Social media and E-Government: A case study assessing Twitter use in the implementation of the open government directive



The first official order of business carried out by President Obama in 2008 was the presentation of a memorandum entitled Transparency and Open Government. Three pillars for Open Government are outlined in the document and consist of transparency, participation and collaboration which form the foundation for the initiative. Here we report on a case study, where the use of social media by the United States Department of Agriculture was assessed in relation to the agencies implementation of goals set by the Open Government Initiative. In the Open Government Initiative, the use of social media features strongly as a means to connect with the public and to promote the three pillars. We question whether use of social actually results in realization of the three pillars, but with a particular focus on dialogue between the USDA and the public. We apply a mixed-methods approach based in grounded theory, social network analysis, content analysis and discourse analysis. Early findings suggest that although the USDA is mentioned there is no clear evidence of discourse, in the sense of exchange of tweets between the USDA and other posters. This is assuming that anyone who may post from the USDA would do so under the auspices of the organization and not as an individual with a unique user name. Our research indicates that traditional definitions of these terms (transparency, collaboration and participation) may need to be expanded to account for the types of interactions occurring via social media. In this paper, we report on our research plan and initial observations.


The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT, 2008) indicates that; “E-Government can be defined as the use of information and communications technologies by governments to enhance the range and quality of information and services … in an efficient, cost-effective and convenient manner, making government processes more transparent and accountable and strengthening democracy.” Open government holds the promise of transparent, responsive, accessible and interactive government operations (Obama, 2008; Orzag, 2009; Reddick and Ganapati, 2011). The original Open Government memorandum released in 2008 (Obama, 2008) named three pillars of open government: transparency, participation, and collaboration. These goals are in line with the driving forces in e-government initiatives, as mentioned above in the e-government definition.


When identifying open government as a facet of e-government, the three pillars appear to act as enabling characteristics. Participation seems to be a feature that when present allows the public to essentially have a voice in government or when absent hinders citizen involvement in government matters. Collaboration reflects actual engagement, interaction and dialogue between the government and the governed. The concept of dialogue is important since information provision and access may occur without actual interaction between two partners in the exchange of information. Yet in the context of the Open Government Initiative, implementation of each of the three pillars of open government demands dialogue. The necessity of dialogue is implicit in the language of both the Open Government Initiative and the Directive. It is a fundamental part of participation, collaboration and e-government services as well as being linked to both government transparency and responsiveness.

This research begins to critically examine the efficacy of implementation of the three pillars through social as articulated in the Open Government Initiative and Directive. We report on the results of an exploratory analysis based on one case study, which will be used as a model for future work.

Research into the efficacy of use of social media in meeting the goals of e-government is less common. Some recent work in this area includes Bertot, Jaeger and Hanson's analysis of the impact of social media in government (2012) and Anderson, et al's (2011) critique of promises left unfulfilled through digital government (Government Accounting Office, 1996). While we can ask what tools are being used to achieve e-government, it is also necessary to ask if these technologies are actually creating new venues for transparency, participation, and collaboration. Or are these primarily broadcast technologies used to distribute information in a traditional top-down model? With this question in mind we have begun research into the way government agencies are using social media to promote transparency, participation and collaboration by asking:


We used a mixed-methods analysis combining a case study approach, content analysis, social network analysis and critical discourse analysis. Our goal with this early study and in future work is to gather evidence as to how the three pillars are being met. At the time of the report the number of Twitter users who were following a government agency or official was too small to report the findings” (Smith, 2010). We decided to limit our focus to one executive agency; the United States Department of Agriculture. Given the range of issues (forestry, agriculture, health etc.,) with which the Department of Agriculture is involved and most importantly the Department's intimate involvement with food regulation, processing and basic food stocks in the United States, this agency also seemed to have the potential to reach a large constituency.

Analysis of Twitter data consisted of mapping the nodes and edges in Gephi 0.8 beta. Average degree and average path length were used to conduct a perfunctory determination if a network structure did indeed exist and if the resulting connections were bidirectional or unidirectional. Betweenness centrality was also considered, but to a lesser degree given the context of the data collection. Essentially, the term “USDA” was sought in hashtags, keyword and @mentions during data extraction. The lists were compiled in order to gain a holistic view of the network in relation to the hashtag, keyword and @mention data thus providing a richer dataset for analysis. A retweet of another user's post as an outwardly directed edge and the retweeter was considered as the source and the original tweeter as the target.


Our analysis takes critical approach by asking whether changes in assumed characteristics such as authority and legitimacy can be seen in Twitter discourse.

Social media would seem to make government more accessible and responsive to stakeholders. Ideally, when individuals use a type of social media the assumption is that there will be some sort of dialogue between participants. This is a key element of “public sphere” participation (Fairclough, 2003; Arendt, 1958; Fairclough 1999; Habermas, 1989). Whether or not this has been or will be the case, through implementation of the Open Government Directive, at least for this one agency, is one of the driving concerns behind this research.


Analysis of the data gathered by twitteR indicates that little dialogue is occurring between the USDA and the public. When basic social network analysis principles were applied, we were able to discern that the USDA's interaction with the public appears to be one sided or perhaps even parallel. By parallel we mean that information is being posted by the USDA and by the public, but little real interaction appears to be taking place on social media or networking sites. Essentially the network actors are talking around one another, with the agency not directly addressing or receiving little or no response.

Analysis of @reply messages indicates that USDA Twitter page has an outdegree of three, but an indegree of 141. Taken as a snapshot of social network activity, it appears that the majority of network directed connections occur on the part of the public and non-governmental organizations. Activity on the USDA's Twitter page generally takes the form of update postings, news, reposts of forwards of USDA blog postings. The USDA's retweet activity reflects the @reply activity, with a small outdegree and a high indegree.

In regard to centrality, the USDA features as the node with the highest betweenness centrality. This was expected since data was collected in order to identify network structure and activity in regard to the USDA and its role.

We can conclude by its position in the network that the information the USDA has posted is being shared among Twitter users and their followers because of a high indegree related to retweets. The data would also suggest that the information posted by the USDA is viewed as authoritative within the network. Beyond releasing official information and interacting with other agencies little interaction with the public appears to occur. This does not appear to adhere with general expectations of what social media sites represent, in essence a bilateral means of communication and interaction between users on the basis of post or update that is made public.

This early look at the USDA indicates that there are several considerations that need to be addressed in relation to use of social media web resources. 1. There may be policy and content considerations that may be underlying some of the actions or inaction on the part of the USDA. 2. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are private companies who control the sites in question. 3. There may be some hesitancy on behalf of administrators or moderators to use non-governmental social media resources for anything more than initial connection with the public and disseminating information. The aforementioned issues are valid concerns in regard to government use of social media and the resulting interactions with the public.

The research leads to two possible suggestions in regard to the USDA's open government efforts. 1. To integrate the USDA Open Government website more fully into the USDA's main page. This could be done by adding a link from the homepage or even adding a link in the sites index. 2. Make increase efforts to increase public awareness of existing resources such as


  • 1.)To continue to gather Twitter data related to the USDA for longitudinal perspective;
  • 2.)Select of other government agencies to expand study. This will include smaller agencies with that are less far reaching in their scope of responsibility.
  • 3.)Policy analysis of each additional agency to identify specific stakeholders and goals.
  • 4.)Expand data gathering to encompass newly identified agencies.
  • 5.)Gather and analyze data from other social media sources and sites.
  • 6.)Followed by the eventual creation of a holistic understanding public and government agency interaction in light of the Open Government Initiative.


Earlier research has examined at the different ways in which citizens are accessing government services and obtaining information about government services, there has been limited research into the type of interaction that is happening between government agencies or between government agencies and citizens via social media. Since dialogue is a key element of participation, understanding if, social media is in fact facilitating dialogue and the extent of said dialogue, will inform a better understanding of citizen participation in the democratic process. Additionally, continuation of this research and implementation of similar research could have benefits to implementation of Open Government objectives.


Our thanks to our colleagues; Dr. Sean Goggins, Ph.D. and Christopher Mascaro for their assistance with harvesting the Twitter data for this research.