Final Deliverable: The makings of a digital strategy memo for the MA Executive Office of Public Safety and Security

I have decided to draft a digital strategy memo for my current (or perhaps former – TBD) office, the MA Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS). Having served as its Chief of Staff for the last four years, I am intimately aware of its current operations, traditional hesitancy toward new media and its previous capacity challenges which hindered potential execution of the most moderate of digital strategies.

As a Secretariat that represents 13 state agencies specializing in public safety and criminal justice issues, we often find good news stories in short supply. Interactions with our agencies are often perceived to be negative in nature. You have either been arrested or ticketed by the MA State Police (MSP), and subsequently entering the criminal justice system where you will interact with Corrections (DOC), Parole or the Sex Offender Registry Board, or quite tragically, you are a victim of a crime. Or perhaps you have experienced great loss as a result of a tornado, hurricane or blizzard and have interacted with the MA Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) or the Department of Fire Services (DFS). I have overstated my case to drive home the point that our potential stakeholder groups are limited due to the nature of our business.

Regardless of its limitations, EOPSS has made little effort in maximizing the potential space within its own network. For example, a twitter account was created and quickly abandoned. An issue blog saw some use, but ultimately suffered the same fate in 2011. The EOPSS email info line handles hundreds of interested citizen’s inquiries, but does nothing to convert them into greater participants. These are all failings resulting from limited personal capital and capacity and the lack of a carefully crafted digital strategy. I have completed a basic gap analysis, identifying what we currently do well and where we need considerable investment and attention.

For instance, a small number of agencies (MEMA, MSP, DFS and MA National Guard) maintain active twitter and Facebook pages, but they largely operate in silos. My strategy memo will contemplate a secretariat wide digital program that involves collapsing these silos into a singular, coordinated list leverageable by any of our agencies through a variety of mechanisms. I am proposing that EOPSS serve as the strong tie that connects each of the agency nodes/networks. Further, there are a number of high level policy decisions and program announcements that require a coordinated approach that an integrated network would help facilitate. EOPSS stands singularly positioned to carry out that level of messaging.

Utilizing the POST method, I will consider the following as I draft my document:

People – There are three categories of individuals I will focus on, with each consisting of their own subset of individuals – stakeholders, clients and the public. Stakeholders will be broken up into two categories – 1) the well-organized, but often adversarial groups; and 2) the various advisory councils and interests groups that EOPSS collaborates with on public policy changes. Clients can be broken down into 1) professional organizations with a high interaction rate such as police and fire departments and first responders, and also 2) those entities that receive grant funding through our Office of Grants and Research. Finally, the public can be addressed in two groups, hyper focusing on those who have contacted us with specific public safety interests, while also expanding our reach when providing general state-wide emergency notifications, etc.

Objective – My objective will be to develop and expand the network of stakeholders noted above, while simultaneously expanding the messaging capabilities and reach of the Secretariat via a number of technological tools.

Strategy – The strategy begins with a full review of agency contacts and stakeholders, and EOPSS current mechanisms for interaction. Next EOPSS will conduct gap analysis of those entities not currently accounted for. Effort will be made to convert so-called inactives and spectators to collectors and critics. This can be accomplished by converting constituent emails into mailing list members, or public members of our new network. Contact lists, twitter page access and pertinent information will be pushed out via email and press release to draw a larger audience. Those subordinate agencies referenced earlier in this blog will reinforce EOPSS branding and messaging efforts in the form of retweets and inbound links.

Technology – While the design of the main Secretariat website is dictated by an external agency outside EOPSS control, we will better utilize the landing page to advertise EOPSS’ new digital strategy, and other positive news stories. Too often content gets stale and is rarely turned over. Further, EOPSS will place heavy emphasis on Twitter in an effort to expand its network and audience. EOPSS will piggyback on the tweets of its agencies with very large followings, like MEMA and MSP, in an effort to build a follower base that it can utilize to spread the word about major policy initiatives, grant opportunities, or even beat a bad story to the punch by articulate the positives of the program or issue being covered in traditional print media.

When a positive public safety news story presents itself, EOPSS has to hunt down a reporter willing to cover the topic, and frankly, it rarely yields coverage worthy of the effort. What’s worse is the only time you hear from an EOPSS agency is when they are being asked to respond to a negative story, and the reporters rarely print what you want them to run. My hope is that this digital strategy memo will move the secretariat in the right direction, reclaiming ownership over its own public messaging in the next Administration.

The responsibility of a netizen

The free and unfettered access to information and technology is a privilege I often take for granted – most Americans do. Emily Parker’s Now I know Who My Comrades Are and Rebecca McKinnon’s Consent of the Networked, bring that realization squarely to the forefront. Access to the awe inspiring power of the internet is something certain countries simply don’t allow.

Imagine a world where you are completely isolated from the truth, forced to gather information from a faucet filtered by the government. A world where you can be unaware of tragedy and disaster, supported by the disillusioned, mutual ignorance of your personal network. It sounds awful. It sounds Orwellian. But in fact, it is actually China – or at least a version of China that the majority experience. As I read Parker’s “Comrades”, I envisioned the story of Michael Anti’s revelation about the true atrocity of the Tiananmen Square protests. I pictured his realization, having been told a completely inaccurate accounting of the day’s events, similar to a scene from the Usual Suspects, where Chaz Palminteri drops his coffee mug in earth shattering realization that he had just been fed a fabricated accounting by none other than Keyser Soze.

Equally shocking was MacKinnon’s referencing of a 2005 PBS crew unable to get Chinese students to identify the iconic Tiananmen Square photo. It reinforces the effects of a country willing and interested in blocking its citizenry from necessary and important information. While some argue that blocking websites is not an effective mechanism of control, it does play upon the apathy of the average citizen, largely content with consuming their daily dose of state-designed news. For those with a desire for the truth, you need the know-how to circumvent the restrictions. Again, some may argue that the use of a VPN or proxy server is not difficult, but if it was easy and convenient then China would have more than 1% of its online population capable of accessing the other side of the Great Fire Wall (GFW) of China. Interestingly, MacKinnon notes that improvement in the performance of Tencent, Baidu and Allibaba will only exacerbate the apathetic approach toward accessing information outside the GFW.

It seems clear from the readings that there are many ways to block, obscure and obfuscate. Certain countries see value in different approaches to information access, press and privacy. MacKinnon, citing Philip Howard from the University of Washington, states “how governments manage these technologies has a major impact on whether activists can actually succeed in using technology to change.” These differences can be seen in Cuba, where fear supersedes activism; in Russia, where they have legalized surveillance; and in Syria where the government does not limit your access, but coopts your experience to drive home the message of the state. All outstanding examples of networked authoritarianism.

Next, you cannot discuss issues around access to information without a discussion about the responsibilities that come with possessing said information. A prime example of someone who has access to information, yet acts in misguided reference to responsibility is Julian Assange. As outlined in Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker piece, Assange believes he has started a “social movement” with WikiLeaks. A movement intent on exposing secrets. While you may not be able to challenge Assange’s commitment to the cause, his intent is misaligned and void of any redeeming qualities. His so-called “social movement” includes no semblance of social responsibility. He leaks with reckless abandon, unconcerned for the damage left in his wake. Worse, he accepts the damage noting the inevitability of blood on his hands. This hypocrisy is ever-present in  Assange’s Plan B, Apache Helicopter video he ironically calls “Collateral Murder”, yet remains disinterested in the collateral damage he causes. This notion of “power without accountability” that Khatchadourian raises is the perfect summation of the hypocritical nature of Assange. He claims WikiLeaks was created to root out such an unacceptable dynamic, but yet it seems to embody the very essence of this imbalance, as Assange refuses to stand on his merits and answer any of the lawsuits thrown his way.

Many compare Assange and Edward Snowden as one in the same. For me, they represent very different ideals. Assange represents what Jaron Lanier would call a “random leaker”, for which he says “is no substitute for focused digging.” Snowden, on the other hand, was specific and thoughtful in his approach. As someone who maintains top level clearance from DHS, I in no way condone the treason he has allegedly committed, but I can see fit to separate his intentions from those of Assange. Snowden has been described as a man with a conscience that took a deliberate act against an institution he felt violated the law and the public’s trust. He was deliberate and coordinated in his release of information, perhaps as a result of concern for its unintended consequences. Most whistleblowers act from their conscience, and not their crude attempt at flaunting their power over you.

Regardless of how history views Assange and Snowden – separately or similarly – they will have considerable company. For as Bruce Sterling warns, and I have heeded, “…there’s more coming. Lots, lots more.”