You can lead a city government to social media water, but you can’t make it drink: Thoughts on the new Chief Digital Officer position

So the New York City government has decided it needs a little social media savvy—you now, since that newfangled Twitter thing came out, they feel like they need to be jumping on board with technology as an early adopter.  So, they’ve posted an open position for a Chief Digital Officer (PDF posting). 

The position will:

“help develop forward-thinking policies on social media, digital communications, web 2.0 initiatives and other tools to better serve the public”

and it’s responsible a host of stuff:

“Managing and presenting a consistent and comprehensive new media face for the City of New York; coordinating with City agencies in the promotion of initiatives via new media tools; working with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) to improve the design and content of NYC.gov to increase usability and make relevant information more accessible; developing meaningful social media uses to keep residents informed and engaged; leading the development ofdigital project implementation; managing the build of current and future digital assets; managing schedule, scope, quality, requirements and rollout activities for redesign/development and other digital projects; mining new and improved ways to expand current business through relationships and communicating new ideas; overseeing improvement of digital media activities through creation and analysis of dashboards, metrics and appropriate analytics; and managing special digital media projects as assigned.”

Hmm… Lots of building, broadcasting, promotion, releasing info…

…but you know what I don’t see?

Listening.

Yeah, so, that’s kind of the point of all this Web 2.0 stuff.  I’m not sure if you heard, but it’s not about centralized hubs of communication anymore.  It’s about listening.  It’s about taking what you learn from the inbound and enabling and empowering communities around you—small pieces loosely joined.

That’s what’s going to be hard to bring NYC government into “2.0” mode.  Anyone can set up a Twitter account and post their press releases to it, but how many people are actually going to have public conversations there?  Will our lawmakers and city officials be empowered to engage with citizens without having everything run through legal first? 

I took a meeting with a city official once and the first think he said to me was that the contents of the meeting were not to be blogged.  That pretty much imploded my interest in the rest of the meeting—because that signaled that this was not going to be a process where listening accurred, or that there was a real possibilty to affect change with thoughtful input. 

That’s not a technology problem—it’s a culture problem.  How do you change culture?  By crossing “A master's degree from an accredited college in economics, finance, accounting, business or public administration” off of the requirements list and adding “Uses Twitter and Foursquare…  keeps a blog, etc”.  Hopefully, after they find that person, they won’t muzzle them.  If we don’t hear form the CDO on a regular basis through social media channells in an authentic, engaging way, you might as well toss their salary into the Hudson because they’ll never have the freedom to work. 

So before "…multimedia content from NYC Media and other outlets will be integrated into the City's website, mobile devices, video-on-demand and in public spaces…" how about recognizing the following:

This is not a media broadcast position or a project manager job—it’s a community organizer… someone who can create community out of various government agencies to interact with the outside world in an efficient manner as well as to empower communities of constituants online.  Hopefully, we’ll see a lot less recreation of wheels, some autonomy around this position, and a renewed engagement in the community for city officials.