How New York City Government Is (and Isn’t) Using Social Media

Updated: October 17, 2011 at 04:00 AM

"Digital Communications" panel discussion on Oct. 14. The panel discussed the impact of digital tools on government. MetroFocus/Daniel Ross.

Events in recent years have demonstrated that digital tools hold great power in improving government and business — and can destroy political careers.

On Oct. 14, City Hall News presented “How digital tools are (and are not) impacting communications in and around government,” a panel discussion with leaders in digital media, journalism and city politics. The event, held at Baruch College in Manhattan, was co-moderated by MetroFocus Editor in Chief and Executive Producer Laura van Straaten and City Hall News Editor Adam Lisberg.


The “Digital Communications” panel discusses social media in government. MetroFocus/Daniel Ross.

Friday’s panel discussion, which MetroFocus supported as a media sponsor, was the second event in City Hall News‘ four-part “Digital Communications” series focused on digital communication and its influence on politics, advocacy, organizing and business. Speakers at the event included the city’s Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Sterne; CEO of GovDelivery, Scott Burns, whose company aims to improve communication between government and constituents; MTA Projects Coordinator, Sarah Kaufman, a self-professed “whiz kid” who manages the transit authority’s open data plan; Microsoft’s Director of Innovative Engagement Mark Drapeau and New York City Council Member Gale Brewer.

In recent years, many New York City politicians and organizations have been using digital tools to communicate everything from details about new legislation to personal status updates.

Digital tools are new terrain for government, and sometimes the boundaries of what’s acceptable are unclear.

The panel addressed the problem of how traditional structures of government and corporations can limit the power of social media tools like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook and explored solutions.

Sterne, for instance, championed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s belief in making reliable government data as widely available and transparent as possible, in order to make government and business more efficient and connected. In her position with the city, Sterne helped create “Road Map for a Digital City,” a plan to pursue enhance the inter-connection of information and government resources.

“It’s important to experiment, but it’s not a cureall to use social media,” said Sterne.

Recent initiatives, like the MTA’s real-time social media-enabled updates to service changes on transit lines, as well as their open data plan, have been met with wide acclaim.

“We need to break down these barriers between people and the MTA, and there’s a long history of barriers,” said Kaufman.

But digital tools are new terrain for government, and sometimes the boundaries of what’s acceptable are unclear. The most convincing evidence of this dilemma manifested itself last spring after Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned following some now infamous tweets. Lesson learned: what you put online, however well-toned your politicking abilities (and pectoral muscles) may be, is permanent and more public than you think.

Other politicians have towed the line between digital transparency and overshare with less catastrophe.

A recent Queens Tribune story described several City Council Members’ predilections for tweeting and Facebook messaging about everything from upcoming surgery to impromptu karaoke sessions.

The panel also addressed the two-way street nature of digital tools — as new technologies allow government to be more transparent and engage with itself, so too do they allow citizens to better engage with government. This point was made particularly poignant during 2011’s weather disasters, the “snowpocalypse” blizzard in January and Tropical Storm Irene in August.

During both events, frustrated residents used social media tools to send pictures and videos of the weather-related mess to government officials, provided regular updates and documentation for the world to see and connected online to make sure friends and neighbors were safe. As Irene approached, city officials sent out emergency preparedness guides and a flood zone map through multiple digital channels.

In August, the two-way street of digital tools become clear once again at NYC BigApps, a city-created contest which called on the public to recommend smartphone applications to make a better New York.

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