Social media reaches a crossroad in government

Challenges lie ahead with budget cuts and the departure of Vivek Kundra

The federal government has embraced social media. Recently, the Government Accountability Office identified several ways that 23 of 24 major agencies are using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. To date, social media has been used to disseminate information, track the opinions and feelings of constituents, and, on the law enforcement side, to find criminals and illegal activities. However, with the departure of Federal CIO Vivek Kundra and sharp reductions in IT budgets, experts wonder if the love affair with social can last.

The history of social media usage, however short, has been strong. Today, according to a Congressional Management Foundation survey — #SocialCongress: Perceptions and Use of Social Media on Capitol Hill — about 64 percent of senior managers or social managers surveyed think Facebook is a somewhat or very important tool for understanding constituents views and opinions. Meanwhile, agencies and organizations are using social media to communicate with constituents and each other. For example, the FBI's Facebook page has more than 133,000 people who have liked it. About 13,000 people like the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a city or state that doesn’t have a Facebook page and Twitter feed.

The explosion of pages and accounts has come about in part because of the support and third-party agreements that the General Services Administration started putting into place back in 2009 that were designed to resolve problems the government had with many of the standard terms and conditions related to liability, freedom of information, and legal jurisdiction. However, even with these policies in place, more must be done, according to a June 2011 GAO report. Agencies are having problems with records management, privacy and security, which can be difficult to overcome especially if federal CIO support wanes, according to Ted McLaughlan, director of technology solutions at strategic Web consultancy NavigationArts.

The biggest problem, he says, is that the people who are disseminating information don’t understand the ramifications of their activities or how to deal with incoming social media messages. “If you have a large company and someone posts a negative photo or comment on Twitter that company has learned how — not to deflect — to find ways to be a better participant in the dialogue,” he said. “There’s got to be a social media champion at every agency who is attuned to social media and has the authority to share information about best-case usage and drive exposure to what’s going on with the technology to help others understand how to use it better.”

These so-called social champions would also create a governance model for internal and external social media content, setting policies around engagement, frequency, and platform. They may also be charged with building and tracking the agency’s online reputation.

McLaughlan said this type of governance can be automated so agencies can ask for and get feedback on posts or tweets before they go out, he says, and throttle the number of posts up or down based on the agency’s business rules. Automated content management might allow someone to post something internally so it can be vetted and parsed for its audience, which could help eliminate many of the perceived problems around security and privacy, said McLaughlan. “Plus, if we can add tracking tags we can understand what happens once the content leaves the agency,” he says. Unfortunately, while technically feasible, it isn’t happening yet.

It’s quite possible that the new Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel, who pledged to continue Kundra’s policies, may help social media’s cause, and create such functionality. After all, he was the person responsible for growing the Federal Communications Commission's social media presence and use. Until then, said McLaughlan, agencies should at the very least create some kind of internal social media training. “People need to learn that it’s better to sit back and listen a lot rather than engaging,” he said.

About this Report

This report was commissioned by the Content Solutions unit, an independent editorial arm of 1105 Government Information Group. Specific topics are chosen in response to interest from the vendor community; however, sponsors arenot guaranteed content contribution or review of content before publication. For more information about 1105 Government Information Group Content Solutions, please email us at [email protected]