Last week I had a chance to visit two separate government organizations and to discuss their social media policies and strategies. In both cases I run my usual test asking (1) how many people have a personal profile in either Facebook or LinkedIn, (2) how many disclose who their employer is and (3) how many have a disclaimer in their social media profile clearly stating that their presence there has nothing to do with their employer. As usual, no attendee passed the test.
However what emerged was a clear distinction between how most people use Facebook and how they use LinkedIn. The latter is clearly meant for professional use, while in the former few of them reveal their employer and limit its use only to their closest friends and acquaintances.
I found this intriguing, although understandable. People have the illusion of controlling the perimeter of their social media engagement, but make assumptions about what different platforms are that do not always match reality. In one of the meetings a self-confident attendee who seemed rather dismissive of my observations about the blurring boundaries between personal and professional proudly said that he has five different Internet identities, and is not even himself on Facebook. As I told him, he may wish to reflect on whether he is infringing Facebook’s and other platforms’ terms and conditions. Further, I am not sure he is setting a particularly good example in a government organization that is honestly trying to find effective ways to engage with the public.
In the second meeting, I had the pleasure of reviewing draft social media guidelines that, in spite of a few shortcomings, were addressing most of the thorniest issues related to social media use, from intellectual property to record retention, from the importance of setting participants’ expectations to the complexity of managing responses. The paper suggested a very interesting distinction between (1) a formal, official use of social media by authorized representatives of an agency, (2) a professional use, where employees are expected to make statements based on their professional expertise but without representing their agency; and (3) a personal use, where they would not touch at all any issue related to their professional role.
In an ideal world this distinction would work very well, but in reality while the official role can be clearly defined, the other two inevitably overlap. One very simple reason is that if an employee has a personal profile on a social media platform, he or she is very unlikely to be able to have another one that just covers the professional role.
And, while it is quite clear that they had in mind the demarcation between Facebook and LinkedIn, if the purpose of using social media is to engage with people, one cannot assume that everybody sees that boundary in the same way. As I have said many times, government cannot pretend to always control the pace and place of engagement, so if citizens feel they want to use Facebook or Twitter or Foursquare to debate an issue or collect information that can help government deliver services, that’s where government employees must make a “professional” use of those platforms.
The more I discuss with clients, the more it is clear that the communications angle of social media (i.e. the official use) is a very specific one, mostly detached from where social media will be used in the rest of government.
Or maybe not, if we look at social media as a means to an end. The objective for communications and public affairs officials is to reach out to multiple target audiences for information and engagement purposes. The objective for a case worker could be to better connect to the case subject. The objective for a police officer could be to be more effective at finding evidence of a crime. The objective for a procurement officer could be to gather early information about the performances of certain suppliers. And so forth. In all these cases, social media is one among many other tools that individual employees can use to do their job better.
So while politicians, experts, journalists, activists push for more transparency and citizen engagement as if this was a revolution, the priority is to turn social media from solutions in search of a problem into tools that employees can use to actually solve real problems.
It is not an either-or. All perspectives are required: the official presence on mainstream social media platforms; the provision of raw open data for people outside and inside government to develop new views, application and services; and the ability of employees to use these tools in the normal course of business, pretty much like they have been using email or a word processor for quite some time.