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Christina Gagnier Headshot

Government's Sociotechnological Revolution Leaves Little Place for Legal "Wet Blanketry"

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It was opportune that when searching for how to convey frustration over how some lawyers are approaching the use of social media and related technologies in government, pop culture, the hit series Mad Men delivered. In Sunday night's episode, the show's resident rule-abiding character, Peggy Olson, was called out as "mastering the science of wet blanketry." In other words, she kills a buzz.

Last week, during the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C., a government lawyer relayed the difficulties faced by government attorneys in grappling with the laundry list of regulations that must be addressed, particularly at the federal level, in implementing social media. The job of government lawyers is not an easy one: no fellow lawyer can deny the hurdles that these lawyers face.

It's not their adherence to statutes that is troublesome, but more so, the "wet blanketry" practiced when it comes to citizen empowerment and engagement. In referring to citizens grabbing the assets of government agencies to create Fan pages on social networks like Facebook or profiles on Twitter, the message was problematic as it was aggressive, even adversarial, against the citizen: it's the government's name, the government's seal and the government's intellectual property.

This "wet blanketry" is more of a deterrent when coupled with the advisement of some government attorneys to their clients to abandon social media altogether. In the last few weeks, several local governments have abandoned social media because using it in a way that complies with state and local regulations is too "legally complicated."

But, it's our country, our state or our city. It has been the zealousness of citizens and social entrepreneurs that has propelled the movement that is Government 2.0. To approach the core component of the movement, citizens, in such a way is, indeed, "wet blanketry." If Government 2.0 has lost a little bit of its "mojo," a view presented by one speaker at the Summit, this could be evidence of a cause and effect.

While our laws will not evolve overnight, the attitude of how lawyers work within them must. The Internet poses a variety of challenges for public and private sector attorneys, demanding us to venture out into the unknown. At times, there are no rules, there is no precedent and you have to guide a client on what may just be a six-month old "best practice." But we can no longer afford to allow our governments to avoid using technology because finding some way to implement it to improve civic life and government service is just "too hard."

If you are a fan of Mad Men, you too are likely recognizing that even stickler Peggy Olson is undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis, a reflection of the cultural shift of the time period in which the show is set, the 1960's. It was a decade that played host to a cultural revolution for our society, dramatized by the show.

Government is undergoing a sociotechnological revolution, one that is being forced by rapid paced private sector technology changes and a real-time environment that is pervading every aspect of our lives. Advances in innovative legal approaches within and for government must be a priority. The science of "wet blanketry" has already been tested enough.

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