Social media applications have become an (almost) accepted standard to explore new ways of communication between government and its stakeholders. However, government agencies willing to jump onto the bandwagon had to jump over many hurdles to make social media work for them. As early as December 2008, the powerhouse behind what is now known as HowTo.gov — Bev Godwin, Sheila Campbell, Jeffrey Levy, and Joyce Bounds — have published a manuscript describing the hurdles and perceived barriers for new forms of online engagement. Among them are:
- Employee access to online tools
- Terms of service
- Persistent cookies
- Access for people with disabilities
- Administrative requirements for rulemaking
Many of these barriers prevented the rapid and risk-free adoption of social media technologies. Some of the perceived barriers were solved in the meantime. As an example, GSA signed model Terms of Service agreements with many social media providers.
A few agencies were willing to jump into the cold water early on and started to experiment with Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and so on, until GAO released a report directing government organizations to create social media policies for managing and protecting information they access and disseminate using social media applications. As a result most federal government agencies now have internal social media guidelines in place (for an overview, visit my blog, which includes pdf documents of publicly available social media policies).
Some guidelines only provide a general context for the use of third party platforms others describe in very detailed fashion including daily schedules, accepted tools, directions for tactics, campaigns, etc. The Army social media handbook is already published in its third iteration. It not only includes guidance for the internal use of government-run social media accounts, but extends suggestions beyond the boundaries of organization to include family members who could potentially reveal sensitive information and thereby harm the Army’s missions.
Based on my conversations with social media directors in the U.S. federal government and an analysis of the available social media guidelines, I came up with the following elements for the design of social media guidelines in the public sector:
- Social media use should support the organizational mission and overall communication strategy.
- Government agencies need to decide what they regard as appropriate content and what online products they are willing to share with their stakeholders via social media.
- The workload and decision responsibilities need to be assigned and distributed among a social media ringmaster, content creators and curators, account administrators, and content providers with expert knowledge about issues.
- Before agencies can select the right tools it is important to understand who the (potentially diverse) audience is.
- Access to social media content needs to be made available through alternative mechanisms to avoid exclusiveness.
- I am a big fan of “hierarchy in the network” and always tell government officials who ask me for advice to clarify what their online netiquette includes, such as a comment policy or appropriate online conduct. EPA provides great guidance using this flow chart.
- After all these issues are clarified and answered as part of a social media guideline, the tool question can be tackled: Where do an agency’s stakeholders prefer to receive their information? On Facebook? Twitter? Via a newsletter? The answer should not be: We need to be on Facebook, because everyone else is.
- After the tools are selected, guidance on how and who sets up and administers the accounts needs to be designed.
- Daily routines need to be established. For different social media tactics see more in my PA Times article “Government 2.0 revisited: Social Media Strategies in the Public Sector.”
- One of the most challenging tasks it to measure and interpret the successful use of social media tools on behalf of government. Many agencies use quantitative measures, such as counts of the increasing number of followers or likes. Others use anecdotes highlighting responses from their audience. Other more sophisticated approaches include the use of dashboard solutions by third party providers.
- Lastly, a social media strategy needs to include a section on training. Providing the resources, including opportunities to discuss tactics and strategies with peers, is however not only important for those employees who will be managing social media accounts, but also for top managers to understand the culture and changing social interactions with the public, as well as their evolving expectations.
Read more in my IBM Center for the Business of Government special report “A manager’s guide for designing social media strategy.”