Authors

Bill Sherman

Document Type

Article

Abstract

The use of online social networks by local public officials has drawn the ire of local governments, some of whom have gone so far as to bar public officials from social networks for fear of violating campaign finance, open meeting, freedom of information, and government ethics laws. These objections overlook the unique nature of civic social networks as an emerging political institution, characterized by a high degree of transparency and intense public pressure for accountability. The nature of this new institution renders the alarmist reaction overblown. Civic social networks are the new public square, and local governments should embrace them as consistent with the goals of open government and ethics laws. This article seeks to describe this emerging institutional environment, and by doing so help change the ways that policymakers apply open government and ethics rules to civic social networks. Part One identifies the ways local public officials and their constituents are using social networks. Part Two discusses the attempts by some local governments to eliminate or limit that use. Part Three uses public choice theory and rational choice institutionalism to assess the tools and behaviors that have given us the emerging institution of civic social networks – an institution characterized by high demand for transparency and accountability. Part Four argues that the nature of the institution described in Part Three demonstrates that the threatened enforcement of open government and ethics laws would have a perverse effect – reducing transparency and accountability, while exposing public officials to greater moral hazard. The article concludes with recommendations for open government and ethics statutes (or the enforcement thereof) that would allow officials to engage their constituents in the new public square of civic social networks.

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