My Top 10 Principles for Federal Digital Engagement, FY2014

Like Swiss cheese, real transparency is open and engaging (well, to most people). Photo via Flickr.

I'm the Director of Digital Engagement for a Federal Agency, the National Archives and Records Administration.

We're talking about how we evolve our social media plan into something bigger, broader, and more like what we have implemented on the ground. And then to give that thing more of a name.

Personally I tend to like the informal approach. Whatever you are doing, it's an animal that's moving in time. It's already got an energy. But every now and then it's good to give things a name, a structure, to articulate the method.

Let's start with what I absolutely abhor:

1. We do not, cannot, and should never be doing propaganda, because we're not Coca-Cola and we're not allowed to do it. It is not about pushing a story that makes us look good.

2. We should not be wasting taxpayer money on pointless babble. Even if we aren't killing a tree, it is a misappropriation of taxpayer dollars.

So what is digital engagement then? What are the factors that make an approach "great"? Here are my top 10:

1. It clearly promotes the mission. At NARA, providing access to the holdings of the Agency is a primary part of our job. Not only do we do so through the Web and social media, we also actively seek out opportunities to have the public add to our holdings and partner with us, through such tools as the Citizen Archivist Dashboard and having an in-house expert help us contribute to Wikipedia (transparently, of course).

2. It saves the Agency money. We favor lower-cost, higher-impact tools that get our holdings before the public (and employees) in places they tend to congregate. We start at the pilot level, keep what works and discard what doesn't. We welcome opportunities to work with partners who can share and display content, as well as opportunities to talk with people who may be writing stories that have a historical aspect to them.

3. It provides a window into Agency operations.  The public has a right to know what we're doing. Great engagement facilitates the flow of information about the agency from within, to without. This can take the form of sharing open data sets, providing narrative that contextualizes Agency decisions, or both.

4. It gets people looking, sharing and talking, online and off. We start meaningful conversations, and join them as the real human beings that we are - not as phony abstractions. And we make information available in the Town Square - in places where people are congregating - so that they talk about it on their own time. Nothing is ever forced.

5. Its goals are method-agnostic. We are not enamored with this tool or that. We don't care if engagement happens using this social media tool or that. We're happy to cross-pollinate with TV, newspapers, radio, or any medium.

6. It bridges the internal and the external. We promote conversations within the Agency itself, and between the Agency and the outside world. We believe that the more conversation takes place, the smarter we become and the more effective at doing our jobs.

7. It broadens the roster of speakers to include everyone. Our approach is decentralized. We don't designate one or two people and restrict the tools to them. We make clear when we're speaking as part of the Agency, and when we're sharing our own opinions. The goal is to get information out there, to make sure that those who would benefit from it have it.

8. It is feedback-hungry. Of course not everything can be shared. But we don't shy away from discussion, debate, complexity and even controversy. Rather, we constructively support a wide-ranging conversation that respects appropriate bounds of confidentiality.

9. It is predicated on supporting creativity and innovation by all. Nobody knows what the next big tool will be, or how it will impact our efforts. We support our employees in trying new things, we congratulate noble failures instead of bashing them, and we partner openly to get the best result possible.

10. It evolves from close collaboration with Agency counsel.  Digital engagement requires careful and close examination of communication methodology, especially in the early stand-up phase. We engage counsel early and collaboratively so that we are working in a framework that complies with law, regulation and guidance.

What else should a federal digital engagement strategy include? What are your thoughts on this? Looking forward to reading your comments.

* All opinions my own, at least until we publish some form of this as official :-)