House Ethics Office Has Fans on Facebook

Posted March 26, 2010 at 5:33pm

While 435 House Members may differ in opinion on the Office of Congressional Ethics, the investigative agency can claim it has 219 fans — at least on Facebook.

The OCE, a quasi-autonomous agency created by the House to review potential rules violations and recommend investigations to the chamber’s ethics committee, recently upped its presence off Capitol Hill, opening accounts on social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

OCE spokesman Jon Steinman said the decision to join those Web sites — at first glance an unusual move in the normally secretive world of Congressional ethics — stems in part from the office’s directive to provide transparency in the House ethics process.

“These are avenues taken by other Members and other offices, and we feel like outreach and transparency are very critical, central functions of our office,” Steinman said. “These are absolutely cost-effective. They’re free.”

The OCE added the social networking accounts in tandem with a redesign of its official House Web site in early March.

“I just want to make sure that we’re using all the tools we can so people can know what we’re doing and they can reach us,” Steinman said. Each of the sites includes the office’s official Web site, as well as its mailing address on Facebook.

Apart from icons on the OCE’s Web site that link visitors to its various social networking accounts, Steinman said he has not publicized the sites. He acknowledged that some of the OCE’s Facebook “fans” — unlike personal Facebook pages, which track a user’s “friends,” office accounts track “fans” — are in fact friends of the office’s staff. No House lawmakers were included in the list as of Friday.

“I don’t think it’s promotion,” Steinman said. “I would really talk about it as education and outreach. We’re not trying to promote ourselves. We just want people to understand who we are.”

The OCE’s Twitter account tallied 21 followers on Friday, including a few journalists and the San Francisco Ethics Commission, and reported following 23 Twitterers, including news organizations and political blogs, as well as the Georgia State Ethics Commission.

Steinman said the office had not received any feedback on the new projects, and noted that settings on its accounts prohibit users from leaving messages or otherwise contributing to the sites.

“No one can comment on it. No one can write on our wall,” Steinman said, referring to the Facebook feature that allows users to leave public messages. “You lose control of what the message is, and anyone can say anything about anybody. That’s not the stage we’re interested in building.”

The OCE has posted about a dozen items to its Facebook account, including articles and editorials about the office, as well as alerts on its own Web site. The same links appear on its Twitter site.

While the OCE’s YouTube “channel” remained empty Friday, Steinman said the account could eventually include C-SPAN footage of the House debate over the creation of the OCE in early 2008.

Despite drawing criticism from a handful of lawmakers in recent months — Members who have come under the OCE’s scrutiny have been highly critical of its investigators, both publicly and privately — Steinman said he does not anticipate the OCE’s foray into social networking will generate negative backlash.

“We’re not sharing anything on these pages that is prohibited. We’re providing information that would otherwise be provided on our Web page,” Steinman said.

The OCE formatted its new social networking accounts to conform with the same rules House offices and committees follow, and Steinman stressed that those Web sites are simply another outlet for the reports already publicly available.

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said Friday that he had not been aware of the office’s social networking sites, but said: “It’s unusual, but we live in a brave new world in terms of communications, and as long as the communications do not go beyond the parameters of their responsibilities, we can all see how this experiment works out.”

U.S. PIRG Democracy Advocate Lisa Gilbert, among the government reform advocates who have voiced support for the OCE, said Friday that she has not signed on to follow any of the OCE’s new accounts, but praised the office’s decision to join the social networking sites.

“It’s excellent that we’ll be able to see how the process functions and once again reaffirm that they are moving with the times,” Gilbert said.