A Tumblr by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence designed to “increase” transparency sounds like a build up to an elaborate joke by The Onion or The Daily Show. It’s completely true.
IC On the Record, which seems to be an initiative of President Obama himself, is designed to “to provide the public with direct access to factual information related to the lawful foreign surveillance activities carried out by the Intelligence Community,” according to a post by Office of National Intelligence Director James Clapper. The most prominent reaction I’ve seen so far is how the URL reads more like “I con the record” and most other people have been scratching their heads.
Amy O’Leary of the New York Times has observed that the official statements, testimonials, and collections of documents has observed that most of what’s on the Tumblr blog is also on the website of the Office of National Intelligence. O’Leary also makes the point that “Government entities have been turning to tumblr, as well as other social media platforms, to freshen their image and revamp their tools for reaching the public.” The only thing missing seems to actually be reaching out to the public.
I’m legitimately curious as to what Barack Obama and James Clapper hoped to accomplish with a Tumblr blog. A blog that, by all accounts, just seems to be aggregating existing information readily available on government websites. If our political and intelligence leaders truly thought a Tumblr blog would restore peoples’ faith in the American intelligence system, it demonstrates a worrying lack of understanding of how social tools are supposed to work when connecting with your audience (the American people in this case).
We’re actually privileged to see this because it represents one of the most common problems with how institutions use social media. The prevailing attitude when it comes to transparency and social tools is to put the cart before the horse. Rather than establish a commitment to transparency and openness and using social tools to spread that message, businesses and government agencies instead use social networks themselves as their tools of transparency, regardless of how transparent the organizations actually are.
Government agencies in particular seem to have a widespread attitude that their commitment to transparency is creating Facebook or Twitter pages, as if the very act of using a popular service is the answer. Does a new pair of running shoes make you run faster? No, and acting like Tumblr somehow elevates your transparency is just as silly.
Nor will social media act as a magical cloak to compensate for the bad internal policies, methods and practices that you get criticized for in the first place. All an effort like this Tumblr does is highlight how shallow your attempts to “connect” with your audience really are, and it attacks a symptom instead of the problem.
Furthermore, you cannot replicate the trust and faith that brands and institutions build with their audiences just because you’re using the same tools they are. That’s just not how public relations or community management works. When I see the Office of National Intelligence doing nothing but aggregating content, disabling private messages and ignoring all questions and inquiries on Facebook, I see an organization completely missing the point of what social media is supposed to do. In an age where connecting with customers, constituents and concerned citizens is easier than ever, some organizations seem all the more determined to shut out peoples’ voices or just marginalize social users as geeky shut-ins with no social lives.
I’ve already heard the counter-argument from friends who work in politics that regulatory concerns prevent government agencies from being more transparent, which is a ridiculous excuse. If your intent is to be transparent but your ability to use these platforms is crippled by regulations and bureaucracy, why are you even using them? Either find alternate ways of reaching people or work on updating your policies so that they’re in line with the world we live in. Don’t expect people to consider it reasonable when you cite regulatory concerns for ignoring their inquiries on Facebook.
You can’t become more transparent by just saying you’re going to become more transparent and by the mere act of joining a popular social network. That’s just not how social works, let alone how reality works. Nor is just being on these social networks going to encourage people to trust you. Your institution needs to reevaluate everything it does, how it acts, and how people respond if you want to encourage trust, and from there you can develop social tools and use them correctly. If you expect to build the second floor of a house when the first story is barely standing up, you’ll never be happy with your results.