What’s the potential role of “social media” in the next Administration? I went to a conference last week on the use of social media in government and it caused me to think about the potential implications for the next President. This is broader than the opportunities to use Web 2.0 tools, which I raised a few weeks ago. The conference reflected the buzz in government circles around this topic – there were more than 100 participants from different agencies!
What is it? “Social media” refers to the use of Web 2.0 applications. Its definition is still evolving, but it is participatory and on-line. For government, it implies a shift in agency communication goals from creating “awareness” of an issue to creating “relationships” around an issue. It means agencies’ roles on-line will expand from being just a destination (e.g., a webpage) to being conveners on an issue – but not necessarily on their own websites. It means reaching targeted audiences where they go and interact – YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Eons, etc. And using tools that they are most comfortable with – mobile phones, websites, viral videos, texting, tagging, etc.
This would be a major shift in how government engages with citizens and its own employees. It could also constitute a major management improvement strategy for the next President, depending on how he or she chooses to use it to deliver services and information.
Agencies are beginning to do it. The most sophisticated pioneers seem to be the Intelligence Community, which uses it internally, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is using it externally.
The Intelligence Community — which is comprised of 16 agencies across the government such as the CIA, FBI, and NSA – uses a range of social media tools to create communities within the Intelligence Community. They use wikis to aggregate and share information, blogs to discuss common topics, and social tagging to organize large amounts of information. Conference presenters from the Intelligence Community say they are approaching the use of social media strategically, to create communities around topics, not by agencies.
The CDC sees social media as a key tool for improving health outcomes in the nation. For example, it uses “persuasive games” on-line to encourage children with cancer to comply with their prescription medicine regimes. It holds on-line dialogues around flu vaccination, and sponsors interactive on-line games for weight loss programs. It participates in a wide range of social networks, as well. CDC’s e-Marketing Director Janice Nall says CDC frames its social media strategies around four core principles. They must be: research-based, user-centered, performance-driven, and collaborative in nature.
The conference showcased other agencies that are also beginning to use social media, as well.
There are some immediate and long-term challenges. In order to expand the use of social media both in and by government, conference participants voiced a number of issues that need to be addressed. These include:
· To be useful, initiatives using social media to create communities (internal or external) need to be organized by topic, not by agency or program. The question becomes: who starts and who maintains such an effort when it reaches across agencies?
· Approaches to the use of social media need to be government-wide, not agency-centric. It’s not useful if each agency goes off and creates its own set of tools or efforts. The power is in the broader community, not the individual efforts. For example, the Intelligence Community’s social media efforts would have been largely ineffective if each of its 16 members had undertaken their own individual efforts.
· Institutional challenges to the expanded use of social media need to be addressed government-wide, not agency-by-agency. Otherwise the needed cross-agency collaboration on topics may be impossible if each agency develops its own solutions. These challenges include:
o Addressing the concerns of agency lawyers. There are legitimate questions about the implications surrounding the use of social media – especially if agencies create a presence on non-government websites – on records management, the issues around ownership of data, and the role of pre-internet laws such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Paperwork Reduction Act.
o Addressing the concerns of agency chief information officers. These include privacy and security, especially if citizens are invited to interact in forums hosted on government websites. One presenter at the conference noted: “the biggest nay-sayers were the IT and security folks who were concerned about letting people into their networks.”
o Addressing the concerns of public affairs officers. They are responsible for “managing the message” for each agency. There is a formal clearance process for conveying information to the public and Congress but that kind of process is impossible to comply with in an interactive, instantaneous, highly-distributed information environment.
Addressing these issues may not be able to wait for a new Administration because the world is moving too fast. But clearly these issues will face the new President’s team as he or she begins to craft how they will approach governing.