Gov 2.0 Hero: Mike Rupert

Mike Rupert, Communications Manager for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) in Washington, DC. Mike also recently started localgovchat.com and Twitter chat #localgovchat to unite local government communications professionals to share ideas.

What was your path to Gov 2.0?

We started in 2008 with a small campaign aimed at encouraging students at any of the dozen or so universities in the District of Columbia to make sure their off-campus housing was safe. We wanted them to look up their landlord to see if they were licensed and request a housing safety inspection if they thought their housing had safety issues. While the effort was nearly four years old, one of the biggest past challenges was breaking down the age-old student vs. government barrier. Before, when inspectors went door-to-door to off-campus apartments, they were turned away from students more than 90 percent of the time.

We started the District’s first Twitter account @dcra and the blog thisshouldbeillegal.com. In 18 months, we’ve seen inspection requests in college neighborhoods jump 300 percent and we’ve seen spillover into other neighborhoods. The site itself has received more than 40,000 hits – not bad considering we’re targeting about 10,000 students.

One of the great things about social media is that a true conversation can happen on many levels. There is the semi-formal government customer service conversation, the less formal public conversation, and in my mind the most important “background” or “off the record” conversation. This allows you to become “friends” with government, ask blunt questions and get real answers. There is an intimacy that will never exist in an informational brochure, at an information booth, a poster or a typical telephone “hotline.”

Being able to respond directly with my name and my voice and provide the reassurance a customer service representative never could. Just like your friends, some things you want out on their Facebook wall or Twitter-feed; others are private. I don’t see a difference here as we are asking them about personal issues and we should treat it as such and with same care as you would a friend in trouble.

Since then we’ve expanded – at least the Twitter account – to other service areas and we’ve tweeted wait times in our service centers, held live chats with our Director, created easily accessible Google Maps for inspections and licensed businesses, Facebook page, YouTube videos highlighting success stories, and much more.

What area of government offers the biggest opportunity for improvement via Web 2.0 tools?

Customer Service. Customer Service. Customer Service. People want their answers. They want them online and they want them now. They also want to follow up with questions and not have to wait 24-48 hours or a week to get a response.

Local governments are responsible for the most direct services to residents on a day-to-day basis. And while it’s important that we be transparent, it’s just as, if not more, important to provide answers to questions and provide as many services online as possible. People are busy and government has the capability to be ready to respond at anytime the resident is available, not just during regular business hours.

How is the work you’re doing changing the way DC operates?

My favorite post about our efforts so far was titled “DCRA is my Homeboy.” By being responsive and providing our customers – DC residents – with an immediate outlet to get an immediate response we have really changed our image. Personifying the agency through social media – and using a little personality when appropriate – has chipped away at that big, flashing “Bureaucracy” sign that looms over almost all government agencies. I actually have a photo my staff and I have posted on our walls to remind them of what perception we’re battling against everyday.

We respond to pretty much anyone and everyone who mentions us – whether it’s through Twitter, blogs or listservs, regardless of the number of followers or page rank. We use social media to correct false information, provide stats or a link, or simply nudge an employee who let a deadline slip. While it creates some anxiety to legitimize or highlight the negative, we think it’s important everyone feels they are getting VIP service.

The greatest success from our Twitter community is that our customers are helping each other – sometimes before we can even respond. We’ve started to make a series of YouTube videos with customers explaining the process for other customers. We’re kicking ourselves out of the process – should be exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge to executing open gov/Gov 2.0 initiatives?

I think resources are the biggest challenge facing local governments. It would be great to have coders and designers to create beautiful Web pages, applications and aggregators similar to what customers are familiar with from the private industry. But that’s not the reality and in the end it’s probably not that important.

Another big challenge is not all customers use social media so we need to continue to do more traditional campaigns to reach the most vulnerable residents. DC is doing a great job trying to bridge the digital divide, but we can’t solely focus on those with Twitter accounts or Facebook pages.

What do you recommend to other cities trying to execute open gov/Gov2 .0 initiatives?

The first thing every government agency should do is listen. Google yourself, search blogs, search through listservs, and search your acronym on search.twitter.com. Find out what people are saying about you before you just jump into social media. Do this with your boss in the room and their perception of social media will definitely change.

As most social media leaders say, ‘Social media is not a strategy, it’s a tool.’ Decide what tools work best you, if you need anything at all.

People are going to talk about you – good or bad – whether you like it or not. Why not join the conversation? Or at least have the ability to listen.

Connect with DCRA

  • http://twitter.com/dcra
  • http://thisshouldbeillegal.com
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/dcra/
  • http://dcra.dc.gov/moving

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh. He is also co-founder and CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.