CIVIC CENTER — The city's Conflict of Interest Board is an unlikely source of humor in the Twitterverse.
But the agency, best known for policing municipal ethics, has a Twitter presence that makes most others seem boring.
The Conflicts of Interest Board? More like, the Conflicts of Interest EXCITING!— COIB Daily Dose (@NYCCOIB) February 20, 2015
Some have speculated that the account is run by a young, female intern.
Nope. Not even close.
The account is managed by a three-person team: Alex Kipp, 43, Clare Wiseman, 35, and Rob Casimir, 30.
“There are certain people on Twitter who are convinced that we’re an intern, and we’re 25 and we’re female,” Kipp said.
“Not one person fits that,” Wiseman added.
The trio comprise the agency’s Training Unit. When they’re not tweeting, they’re busy fulfilling the board’s mandate to get every city government employee trained in conflict of interest law.
They hold workshops and classes for a range of governmental employees — from school principals to building inspectors — and last year held 855 classes for roughly 32,000 people.
“That seems awesome, like it’s record-setting, but the mandate is to train 300,000 people every two years,” Kipp said. “But we don’t have the manpower to do that.”
Their approach to their classes matches the tone of their Twitter account — jokey, clever and fun.
me: it is important to recognize the distinction between gov’t duty and your personal ethics— COIB Daily Dose (@NYCCOIB) February 3, 2016
18th century deontologist: i kant
When they decided to try Twitter, COIB higher-ups were supportive of their desire to use that voice.
“The senior leadership on the board level and also on the executive director level has always been like, ‘You guys have training. You have a long leash, I want you to experiment,’” Kipp said. “‘You guys know when you need to come to us for complicated questions of policy or interpretation of law so, you hew to that, and off you go.’”
The trio sat down with DNAinfo New York to talk about their foray into social media.*
Have you ever gotten in trouble over a tweet?
Rob: Oh. Yes.
Alex: We should mention this one. Because this is an important example of how we work. So, Rob came in with this idea. He was like, ‘Hey, I want to use a voice.’ Like the kind of voice you might hear in one of our classes. So Rob wrote this tweet that said, ‘Feels good flashing my city credentials to cut the line at the club. Sidenote: I am tweeting this from jail.' Or from Rikers. That was the original tweet.
But I was like, you know, people don’t really get thrown into jail for misusing an ID. It depends on the context, but it’s probably not going to happen cheating the line at the club. So you should change this to—
Rob: ‘That joke’s not realistic enough.’
Alex: So I said, "'What it’s going to say is, ‘Feels good flashing my city credentials to cut the line at the club. Sidenote: I’m tweeting this from home. Because I am suspended.’"
Feels good flashing my City credentials to cut the line at the club; side note: I am tweeting from home. Because I was suspended.— COIB Daily Dose (@NYCCOIB) August 7, 2014
So then [Daily News editorial writer] Josh Greenman was like, "What’s going on over there? You guys drunk over at Conflict of Interest Board?" And then [former Daily News reporter] Annie Karni was like, "I think your Twitter feed's been hijacked! Some disgruntled co-worker's actually been suspended." People got crazy on it real quick. I was actually at a meeting at the Federal Reserve when I got on the phone with [Karni] about it, and I told her what happened, and she was like, "Ohhhhhh. It’s a joke."
And so the next tweet we sent out was like, "Sorry, and thanks to those who were concerned. The suspended guy from the last tweet was a hypothetical example. And he has been fired." And I ran that by one of our senior leadership people here, the head of Enforcement at the time, and she was like, "I think that's hilarious. That's exactly how you should handle that." But it was early on and I could see why, before we had hundreds of tweets where we had that tone, people got confused.
Sorry (& thx!) to those who were concerned! The suspended guy from last tweet was a hypothetical example. And he has been fired.— COIB Daily Dose (@NYCCOIB) August 7, 2014
Do you guys have a Twitter strategy?
Alex: Each of us comes up with something like 10 tweets every month that we workshop together in a pitch meeting where we go like, "Hm, what’s funny about that, does that feel right, how does that change, let's do a word cloud and see. Oh, St. Patrick's Day is coming up, what does that make us think of?" Besides inappropriate things we can’t put in a government Twitter feed.
Rob: In terms of my method, I like to stay up for three days without sleep and find the highest point in the five boroughs and just wait until the brilliance washes over me.
And those are the ones that don't have punctuation.
What do you think of the response you've gotten?
Alex: It's been fun. It’s been really great to get the support and attention of people who have sort of gotten us, and taken the time to sort of read us, and retweet us, you know, just pay a little bit of attention to us. Which is more than I ever thought that we would ever get with this.
Rob: I actually love the fact that people pay attention. Because even though our job is to train public servants, I think the more people that are aware of the Conflict of Interest Board, the better, right? Because sure, we give advice to public servants, and we’re not the Department of Investigation but if people see something that’s not right, you know, they can make complaints here as well.
Have you gotten any response from the higher-ups?
Alex: They’ve given us feedback, too — some of the board members and the senior leadership, they like it as well. It kind of fits into — I hate to use this word, I’m only going to use it once in our entire meeting today — our...
Claire: Oh no….
One of the things that's unusual for a government Twitter account is how much you engage with your audience.
Rob: I think some agencies or some businesses — you see those timelines where they’re just doing nothing? They don’t give any value, they're just some social media person getting paid 200K who's like, "Hey, put our brand strategy on there! I'm sure people will flock to it!" Like Twitter's a thing that, as long as you have it, everyone will love it?
Claire: Where it’s just one of the things you have to check off, like, "We have a Twitter account."
Rob: Yeah, "Social media presence established." The "Here’s my press releases" thing. If you want people to know about our existence and the good work that we’re doing and all that stuff, I think you have to give value. You have to be a part of the conversation. And if people are joking in that conversation, give them something. Give them a joke, have fun with it.
It seems that idea also guides your approach to your classes?
Alex: It’s representative of what the agency is: Small, independent, no bureaucracy, very efficient, human face, there to be your partner in all things conflict of interest. That is, until you violate the law and we have to prosecute you.
Rob: This is so corny, but I’m sort of a true believer in this. To me, if we can get our message out there in a humanistic way… It just feels like they're more likely to make a good decision if they know we exist, No. 1, and No. 2, they don’t hate us. They kind of go, "Oh they’re kind of decent over there, they’ll probably give me some good advice." That actually could prevent a lot of headaches.
* This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.