Thursday, May 8, 2008

Connecting the DOT with the Public

By Karl Vilacoba

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters is living life in the “Fast Lane,” or at least as far as presidential cabinet members go. On April 29, Peters announced the launch of a new blog of that name, a move that remains a relative rarity for public officials.

By all indications, it’s a hit. An entry she posted a few days ago about the gas tax holiday debate generated enough comments for her to write a follow-up entry responding to some of them. There have also been surprise guest entries written by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine about transportation issues in their regions, and there promises to be more. On Tuesday, Peters claimed to have had an impressive 31,000 hits in her first week.

What gives the Fast Lane a chance to catch on is Peters’ lack of fear to put her opinion out there. That quality caught my attention a few weeks back when she issued a statement expressing strong disappointment when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, which was quite a hot-button issue, died in the state’s Legislature. The gas tax has also become a major political debate between all three of the major candidates in this presidential race.

Describing her reasons for starting the blog, Peters said, “Fast Lane will allow me and others here at the department to speak directly with interested citizens, members of the transportation community and the blogosphere to engage in an earnest conversation about our nation’s transportation future. I have made 21st century solutions a priority for our transportation system, and now I’m thrilled to be using a 21st century communications tool to reach Americans in a whole new way.”

For a public official, the blog is a medium that carries great risks and rewards. On the plus side, it allows her the opportunity to communicate directly to the public, rather than having her full views boiled down to a three-sentence newspaper quote or five-second TV soundbite. It also gives her the chance to read honest feedback from members of the public who would otherwise never have access to her.

However, that could also become a problem. In my experience, Internet message boards are overwhelmingly negative places. People talk awfully tough when they can hide behind phony names and anonymity. It seems like when I read online papers with feedback enabled, the nasty comments always outnumber the positives, even when it’s doubtful that ratio reflects the public’s true opinion. For now, Peters’ blog has a moderation feature that ensures someone reviews and approves each comment before it goes live.

You’ve got to be willing to run those comments as long as they’re reasonable. If not, a blog can quickly become known as a joke, and the chances are that post will wind up somewhere else, only now it will carry the added complaint that they were “censored for writing the truth.” This negativity can take on a life of its own when a blog develops regulars and cliques start to form on the site.

So far, the blog seems to be handling it well. Peters’ gas tax opinion drew plenty of disagreement, but in many cases, the comments were very well reasoned and quite detailed.

In the months ahead, the Fast Lane could become a newsworthy website. It may even serve as a prototype for officials considering starting blogs of their own.

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