The release of a report from the Inspector General on the Bureau of Internal Information Programs (BIIP) brings with it the surprising news that the various agencies under its purview spent $630,000 pursuing Facebook "likes" in an attempt to increase their popularity. Normally, I would be setting the keyboard to "Mock Relentlessly," but this isn't so much a case of the government blowing tax dollars on stupid stuff as it is a case of using the wrong tool (bureaucracy) for the job (increasing engagement). That being said, it still means the money was ultimately wasted, but not in the "espresso machine in every cubicle" sort of way. (And there will probably be a little mocking.)
The Bureau of International Information Programs is supposed to be the leading edge for the State Department's public relations front, as John Hudson points out in his article for Foreign Policy.
The IG report stings -- especially because the Bureau of International Information and Programs is supposed to be Foggy Bottom's epicenter of online savvy. The bureau includes groovy-sounding divisions such as the Office of Innovative Engagement, which evangelizes on the "importance of using online engagement to drive offline, person-to-person activities and events." The bureau's stated mission is to be Foggy Bottom's "foreign-facing public diplomacy communications bureau" and supports its "growing social media community that numbers over 22 million followers."
An attempt to harness the power of social media through the bureaucratic interworking of 150 agencies is doomed from the start. It makes it very difficult to hone in on a clear strategy and avoid creating a disjointed, inconsistent mess. What makes it impossible is "leadership" that fails to meet even the laxest definition of the word. This is the first thing that greets readers of the report
once they scroll past the introductory material, listed as the first item under "Key Judgements."
Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) leadership failed to convey its strategic vision to staff members, despite formalized communications. Leadership created an atmosphere of secrecy, suspicion, and uncertainty.
"Secrecy, suspicion and uncertainty" are certainly hallmarks of government leadership. It's never a good thing, but it's certainly much worse when the intended aim is to present a unified and engaging social media presence.
According to the report, first flagged by the Diplopundit, overlap and coordination issues trouble the various bureau's 150 social media accounts. The report also mentions a "pervasive perception of cronyism" exacerbating its already "serious morale problem."
Cronyism is also a hallmark of government leadership, common enough that this perception will likely never go away. And again, 150 social media accounts, steered by dozens of agencies with no clear guidance, is a recipe for public affairs disaster. Added to the stultifying mix of secrecy, suspicion, uncertainty and a "perception" of cronyism is the crippling banality of bureaucracy, something that takes a straightforward job and turns it into a soul-deadening morass where the left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing, but both have signed off on it -- in triplicate.
There is overlap and a lack of clarity in the functions and responsibilities between the Office of Web Engagement and the Office of Innovative Engagement. Staffing gaps in the latter, coupled with a 15-month vacancy in the director position, have left the office adrift and less able to play its role as the bureau's new technology pioneer.
An example of overlap is IIP's 20/100/100 program, which helps 20 embassies at a time raise their social media fan base by 100 percent in 100 days. At the conclusion of an embassy's participation in the program, its social media staff members frequently turn to the Office of Web Engagement rather than the Office of Innovative Engagement for advice. As the number of participating embassies rises with each round of the program, the advising function is shifting to the Office of Web Engagement, drawing staff members away from their primary duties.
The Inspector General does a marvelous job attempting to convey the relation and primary of two nearly identically named offices, but it's obvious the staff views the two as interchangeable. Logically, it would seem the Office of Web
Engagement would cover, well, web engagement. The IG explains the distinction between the two, but it isn't so much an explanation as it is a statement of "This is for This." It also fails to clarify how an understaffed office that has run without a director for 15 months is supposed to handle the very important (to the BIIP, at least) social media functions.
The Office of Innovative Engagement is the proper place for this function for two reasons. First, its mandate is to keep up with the latest changes in social media rules and approaches. Second, it runs the Social Media Hub, the Department's primary repository of this information.
In summation, the Inspector General recommends "clarifying the roles, scope and responsibilities" of these two separate, but largely similar offices. It would seem a name change would go a long way towards clearing things up, or better yet, combining the two since everyone's used to going to the wrong place anyway. The staffing issue would be somewhat mitigated and there would actually be someone filling the director position.
As is to be expected from the preceding info, the Department's social media "strategy" seems to be the result of staffers being asked to hit targets (see the 20/100/100 program above) but given very little guidance on how to achieve these goals.
With the Department's use of social media comes strategic questions of the role, purpose, and limitations of the medium. A consensus is emerging that developing numbers of Facebook followers and Twitter fans may not lead automatically to target audience engagement...
The actual worth of a "Like" or a Twitter follower is still up for discussion, but you can go a long way towards negating the value of both by placing numbers ahead of engagement.
The bureau spent about $630,000 on the two campaigns and succeeded in increasing the fans of the English Facebook pages from about 100,000 to more than 2 million for each page. Advertising also helped increase interest in the foreign language pages; by March 2013, they ranged from 68,000 to more than 450,000 fans.
Much of this expense came in the form of paid post promotion, something Facebook makes almost mandatory if you're going to reach the maximum number of "fans." Then again, paying to push it to everyone's feed isn't a guarantee that it will be seen, much less engaged with. Paying for eyeballs also carries with it a faint hint of gaming the system, something both largely ineffective and somewhat morally suspect.
Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns as "buying fans" who may have once clicked on an ad or "liked" a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further...
IIP's four global thematic English-language Facebook pages had garnered more than 2.5 million fans each by mid-March 2013; the number actually engaging with each page was considerably smaller, with just over 2 percent "liking," sharing, or commenting on any item within the previous week. Engagement on each posting varied, and most of that interaction was in the form of "likes." Many postings had fewer than 100 comments or shares...
The Inspector notes that engagement is "a means, not an end." The true purpose of the State Departments social media presence is to "accomplish specific PD (Public Diplomacy) goals." This may be true, but if these offices are going to utilize social media, it's rather hard to achieve the "ends" without putting more thought and care into the "means." (Or, at the very least, some sort of unified front.)
Government entities face a much more uphill battle for hearts and minds than commercial entities, considering there's usually no end product to admire and no day-to-day presence in their lives. These entities also tend to view social media as a top-down structure from which they can dump press releases and photo ops onto the masses. This is not unlike government in general which, with the notable exception of campaign season, tends to operate in the same fashion.
If these departments are unwilling to engage on a level that actually feels
like engagement to the public, chances are achieving "public diplomacy" goals via social media will be next to impossible. "Managing" this with a bureaucractic layers of redundancy only makes things worse. "Social media" isn't "regular media." It has little interest in regurgitating press releases and waiting around until government officials decide it's convenient to "address the media." The "macro" effort might
benefit from committees and 68-point "Recommendations" directive, but the "micro" moves too quickly for that.
What the Inspector General found concerning the State Department and its use of social media is exactly
what anyone should have expected to be discovered. The government is bureaucratic, something that meshes not at all with social media. Paying for "Likes" is the least of the State Department's social media problems. The largest problem is that what's detailed in this report is the natural state
of many government entities and it's unlikely to be solved by rearranging the desks and issuing "clarifying" memos.