Why Washington doesn’t get new media

When I first started working in Washington, in the ’90s, websites were still a novelty — a bad novelty. The average congressional website was little more than an electronic pamphlet featuring the face of a member of Congress smiling out like a trial attorney airbrushed onto an interstate billboard.

The federal agencies were even worse. Agency officials saw the Internet as a piece of technology, not a communications tool.

Website management was relegated to IT staff rather than to communications shops.

 Things eventually improved, but despite the stunning advances in communications technology, most of federal Washington has still failed to grasp the meaning of Government 2.0. Indeed, much is mired in Government 1.5.

Government 1.5? That’s a term of art for the vast virtual ecosystem taking root in Washington that has set up the trappings of 2.0 — the blogs, the Facebook pages, the Twitter accounts — but lacks any intellectual heartbeat.

Too many aides in official Washington are setting up blogs and social media pages because they understand that is what they are supposed to do.

All the while, many are sweating the possibility that they might actually have to say something substantive or engage the public directly.

 I wish I could say this is just cynicism on my part, but too many of my former colleagues — in the federal government, on Capitol Hill, on the campaign trail — acknowledge that even as they “friend” people on Facebook accounts and start Tweeting the latest news release, they are skeptical of Web 2.0 and view the whole concept as dangerously uncontrolled.

How do you go down this 2.0 path, they ask, and still control the message?

The public-sector environment has so long been dominated by one-sided conversation that nobody knows what to do in this newfangled environment.

And let’s be clear: What is newfangled in Government 2.0 is not the technology; it is the approach to communications — the idea that, suddenly, the public expects to talk back to its government.

It’s as if the revolutionary corpse of Thomas Paine had risen from the grave, wielding a cell phone camera, a YouTube account and an annoying blog asking a lot of uncomfortable questions.

You remember Thomas Paine. When he started writing the pamphlets that stiffened American spines during the darkest days of the Revolution, he was a nobody, an immigrant and failed businessman with the nerve to start spouting his opinions — even though nobody had bothered to ask him. He was the nation’s first “guy sitting around in his pajamas,” as Dan Rather once sneered of today’s bloggers.

Don’t tell me Paine wasn’t a blogger simply because computers didn’t exist then. That is precisely the logic of Government 1.5.

Those who think new media is about technology fail to grasp the significance of what is happening in today’s media environment.

Those who don’t get it will continue to assign new media to the IT division.

Those who partially get it will continue to appoint “directors of new media” — as if they had directors of television media and directors of print media and directors of radio media in their cramped communications offices. But none of them, in the end, will “control the message,” that rusted Holy Grail of a rapidly fading era.

Rather than recognizing an opportunity to increase credibility through transparency, and influence the public debate through directly engaging in conversations with constituents, they will continue to try to stuff their one-sided messaging into a multilayered world of conversation and opinions.

Meanwhile, the public debate will rage on by them without them, utterly uncontrolled.

Battle has worked in the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail. He is now a partner with Adfero Group, a Washington-based public-relations firm specializing in integrating “new” and “traditional” media strategies.