Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior tweeted a photo of a turtle. In April it shared a pic of a baby bison taking a nap. On May 4 it celebrated Star Wars Day with a series of behind-the-scenes photos from the 1982 filming of Return of the Jedi on the Imperial Sand Dunes in California. “Did you know that Return of the Jedi was filmed on [public] lands?” the agency tweeted.
To the extent that Americans think of the Interior Department at all, they may think of a drab, gray bureaucracy housed in a drab, gray building in Washington. But on Twitter, the agency can loosen its tie and crack a joke. It can make friends. “A lot of people don’t seem to know what the Department of the Interior actually does,” says Tim Fullerton, DOI’s director of digital strategy and the man behind its Twitter feed. “They don’t even know we’re a public lands agency. Our mission on Twitter is to let people know that.” And he does so by linking to articles about the great outdoors and tweeting as many pictures of adorable baby animals as he can find to Interior’s 72,724 followers.
Since President Obama issued the Open Government Directive in 2009 requiring every federal agency to make its reports easy to find online, the government has leapt onto social media with surprising abandon. Virtually every department now has a presence on Twitter. The White House set the bar with an account that’s grown to 3.8 million followers (about as many as comedian Steve Martin) and is awash in Obama pictures, Joe Biden quips, and photos of Bo the dog—with press releases thrown in to let people know the president is hard at work. “The White House is the best at this,” says Fullerton. “Most of us are still trying to figure stuff out.”
Each federal agency is in charge of its own social media effort, which can range from a team of people to a lowly press flack on his laptop. “We don’t allocate funds to social media,” says Chuck Young, managing director of public affairs at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which writes reports calling out waste and mismanagement in federal agencies and programs. “When someone retired a few years ago, instead of replacing him we just changed the existing position. So there is no new cost.” (Translation: The Accountability Office is fiscally accountable.) Young knows his agency isn’t likely to attract millions of followers with tweets like “GAO’s Dave Powner testifies today at 2:30p at George Mason University on cost savings & IT data center consolidation.” As he puts it, “We’re not that popular on Twitter, but that’s because our audience is Congress.”
An agency’s Twitter feed reflects how its leaders want the public to see it. So finding just the right tone is important. “They don’t want us to be playful here,” says Jennifer Elzea, who runs the Defense Department’s Twitter and Facebook (FB) pages. “If the Department of Defense is lighthearted, that doesn’t bring a tremendous amount of comfort.” Same goes for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, whose Twitter feed—“Gang Member Pleads Guilty in Dodge City Racketeering Case”—reads like a streaming version of COPS.
The U.S. Postal Service—“873 jelly beans fit in a Small Flat Rate Box!”—gets points for putting on a cheerful Twitter face even as it’s fighting for its existence. But other agencies’ attempts to go for light and breezy sometimes fall short in unintentionally hilarious ways. “Earth Day is every day, celebrate by transferring your excess property,” the U.S. General Services Administration recently tweeted. No surprise that GSA, which among other things oversees government buildings, has a following of just 8,602 people. That still dwarfs the Administration on Aging, which routinely exhorts its 1,336 followers to “unleash the power of age!”
The undiscovered gem of federal Twitter feeds belongs to an agency not normally associated with edginess, or anything cool: the U.S. Census Bureau. “Mostly we just tweet out interesting facts,” says Jennifer Smits, the bureau’s public affairs specialist and one of four people who run its charmingly nerdy Twitter feed. During the Kentucky Derby, the Census told its 38,230 followers about the number of horse racetracks in the U.S. (127), and for Presidents’ Day it ran a series of tweets about U.S. presidents with the most places named after them (Washington won; Garfield came in 12th). “Last year we partnered with the National Archives and tweeted a whole slew of info about the 1940 Census,” Smits boasts. “That was really popular! Well, with historians.” But its most popular tweet came in August 2012, when the Census alerted people that the U.S. population was 314,159,265—the same as the first nine digits of pi—and was surprised when it was retweeted more than 100 times. That’s nowhere near Justin Bieber levels of Twitter popularity, but it’s pretty good for a 110-year-old institution that doesn’t have the luxury of tweeting about turtles.