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State's Online Operations: Killing It, But Exhausted

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 24 2010

In the first nine months of the Obama-Clinton era, the U.S. State Department posted the same amount of information online as the total published over the eight years of the Bush administration, according to a recently posted report by the State Department's inspector general (pdf), via Ben Smith. We're talking about 61,000 pages of new information posted online. (Though the report doesn't make clear exactly what "pages" means, whether web pages or print pages converted to the web.)

That metric tracks with those of us who play State Department watcher, as we've seen how aggressively the Clinton State Department has attempted to plant a flag online. But that full-bore approach to the web is not without cost, finds the report. The office responsible for maintaining State.gov "is having an increasingly difficult time keeping up with the workload. This is particularly evident in the number of overtime hours the duty officer must perform."

As Smith notes, the report is harshly critical of some elements of the State Department outreach operation. But coming in for praise is the Digital Communication Center, the four-person new media unit inside the department charged with managing the DipNote blog, Twitter, Facebook, and other innovative outreach. The DCC is celebrated by the IG as "nimble," if also overworked. More from the report after the jump.

From the report:

The Digital Communication Center (DCC) is a small office tasked with developing and disseminating cutting-edge “new media” communications, to include social media such as Facebook and Twitter, the Department’s blog, Dipnotes, postings to YouTube, and text messaging. The Bureau has been nimble in capitalizing on media developments that are comparable, in some respects, to the invention of television, radio, and the printing press.

Bureau leadership includes careful crafting of messages for new media distribution, to supplement traditional print and broadcast channels. For example, within minutes of the Secretary’s arrival in a foreign country, messages are sent on Twitter and Facebook announcing key details of the trip to subscribers. Later in the day, the blog site is updated with details. Key speeches are posted immediately to YouTube and other media sites, in many cases within minutes of their completion, along with photographs, if available. Several interlocutors cited the interagency communications campaign launched to support the President’s speech in Cairo earlier this year as an especially effective outreach effort that made full use of new media to amplify the administration’s message. The business of public affairs increasingly will require that similar approaches become standard practice for supporting the rollout of important initiatives for the President and the Secretary.

The DCC office of four employees is productive, but like its counterpart, EI [The Office of Electronic Information], it is stretched to the limit in terms of what it can do with its current staffing level. The acting office director manages the office effectively, with an emphasis on timely communication, innovation, and teamwork. The office holds a weekly meeting with representatives from PA, the Bureau of International Information Programs, the Bureau of Information Resource Management, and the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, in order to coordinate requirements among bureaus with new media operations. The proliferation of online media outlets requires a selective focus on supporting communications only with those Web sites that reach the largest audiences. Some areas of new media outreach — such as posting on non-Department blogs, text messaging, and live video streaming — are not regularly used by PA, because of the Bureau’s limited staffing and resources. However, these venues could play a larger role in the future.