July 19, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
Back in high school, do you remember parents who tried to be hip by dressing like their kids? You wondered why the parents bothered, because they just looked silly.
A similar fad that has grown legs in government IT circles: public officials blogging. After all, the coveted Millennial generation reads blogs. Government technophiles promoting this may enjoy showing off how in touch they are with Web 2.0, but how in touch do they really look to the people blogging is supposed to attract?
Blogs that catch fire typically project a casual personality and feature provocative commentary. But getting that type of language past a public information office, whose job is to keep things uncontroversial, can be difficult. Consequently most public-official blogs tend to be extensions of press releases, said Seattle Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier. He considers public-servant blogs that offer only scrubbed, official-sounding prose largely pointless.
"The best blogs are ones that carry a personal point of view, reveal what an elected official is thinking and have a little bit of personality and edge to them," Schrier said.
He writes a blog called Chief Seattle Geek.
"I blog because I like writing -- putting my thoughts coherently into an argument. I like pushing the envelope in terms of how city government ought to use technology and how we should be adapting technology to better take care of citizens," Schrier explained.
Schrier doesn't even check his Web traffic. For him, blogging is not about volume, but sharing his personality and insights with anyone who's interested. He spends roughly four hours of his personal time crafting each post.
However, Schrier contends that for agencies especially prone to contentious media coverage -- like law enforcement, transportation or the mayor's office -- freewheeling, pithy commentary might not be worth the trouble.
One also might question whether public officials who use blogs as fashionable Web 2.0 vehicles for press releases are only kidding themselves.
The people in government who are freest to create enticing blogs are usually officials working under the radar, Schrier said. He occasionally breaks unfavorable news about Seattle on his blog. Nobody tries to muzzle him because the IT department isn't a hotly watched agency.
"I tend to expose things that happen internally to city government that otherwise wouldn't see the light of day. We had an incident in November where our data center went over 108 degrees because of a failure in the cooling system. I blogged about that," Schrier explained. "I don't know how interesting or uninteresting that was to people, but obviously it would have made headline news if the data center actually melted or had we lost several thousand dollars worth of servers. That's an example of an incident you normally wouldn't read about."
Lakewood, Wash., Councilmember Walter Neary said an elected official risks his career each time he blogs in the true sense of the word.
"The people who read your blog most carefully are your political opponents. If you blog right, you make yourself a bigger target," Neary said. "You go to a lot of trouble to get elected, and then when you open yourself up, it gives people a lot more information they can use to try to unseat you."
This raises a question: Should closely watched agencies skip blogging altogether? Pithy opinions often cause unintended controversies. Responding to those can be taxing and counterproductive for an agency's staff. Furthermore, should voters be paying public servants to spend time vetting and approving blog posts just so government can look Web 2.0 savvy?