Social Media's Growing Utility for Government

By Stephen Goldsmith • February 27, 2017

This post originally appeared on Stephen Goldsmith's Better Faster Cheaper blog on

Anyone who doubts that creativity is abundant in the public sector need only scroll through the lists of semifinalists and "Bright Ideas" recognized by the Harvard Kennedy School's Innovations in American Government awards program. The programs being highlighted for this year signal a growing trend of utilizing existing technology platforms, and particularly social media, to reduce program costs and improve services. More often than not, these innovations tap into the practical know-how of digitally savvy public employees to address difficult challenges.

Blighted properties certainly qualify as that kind of challenge, one that many cities struggle to deal with effectively. Mobile, Ala., faced a growing blight problem compounded by incomplete data that relied only on residents' complaints to identify problem properties. So the city's innovation team turned to Instagram. Relying on the GPS information embedded in photos posted on the site, code-enforcement officers snapped and uploaded pictures of blighted properties to a shared account and then transferred the data to a mapping application to create a visual inventory.

Next, the team combined existing property data, including tax, building permit and ownership status, with the geographic information collected via Instagram. This mapping allowed the team to visualize clusters of blighted properties and commonalities in the existing city data. That made it possible for the city to transition to a proactive model of mitigating blight, saving time and money by capitalizing on technology that city workers were already familiar with from their personal use.

Across the country, the California Office of Traffic Safety's Designated Drivers VIP campaign turns social media into a friendly voice for government in an effort to reduce drunk driving. OTS wanted to find a way to reconcile the gap between the 20-something drivers it wanted to reach and that population's dislike of the perceived moralizing and authoritative tone that often comes with government campaigns. OTS created a Twitter account without conspicuous government branding at @DDvipCA, utilizing a lighthearted voice to share memes and tweets that tie into current events such as National Irish Coffee Day and the Super Bowl.

The account and its accompanying mobile app reward sober drivers with discounts and deals at partner bars and restaurants, including special nonalcoholic drinks and coupons for food and games. Partner businesses advertise the rewards to their customers, broadcasting DDVIP to a larger audience without substantial advertising expense. That helps to strengthen ties between government, businesses and consumers who all share an interest in encouraging designated driving.

Wake County, N.C.'s Food Safety and Sanitation Office, which conducts sanitation inspections at more than 2,600 restaurants, uses social media to address another problem many governments face: how to widely and effectively disseminate the wealth of data they have in a way that is accessible and useful to consumers.

The agency had been relying on the county website to make restaurant scores available to the public, but it knew that the steps required to access the information were inconvenient and cumbersome. So like several other cities and counties in recent years, it partnered with Yelp, the popular site for sharing reviews of local businesses, in this case to automatically push inspection scores to restaurants' Yelp landing pages. For the county, the only costs associated with this program were the minimal staff hours required to set up data communication with Yelp's servers.

These three innovations address very different challenges. What they have in common is that each amounts to a rethinking of traditional ways of delivering public services. Governments may never be able to keep up with Silicon Valley in terms of launching the next big thing, but it's a safe bet that they will continue to use these social media platforms -- and whatever the next big thing is -- to create new ways to save money and add value to the services they deliver.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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