Twitter breaks down walls of bureaucracy

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When @demianbrady spotted city employees patching an alleyway across from his North Patrick Street office instead of the worse-off walkway leading to his parking lot, he tweeted @AlexandriaVAGov for answers.

And when someone at City Hall tweeted him back the proper online form to fill out for a repair request within the hour, the 40-year-old senior policy analyst at the National Taxpayers Union and Foundation was impressed.

They got back to me pretty quickly, Damien Brady said. It’s pretty impressive they got back to me in pretty quick time. Last year I called the proper office and left messages and never heard anything about it … I decided to raise the level and go to Twitter.

The city fields somewhere between 30 and 50 questions, concerns or requests through social media most weeks, said spokesman Tony Castrilli. Though caught by Alexandria’s communications team, those 140-character or less messages get passed along to the appropriate departments, he said.

They’re breaking down walls between residents and city officials, Castrilli said.

Twitter and Facebook give people an opportunity to tell us about things going on, he said. We’re learning things in real time very quickly, like power outages during the snowstorms and the summer storms. We’re hearing them in real time and sharing them with the necessary people as quickly as possible.

Castrilli’s team opened an account with the now hugely successful micro-blog service two summers ago. They’ve been tweeting ever since, during Snowmaggedon and the summer’s streak of nasty thunderstorms and during the flood watches in late September. 

Nowhere was the ability of social media proved than during a police chase ending at City Hall in July. Communications officials released information directly to the curious masses through Facebook and Twitter, according to Castrilli. 

We think people are reading [our information] on their small screen, so we might do a little more social media than writing up press releases, he said. 

Taking the message directly to the people has another advantage: cutting out the middleman. One nice side effect is removing the filter traditional press puts on information, Castrilli said. 
City Hall now, more than ever, can talk directly with the people. 

But the advantage works both ways. @AlexandriaVAGov’s 1,775 followers include area news outlets and local reporters.

I follow the press and a lot of the press follow us, Castrilli said. Twitter gives us a chance to get [information] to the press that might not be paying attention … Our work flow has changed here, this is an opportunity to engage the community.

Alexandrias neighbors are catching on, too. Nearby Arlington and Fairfax counties reach a wide readership through Twitter. Washington’s public safety Twitter account, @dcfireems, updates 3,860 followers with breaking emergencies. Alexandria City Public Schools began experimenting with tweets in late summer. Since then, @ACPSk12 has grown to 162 followers.

It’s the way of the future, Brady said. Most corporations monitor Twitter feeds to make sure the digital word of mouth is good. It’s nice to see city government following their lead. 

It’s really good to see that the government is stepping up and taking action, Brady said. That works for the National Taxpayers Union and Foundation, so it’s nice to see government can work with it as well. Or can at least respond effectively. Let’s see if they can follow through [with the repairs].

A day later, @demianbrady twittered photos of repair crews working in the alley.

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