Ont_Ombudsman – Ontario Ombudsman
  • @OntMinLabour – Ministry of Labour
  • @OntMinLabourFR – Ministry of Labour – French account

Individual accounts, by ministry

Note: After careful consideration I decided not to publish the names of these accounts, as they are personal accounts and not on behalf of the government.

  • Cabinet Office – 13
  • Ministry of Children and Youth Services – 1
  • Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration – 1
  • Ministry of Community and Social Services – 3
  • Ministry of Education – 1
  • Environmental Commissioner of Ontario – 1
  • Ministry of Finance – 2
  • Ministry of Government Services – 4
  • Ministry of Natural Resources – 2

Missed opportunities

With all of the interest and discussion about Twitter within the government, I’m surprised to see some clear opportunities missed.

Most notably, the Ontario government is currently at risk of brandjacking, as we’ve seen happen with entities like Exxon Mobil and the Dalai Lama.

While @daltonmcguinty is claimed (though it’s not clear if it is by his office), a bunch of obvious accounts aren’t claimed. Try @mcguinty, @OntMinHealth and @georgesmitherman for example. Their staff need to get on that. I’d like to see a little more clarity around who is behind the ‘official’ accounts, too.

Your thoughts?

I think it will take a change of approach and mindset for government to effectively use Twitter, but the potential is there. 

What do you think about governments using Twitter?

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  • patrice cloutier

    Hello Dave … thanks for this … particularly on the points related to emergency management … as an fyi … the EIS has a twitter account that we’d populate during an emergency … dormant during normal ops but a link would appear on our website(s) during a crisis to direct Ontarians to the twitter account for more frequent updates …
    thanks … Patrice

  • Hey Patrice – thanks for your comment!

    One thought – it might be better to build-up a following prior to a crisis. By definition, you may not have the luxury of time to build-up the necessary following in that situation.

    Just a thought.

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  • Dave, excellent post as always. But you got one thing wrong. A quick check of the OAC twitter account shows both English and French tweets there.

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  • I’d love to see more Ontario government communicators using Twitter (I’m one of the Dave’s 28) to talk about the industry. The space is full of agency and corporate folks, so it would be nice to strengthen the government perspective.

    And the more Twitter is used on a personal level, the more its value to reach the public will be understood on a professional level.

    In municipal politics, there was an interesting article last week in the Toronto Star about our Toronto mayor David Miller and London mayor Boris Johnson tweeting. Not the best article, but it could spur other politicans and government workers to join the discussion. http://www.thestar.com/article/606306

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  • David

    I’m wondering what your sources are for “Individual accounts, by ministry”. I can say for sure that the tallies are not complete. I work in the Ministry of Government Services (although this comment is completely in a personal capacity and doesn’t necessarily represent the views of my employers). I can say with certainty that there are more than 4 individual Twitter accounts in my unit, never mind the whole branch, division or ministry!

  • As always, a great post Dave. I particularly like the fact that you mention Twitter isn’t by any means a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Even when it has the potential to be the “right” tool for a particular organization, it can be used in different ways (depending on the objectives). As a “government 2.0” consultant, I get many government clients that want to jump into this channel right away, without thinking out what it is that they are trying to accomplish. This can very quickly lead to Twitter profile abandonment, as evidenced by the relative lack of “tweets” in many of the government Twitter profiles that you have identified. That being said, I can promise you that in the coming months you will see an increase of actual “strategic” use of Twitter by gov departments (with the ever-important “human” voice element). Slowly but surely, public servants are learning the rules of engagement on these channels, whether its through training, or their own personal use (most often the case). If you don’t mind I may take some of the profiles you identified and add them to a soon to be released section on my wiki dedicated for this purpose…let’s keep it growing!

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  • Hey David — as I mentioned in the post, this was a relatively quick search, using terms like “Ontario” and browsing the following/followed list of people I identified. Nothing scientific, especially as many people choose not to identify themselves as OPSers. Still, I’m encouraged that there are plenty of government communicators on there, learning about the tool. That’s a good thing.

  • Great roundup Dave.

    As a former OPSer, I currently follow at least 30 other OPSers on Twitter (and I’m sure there are many many more I’m not), so I can definitely say that Twitter is getting some pickup in the OPS. Obviously, it’s not pervasive just yet, but it’s getting there.

    I think there’s immense value in individuals self-identifying as Tweeting _for_ the organization. As you mentioned in your post, the government needs to have a human voice that’s not the politicians.

  • Dave, great post, I actually did a bit of analysis around this on my own blog looking at a particular tweet that was critical of service recieved by a tweeter at Service Canada. Given the depth of your comments, I will be linking to this post in a future follow up.

    If interested you can find my post here: http://www.cpsrenewal.ca/2009/03/cpsrenewalca-weekly-column-common-sense.html

  • There are a few Canadian municipalities using Twitter:

    Ottawa http://twitter.com/ottawacity
    Toronto http://twitter.com/311Toronto
    Calgary http://twitter.com/cityofcalgary
    Edmonton http://twitter.com/CityofEdmonton
    Vancouver http://twitter.com/CityOfVancouver

    Interest is growing, as is an understanding of the different ways in which twitter can be utilized.

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  • I think there’s tremendous potential for members of the government to get one one one feedback with the people they are meant to service.

    As trivial as it may be, the fact that David Miller has replied to two of my tweets makes me feel that he’s a leader who’s in touch.

    And I learned he’s a rugby player, which means he has my vote!

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  • Re: ——————————–
    @oac_cao – Ontario Arts Council (surprisingly, despite the bilingual name, it features only English tweets)
    ———————————–

    Bonjour Dave,
    As a government agency, we are mandated by law to provide services to artists in both official languages. We take this task very seriously. All our tweets are bilingual, and when they are not, we make sure French speakers know the information is available in French. It can be a challenge to find the best venues that help us reach audiences in both languages at the same time, but we are willing to do our best to stay true to our duties and tap into the opportunities afforded by social media.

  • The City of Guelph, Ontario is also on twitter http://twitter.com/cityofguelph

  • Thanks for the post. I’ve been working with our local government looking at opportunities technology may provide and another important aspect, not necessarily twitter related, is making data machine readable. If public data is easily accessible, the masses can use that information in research, apps, and numerous ways we would never dream of!

  • Jennifer Story

    hi there,
    Any updates here? what if anything has changed, in your opinion, in Ontario and the rest of Canada? Would love any new analysis you might have to share.

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