Tweet your politician

On Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, scores of fresh-faced young people sit behind desks jammed into entryways and hallways in congressional offices answering phones.  These intrepid congressional aides answer calls about passports and capitol tours, jobs for the unemployed and affordable energy for the elderly.

The U.S. Constitution states that any citizen has the right to petition the government for “a redress of grievances,” and, largely, that is what these people are doing.

But there’s a new game in town when it comes to contacting your congressman, and, indeed, the President.

The White House announced last week a new Director of Progressive Media and Online Response, Jesse Lee.  Lee will, essentially, patrol Twitter to address problems and quash negative stories on a grassroots level.

Many businesses have already employed this approach, from airlines to packaged foods, with varying levels of success, but what this move suggests to me is that the Obama administration is moving towards more and more direct conversation with constituents, and they’re not the only one.

According to Tweet Congress, a site dedicated to aggregating Twitter feeds from members of congress and the media that cover them, 387 members of congress are using the micro-blogging platform, including the current and former Speakers of the House and 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee John McCain.

So in the future, instead of “call your congressman” will the grassroots organizer’s rallying cry be “tweet your senator?”  Maybe not, but, when done effectively, a twitter account can be an excellent way for government officials to have two-way communication with their constituents.

To be effective, the politicians (or, more likely, their aides), will have to use Twitter less as a medium to broadcast their policy positions and public events, and more as a two-way conversation about issues and a rapid-response mechanism for urgent constituent demands.

For example, a citizen might tweet at their congressman that they are having a problem with their social security benefits.  That congressman should immediately follow up, get more details, including contact information, and then work to solve the problem.  A happy constituent would be likely to tweet about their success with this process, creating goodwill for the congressman in return.  (This is very much like the way that airlines are dealing with disgruntled passengers who tweet their displeasure at delays and cancellations, or even just bad service).

But this level of accessibility and interactivity is a double-edged sword.  If the congressman is not able to solve the problem, or simple uses Twitter as a broadcast medium rather than a conversation, savvy followers will let him know that he’s not serving their needs.  Depending on the magnitude of his following, this could result in problems come election time.

So, are politicians on social media a good thing?  In general, I think so, especially if it means they are more accessible to the people they were elected to serve.  But they better have some smart, responsive people working the back end, or we may just hear about the politician that was fired by Twitter.