Hundreds flock to camp for social networking in government

The "unconference" held sessions developed on site and presented examples of how government can use the new media.

More than 300 social media enthusiasts nationwide met in Washington on March 26 to discuss and present ways to encourage the use of interactive online applications to increase engagement with the public.

The Government 2.0 camp attracted federal and local government officials, contractors and bloggers who discussed the role of social media in government. Mark Drapeau, a research fellow at the National Defense University who organized the event, called it an "unconference," because unlike traditional conferences, where speakers are booked and agendas set months in advance, the camp began with an hourlong introduction period. Attendees interested in leading panel discussions suggested topics and volunteered to give presentations. Anyone interested in a particular topic was assured of the opportunity to have a discussion.

The reaction from the decidedly social networking partisans was unbridled enthusiasm. "I love it. It's of the people, for the people," said Tamie Santiago, acting director of emerging technologies at the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the Defense Department. "We decided the agenda and it's led to a passionate discussion, which is where we wanted to be."

Santiago took part in a panel about the role of privacy in social media, during which she expressed concern about how revealing too much personal information on social media tools could lead to a loss of privacy, or even risks to a person's safety.

Defense is pushing to increase the use of social media, such as Techipedia, an internal wiki about emerging technologies, which serves as a clearinghouse for innovations, she said. The department launched the wiki in October, and Santiago other agencies could adopt it.

The camp's participants ranged from the experienced to those just beginning to dabble in social networking. Lurita A. Doan, former administrator at the General Services Administration during the Bush administration, attended the camp, and although she said she was "not big on social media," she recently signed up for a Twitter account, a microblogging site where people can follow individuals' daily musings.

"It's scintillating, very different from the average government conference, which takes months to plan," Doan said.

During the day, more than 50 sessions were conducted on subjects ranging from privacy to how to get started in social media to how corporations are using the technology to examples of how agencies were using the tools.

The Library of Congress, for example, discussed the results of a decision to upload some of its collections of pictures to the photo-sharing site for public comment. Placing some of the library's photos increased traffic to the area on its Web site by 20 percent in 2009 compared to the same period last year. So far this year, the site has had more than 15 million page views and received 12,000 comments.

Most of the Government 2.0 presentations were brief, with an emphasis on discussion and question-and-answer periods. Few presenters gave traditional speeches, or used PowerPoint slides.

Maxine Teller, founder of the social media consulting firm Mixt Media Strategies and a co-organizer of the camp, said the response to the event was overwhelming, with more than 500 people signing up and more than 200 on a waiting list. She attributed the reaction to the interest in social media.

Many attendees worked at small federal agencies or local and state governments, and were collecting success stories to convince their bosses that social media can help them accomplish their agencies' missions. Mariana Gerzanych, a statistical analyst at the Census Bureau, said she hoped to start a Web 2.0 office so the public can offer ideas on how to improve the way the bureau presents its data. "We have a lot of data that's not usable," she said. "We need to consolidate everything, make it more user-friendly,"

Dave Faggard, chief of new media and emerging technology at the Air Force, opened his presentation saying he wanted to convince commanders to allow soldiers and airmen on the front-lines to use Twitter and social media to report what was happening. "One way to connect airmen to average Americans is to allow airmen to drive the narrative," he said. "It allows so much more transparency."

Jeff Kerby, Web manager for the Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency, which provides loans and subsidy payments to farmers, said the agency recently has begun testing how social networking could be used. He and other technology managers at FSA are analyzing how the agency could text the latest crop prices to farmers every morning so they don't have to come into the county office to look up the information. "They're receptive," Kerby said. "It's a matter of getting them used to it."