Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Skeptical about new NRC blog

Transparency is good, but making it a success requires more than just one way communication

blog symbolThe U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided that having a blog is a good idea. To that end it has started publishing one at: http://public-blog.nrc-gateway.gov/

The agency said in a prepared press release that the blog will "enhance [the agency's] communication with the public and support Open Government.

According to the statement, the blog will feature posts from staff members writing about various topics of interest to the public. Moderated comments will be accepted for posting on the blog.

Social media for the government is different

The NRC faces some unique challenges to be successful with this new social media venture. Count me, for now, as skeptical this will work or work well.

First, the blog isn't a substitute for the agency's formal communications channels outbound or inbound. If you want your views related to a regulatory matter part of the record for it, use the established channels. For this reason, the agency is basically saying it has no obligation to make its employees aware of your blog comment or require them to use it as part of their official work.

Second, the blog, as a government information system, is still an "official record" of the agency's communications with the public. This means anything you post on the NRC blog as a comment is retained permanently and could find its way into uses for regulatory matters unrelated to your concern or intentions in posting the comment,

Third, just because the agency has placed the blog outside official channels doesn't mean the agency's employees aren't reading it. Be careful about any overtly enthusiastic responses. They could come back to haunt you.

For instance, if you represent Betty Jo's nuclear powered screen door company in Whitefish, MT, and you think the NRC has unfairly evaluated your technology, saying so on the blog may not earn a "happy to see you" smile the next time you're in Rockville.

Does the light bulb want to change?

waiting-for-godot “The blog is intended to build upon our extensive efforts to explain and clarify the actions, roles and responsibilities of the NRC, raise awareness about our agency and its mission, and – most importantly – give us an opportunity to hear from the public.”

What's missing from this cheerful statement is what the NRC will do with blog comments. As noted above, the blog is not an official channel for communication. What feedback will agency managers get from the blog and how will they use it?

Grass roots and anti-nuclear groups will likely see the blog as an opportunity for log rolling. In addition to sending waves of contentions for new nuclear reactors through formal channels, they'll tell their members to post comments on the blog. The poor IT staffer at the NRC in charge of comment moderation will need a big, sturdy "delete" button on the keyboard.

Also, media types who want more communication, not less, could find themselves involved with interesting conversations with agency lawyers over comments posted to the blog by the public. If the glacial pace of government decision making elsewhere is any signal, don't expect your comments to show up quickly. A real risk over this "communication thing" is that by the time an even modestly quirky comment gets approved, the audience for it may be long gone.

Sound of one hand clapping?

The NRC public affairs staff is well aware of the world of social media. A key issue is how well people besides the public affairs staff listen to what is said on the blog. That assumes the public or the commission itself take it seriously as an open forum.

Wash DcIf the blog turns out to be just another platform for Chairman Jaczko's anti-Yucca justifications, then it's a waste of cyberspace.

So a question is whether there will be guest blog posts from the other commissioners or even former commissioners?

Also, will commissioners, who have very busy schedules, respond to blog comments or will they assign this role to staff?

The blog represents an opportunity for transparency within the limits of the agency's legal framework. It will take leadership and ownership from the commissioners themselves to make it work. If the blog remains a creature of the PR department, it will descend into the realm of irrelevant chatter.

Unsolicited advice from one blogger to another

Here's my advice to the NRC's blogging staff.

feedbackPay attention to conversations about your “brand” by stakeholders and critics

Produce content and populate social media channels besides the blog, e.g., Youtube.

Note: The NRC is being shredded on YouTube with satire about Jaczko's Yucca tactics.

Have clear goals and objectives, a focus on target audiences, and measure results. Be prepared to adjust the way the blog is managed and the kind of content produced for it,

Authenticity and transparency count. Answer comments and inquiries quickly.

Solicit and use feedback.

& & &

The blog can be reached directly at http://public-blog.nrc-gateway.gov or by clicking on the blog icon on the NRC website, www.nrc.gov. It can also be accessed on mobile devices such as smart phones by entering the website address in the mobile devices’ Web browser.

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NRC Customer said...

Did anyone get humor out of the fact that they sent out the announcement of their blog not as a link in an email, but embedded in a .pdf?

If they treat the blog like they treat their work, then each comment will take 10-20 hours to review at $259/hour...

Sorry for the snarkiness. I do applaud NRC for trying to reach out, but unless they staff it up, this is not going to end well. How on earth are they going to handle a flame war between people who freak out over three digit picocuries of tritium and engineers and physicists who actually studied the science?

How about instead of trying to blog they figure out how to more efficiently approve equipment or mods based on basic engineering principles so we can get on with our work instead of waiting month after month after month on some twenty-four year old kid to figure out a software package?

Jason Ribeiro said...

Great post Dan. I suspect the NRC blog is going to be quite dull as blogs which never allow an author's opinion to come forth end up as 'just the facts' reporting. If an NRC employee writes an article, they're going to be very careful in what they say and how they say it and I'm sure every post will have to get final approval before it goes up so nothing too controversial (or fun) will ever come about.

In fact I'm already seeing what appears to be a canned moderator response with statements like "... The NRC has no role in setting policy on energy use in this country or spent fuel disposal. Setting such policy is the responsibility of the White House, Congress and the Department of Energy..." and "...Finally, we want to emphasize: The NRC is neither pro-nuclear nor anti-nuclear in stance. What we are is pro-safety and security. We will discuss how we accomplish that task in future blog posts." ZZZzzzzz...yeah we know that, but what do they think as people ought to be done to improve things? We shall see, but I don't expect much.