GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Public discourse
Over the past 15 years, technologies such as e-mail, instant messages and Web sites have created new ways for people and organizations to communicate. Now, blogs are maturing into a communication method that local governments can no longer ignore.
Blogs, or Web logs, began as personal online journals. However, a growing population now is using blogs as information and news portals. Bloggers often are highly aware of local, regional and national news, and often focus on local government.
Some people have argued that blogs do not qualify as a legitimate media form and, therefore, bloggers should not enjoy the rights of traditional media organizations. However, municipalities should consider their state laws before making that argument. North Carolina, for example, has general statutes that explicitly define what qualifies as public information, and anything falling into that category is open for any individual — with or without press credentials — to examine. By cooperating with bloggers, local governments can find effective allies, educate residents and increase transparency within their organizations.
Besides acknowledging blogs in the community, local governments need to decide whether to host blogs of their own. Elected officials can use blogs to explain, in their own terms, why they voted a particular way on a controversial subject, rather than have their comments filtered through the mass media. Also, city leaders can use blogs to address the rising cost of fuel and the projected budget shortfall it will create, allowing readers to understand balancing municipal funds.
When beginning blogs, local governments should observe a few ground rules. Effective blogs are written in first person rather than the third person point of view used in press releases and most other forms of mass communication. Next, blogs should allow readers to make comments and ask questions that are viewable by everyone who reads the blog. To comply with the second amendment, those comments cannot be edited for content. Finally, blogs should be updated at least bi-weekly. Readers who see that a blog has gone stagnant rarely return.
Local governments cannot overlook employees’ personal blogs and should establish blog policies for their workers. Policies should clearly state that employees are personally responsible for their blogs if they choose to publish them. Other key issues to cover include: what constitutes public information, whether employees are allowed to blog during lunch hours or from office computers, and whether a blogger can claim to represent the organization.
Although blogging is still growing, it is already changing the face of traditional media. Government organizations have an opportunity to prepare themselves and their employees for the emerging technology, and to evaluate carefully their response to the bloggers that may call their regions home.
The author is webmaster for Greensboro, N.C.