Effect Measure

NIOSH has a blog

Blog is short for weblog, originally a chronological set of postings about, well, about whatever. Blogs are/were journals that were published publicly but also allowed readers to comment, read, react and in some ways affect the content. How much dialog and two way communication there was depended on the blog. Some have virtually none, although monitoring traffic and interest is one kind of reader feedback that doesn’t depend on a formal comment facility. Others are highly interactive, with lots of comment, a community feeling and vigorous discussion. The big innovation, though, was that the internet made publishing and distribution available to anyone with an internet connection for little or no cost. Conventional print media are finding out, to their rue, what this means. The landscape of publishing has changed radically.

Along with that change has come new players. Government agencies are now starting blogs, not because they didn’t have the means to publish and distribute, but because the internet has become a public venue that cannot be ignored. While all agencies have websites, they are mostly static, one-way affairs. Good if you need a specific piece of information, but no reason to come back until the next time your needs dictate. These websites are certainly no way to engage readers, but presumably that’s OK with most agencies. They don’t want to engage their readers.

But in occupational safety and health it’s important. Very important. The federal agency that researches issues in occupational safety and health is part of CDC, and is called the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). As its name indicates, it is a research agency (like the other NIH institutes), not a regulatory one. It provides the science that is used by the federal regulatory agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which is in a different cabinet department, the Department of Labor. And it now has a blog.

I took a look at it and you can, too. I hope they won’t take offense if I say that it kind of lacks what the TV and movie folks call, “production values.” Which is to say it is pretty bare bones. It looks like someone actually constructed a website from scratch. Not really necessary, these days. There are many open source or free hosted platforms that could have been used. I’d recommend it. Right now it looks pretty awful. It would not only look nicer but have more functionality.

But bare bones or not, the skeleton is there, and so, it seems is the right idea. The first post is dated November 1 and is about heart risks to firefighters. Important and interesting topic. There is a comment facility so you can talk back. The second post is almost three weeks later, November 19. It’s about truck driver safety. Another important topic. Still, I’m not going to check in often if there’s only a post every three weeks. Publishing and distributing a blog post may be almost no cost, but blogging with a frequency and content that will get readers is costly in time and effort. Trust me.

So welcome to the infant NIOSH blog.With so few public health blogs and even fewer that bring news of occupational safety and health. The late Confined Space is the exemplar here, whose mantle is being assumed by The Pump Handle. It is hard to see how an official NIOSH blog could ever assume their roles. But we can hope that it will blaze a new trail, the government agency blog. It won’t survive unless it has some upper level support. This kind of thing will be a failure if it is done “on the fly” along with a million other duties. To do it right it’s probably at least a half FTE (Full Time Equivalent).

Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen. But good luck to them anyway. We’ll put them on the blogroll.

Comments

  1. #1 Kieran McCaul
    November 21, 2007

    Does it have an RSS feed? I can’t see one.

  2. #2 revere
    November 21, 2007

    Don’t see one either. It’s pretty primitive. But I don’t want to diss them. I’m glad they are doing this and want to encourage them. They are doing the right thing and already they’ve got some public health readers they didn’t have before.

  3. #3 revere
    November 21, 2007

    Just took another look and they’ve got a banner and it looks much better. So things are looking up.

  4. #4 anon
    November 22, 2007

    I think, a forum is better than a blog. More organised.
    It’s easy these days to add a forum to a webpage.

    Yet there are none (nor blogs) usually.

    I think, officials are afraid of unpleasant questions
    being asked and discussed.
    They issue prepared statements which are cut from content
    so to be unprecise and general.
    More precise questions are not appreciated.
    If they are asked, officials are trained in diversion strategies … and it’s considered impolite if
    the questioner insists on the question.
    That does not work so well in internet …

  5. #5 Tasha
    November 23, 2007

    Anon,

    It’s a bit more complicated than just “Big government doesn’t like to be questioned.” The only reason many government officials limit their communication with the public to prepared statements is because every word can be and often is scrutinized to the umpteenth degree.

    Recently a state government agency around my neck of the woods considered putting together a weblog. They even went so far as setting up the blog, and the administrator took personal interest in the blog, putting up posts, etc. This agency wanted to invite open discussion and allow more transparency. However, they ran into a problem – blog comment moderation.

    A privately run blog has the option of moderating, and if need be deleting offensive comments. By offensive I’m referring to foul language or other obscenities. This type of censorship is seen on many blogs (and also on other websites, such as newspapers, that allow online comments). It allows some modicum of decency.

    However, a publicly run blog doesn’t have this option because of first ammendment rights. A government agency that censored and/or deleted certain blog comments could legally be accused of violating first ammendment rights.

    Because this agency couldn’t figure out a way to sidestep this issue, the blog was put on hold indefinitely, which is sad because the content of the blog was very interesting and I think would have been a great public face for the agency. (The blog is still being kept up, but can currently be viewed by internal agency people only, and is mostly being used for intra-agency comminication and discussion.)

    There are other reasons a public agency might not want to start a blog. Some feel hampered by limited resources and don’t have the time or manpower to run a blog; some don’t feel that the internet may be the best forum for discussing important topics; some feel apprehensive of using an informal blog which may be viewed as the public face of the agency… I think there are probably quite a few agencies and agency directors who would love to create a blog (more so as the use of blogs becomes more common), but are hampered by “the system” so to speak, and the possible reprecussions of even casually made comments.

  6. #6 Tasha
    November 23, 2007

    By the way, I’m sure the NIOSH blog will look better and the postings will become more frequent with time… Or it will suffer a premature death as many blogs in their first year do. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I applaud their effort and I hope they keep it up.

  7. #7 Max Lum
    November 26, 2007

    We at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health want to thank you for your support and let you know that we are committed to continually improving the NIOSH Science Blog. As you know, blogging is in an experimental phase in the government and there is a steep learning curve. While the number of government blogs is increasing, there remain relatively few agencies utilizing blogs for external communication. NIOSH has a long history of open two-way communication with our partners and we are excited by the prospect of robust scientific exchange with our stakeholders via the blog.

    We appreciate your comments about the blog and are working to address them. Without boring you with the details, some of the issues are steeped in government bureaucracy. We hope to find our way through these issues before losing you as readers. We decided to begin participating in the government blogosphere while it is still in its infancy. We know this means a few more hurdles for us but the advantages of utilizing this new media to communicate with our partners far outweigh any difficulties we will encounter.

    Thank you again for your support. Please continue to visit our blog and give us the critical comments that will help the NIOSH Science Blog improve and survive.

    Max Lum, Ed.D. MPA
    Associate Director for Health Communications

  8. #8 revere
    November 26, 2007

    Max: I saw an immediate improvement and I know the difficulties you face. CDC has put its toe in the water with its Second Life venue (pretty primitive, but shows initiative). I remember you from your days at ATSDR and I wish you a lot of luck with this. I believe it’s important. You can’t ignore this sector. It’s where the next generation hangs out (even if you and I are geezers).

  9. #9 Michael Wood
    November 29, 2007

    Sorry to come to this discussion a bit late.

    As the agency administrator who set out to launch the blog referenced in Tasha’s comment, I should clarify a piece of her note. While we struggled with the best way to handle comments (especially in light of Oregon’s exceptionally strong free expression provisions) and still protect the professional nature of the blog, we actually worked through those issues, figured out the design, content, etc. We concluded that we could indeed screen comments in much the way NIOSH comment guidelines indicate that they will (although we thought it unlikely we would actually need to, once the expectations were established).

    As Tasha notes, I planned to post personally at least weekly. And I put a lot of effort into putting the package together and trying to get it into a launchable form.

    What really killed the blog is that I could not find a free service whose terms I could agree to because they require indemnification, and I cannot (on behalf of the state) provide such unlimited indemnification (and surrender sovereign immunity).

    So, like NIOSH, we would have to do it “from scratch.” I assume their reason for not using one of the publicly available platforms is probably similar. We may still do that down the line, but it raises the bar a bit. And, at the moment, we don’t actually have the software capability we’d need to do it “in house.”

    So I simply want to say congratulations to NIOSH for this step forward.

    With regard to “anon’s” comments, they do reflect a sweeping generalization. I was prepared to welcome vigorous and genuine discussion and, indeed, criticism. And while I understand that there are large number of valid reasons to make a post like that anonymously, I have to admit that there is a certain amount of irony in saying that we government officials try to avoid questions and genuine scrutiny, while at the same time choosing the option of not signing one’s own name.

    Michael Wood, CSP
    Administrator, Oregon OSHA