Politics

U.S. Department of Blogging

What the rest of the government can learn from the TSA.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The Transportation Security Administration might be America’s least favorite federal agency. For every discarded 4-ounce bottle, dropped laptop, or missed flight, a furious traveler stands ready to heap abuse on the next TSA employee he sees. And it is the job of Bob Burns, official TSA blogger, to take it.

“Do I get beat up? Oh, yes, definitely,” Burns says. “You have to have thick skin and realize that people do need an outlet to vent and get rid of frustrations.”

The Transportation Security Administration’s blog, Evolution of Security, is everything the TSA is not—lighthearted, informative, responsive, and devoted to the needs and concerns of its customers. It may also be the best model for government to engage citizens over the Web.

Most agency blogs—and they abound—are little more than a collection of glorified press releases. The Department of Transportation’s blog, Welcome to the Fast Lane, helpfully assures readers that the $48 billion in stimulus money allocated to the department “could not be in more capable, vigilant hands.” The State Department’s blog, the unfortunately named DipNote, informs us that President Obama’s European trip last week was a roaring success. Thanks to the Office of Citizen Services’ Gov Gab, I’m now aware of Alcohol Awareness Month, National Autism Awareness Month, and Sexual Assault Awareness Month—all this month. The “blog” published by the Office of National Drug Control Policy actually is a set of press releases.

Other agencies are mildly more innovative. The U.S. Geological Survey sent a blogger to the Arctic to watch researchers map the ocean floor. The Energy Department’s Energy Savers is basically a green advice column. (Who reads those?) The National Parks Foundation went crazy and hosted a photo contest.

But then there’s a handful of blogs that actually change the way you look at government. One way is fostering genuine reader interaction. On any given day, Burns may answer questions about formaldehyde, tin mint cans, frozen monkey heads, pie, exploding chickens, or scabies. Original research is part of the job: When some travelers  missed their flights last year because their MacBook Airs looked suspicious under an X-ray, Burns created a video explaining why that’s the case. After that, security officers—many of whom read the blog—knew what to look for. The Library of Congress, meanwhile, has been posting its photo and video archives on Flickr and YouTube and asking readers on its blog to help tag the material. The worst thing an agency blog can do, on the flipside, is write at readers. Cautionary tales include the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenversations or Gov Gab.

The best government blogs actually sound like blogs, too. InfoFarm, the Department of Agriculture’s blog, may be the first-ever instance of government-sponsored snark. Peter Orszag’s blog for the Office of Management and Budget (as well as his former CBO blog) is on-message but goofy. TSA’s Burns once wrote a post consisting entirely of poultry puns. And LoC blogger Matt Raymond recently took the opportunity to embed a video of boxing cats, solemnly dubbed “a presentation of the Library of Congress.”

Another thing agency blogs need: actual power. When Evolution of Security commenters complained about having to remove all electronics from carry-on bags during screening in certain airports, the TSA put a stop to it. When they kvetched about long lines, the agency created a new express-lane program. (They don’t take all suggestions. One commenter asked TSA to focus more on invisible supernatural terrorists. Another suggested that the agency ban nail clippers on flights so passengers don’t get hit with stray clippings.) The direct line from the comments section to the top brass isn’t just good business; it also builds goodwill.

Which brings us to a good govblog’s other function: damage control. When TSA officials detained a Ron Paul organization official in March for carrying too much cash—he was transporting $4,700 in contributions—the blogosphere went nuts. More embarrassing was a recording of the incident: The man asked whether he was legally obligated to answer questions, to which one TSA official replied, “You want to play smartass, and I’m not going to play your fucking game.”

The TSA blog responded with a staid, press release-y item: “The tone and language used by the TSA employee was inappropriate. TSA holds its employees to the highest professional standards. TSA will continue to investigate this matter and take appropriate action.” Normally, Burns signs his posts with the jaunty moniker, “Blogger Bob.” This time he played it straight: “Bob.” “What I wanted to say was a little bit harsher,” he told me. “But that’s what was approved.”

Commenters railed against Burns and the TSA for the limp response. “Bob, will the TSA tell us what the results of the investigation and any actions taken against the employee?” asked one. “Or will this just be swept under the rug?” But at least these complaints were being lodged not with a faceless entity but with a guy they knew and, for the most part, liked: Bob. And because he had spent so much time building trust, many commenters gave him the benefit of the doubt. Said one: “It is unusual these days to here [sic] any organization admit that it, or its employees, did something wrong. TSA’s official statement above does exactly that. Kudos to the TSA for having the courage to say so.” Burns thus serves as a lightning rod—he attracts criticism, but he also helps ground it.

There’s no reason the rest of the government Web sites can’t do the same thing. Many agency blogs have comments sections—almost all monitored—but few of them try to create a community. The White House blog tries to be more conversational than its press releases, but the conversation is still one-way. When I asked about creating a comments section for the blog, an administration official pointed to the Open for Questions program, in which the president answers questions in a live streaming town hall. Sure, but that’s not the same as a forum that allows users to engage with one another and government officials at the same time.

And if there’s one thing the TSA experiment has shown, it’s that engagement doesn’t sacrifice authority. It enhances it. Obama has made a point of increasing transparency through new media: How about a secretary of blogging?