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Feds join Twitter revolution

Obama’s Open Government Directive, due in May, to encourage agency tweets

By , Network World
April 09, 2009 11:19 AM ET

Network World - Twitter is taking flight in unlikely skies: the U.S. federal government.

From NASA to the General Services Administration, more federal agencies are embracing Twitter as another Web-based channel to communicate news and engage in conversations with U.S. citizens (10 Twitter tips from early federal adopters).

NASA announced Monday that astronaut Mike Massimino would use Twitter to provide a personal behind-the-scenes peek at his last few weeks of training before embarking on a space shuttle mission.  In the first 48 hours of Astro_Mike tweets, Massimino attracted more than 14,000 followers on Twitter.

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Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration is notifying more than 3,200 consumers about recalls of peanut and pistachio products on its Twitter stream dubbed FDARecalls. FDA has been issuing four or five tweets a day announcing product recalls since December 2008.

Another leading advocate of Twitter is GSA, which manages government-wide IT contracts and provides training to federal Web managers on best practices for Web 2.0 technologies.

"We have done quite a bit with Twitter," says B. Leilani Martinez, a bilingual content manager for the GSA's Web site. "We have four official Twitter accounts for www.pueblo.gsa.gov, www.usa.gov, www.gobiernousa.gov, and www.govgab.gov. We blog one or two times a day….Twitter is just another channel that we are using to communicate."

These Twitter initiatives are part of a broader push by federal agencies to embrace social media. In late March, the GSA inked a deal that allows agencies to share content on four popular Web sites: YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo and blip.tv. Previously, agencies had legal restrictions that prevented them from using new media sites to distribute information.

The Twitter revolution is just beginning in the federal market. By May 21, the Office of Management and Budget is expected to release an Open Government Directive that details how federal agencies will adopt innovative tools such as Twitter and other social media sites to enhance inter-agency collaboration, increase transparency and foster citizen participation in agency decision-making. The directive was mandated by President Obama in a Jan. 21 memo titled "Transparency and Open Government."

"All of this Web-based technology will really have an enormous impact on this administration and the speed and velocity of getting information out to constituents," says Adelaide O'Brien, research manager at IDC's Government Insights. "The use of Web 2.0 tools…can accelerate the movement of government to share information. We think its' time has come."

GSA takes the lead

GSA is a leader among federal adopters of Twitter. The agency sends its RSS feeds directly to the micro-blogging site, and it has staff tweeting every day.

GSA began its Twitter push in January, when staff members sent regular Tweets with their observations of President Obama's inauguration.

"We got five media passes to officially cover events during the inauguration," Martinez says. "We used Twitter to really cover some of these events. We went to the inaugural ceremony, we went to some of the balls, and we went to the kids' event. We had a whole strategy behind it, and Twitter was the tool we were using to communicate."

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