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Should Governments Use Consumer Tools for Social Networking? – Continued

By Andrea Di Maio | April 24, 2009 | 0 Comments

social networks in government

Yesterday I posted a conversation with a colleague about whether government organizations (and parliaments in particular) should use consumer social media also for internal purposes.

I thought I’d share the rest of our email conversation, as I suspect this is quite exemplary of discussions several government clients are having.

Here is what my colleague said:

If this discussion is about what social networking collaborations should be out in the open and which should not, then it’s a good dialogue that I have plenty of flexibility on.  I do believe in open government and dialogue between citizens and the government … and using tools that consumers are already comfortable with makes a lot of sense.
If, on the other hand, you’re arguing that “all social networking collaborations in the government sector” should be in the open, then I must say we do have ourselves a debate.  This is an extreme position that I just don’t think can work in the real world.
Can citizen-citizen or citizen-employee social networking be done on consumer platforms … of course.
Can even government employee-employee collaborations be there … some of it, yes.
Are consumer platforms, however, the right place for “all” employee-employee collaborations?  I posit absolutely not.
Classified subjects and people are the obvious case and point examples.  To suggest that such sensitive subject could be acceptably done in open consumer platforms, today or any time in the future, is just not realistic, for so many reasons (that I won’t go into here as it’s a good exercise for the reader). 
I’m completely on board that the collaboration platforms used for various collaborations today is way too fractured already, and a disconnect between them (technical or subject matter) makes things more difficult for users.  However, that doesn’t mean that all collaborations must be done in one place … or out in the open for governments.
Social network technology and industry is still in its infancy in many ways.  It’s a toolset that most people just throw out there generically (“here, collaborate y’all”) and sometimes it sticks and sometimes it doesn’t … most of the time it doesn’t.
This is what I meant when I said that most social networking sites out there just don’t have “a hard purpose” … essentially anything goes … and as such, anything, and consequently “nothing” of hard value is what happens.  Most organizations have a hard time justifying such value propositions.
But that doesn’t mean that there are no solid social networking value propositions … it just means that social networking hasn’t generally matured yet to the point where there are mission critical “applications” sitting on top of social networking platforms.  There are some, but relatively few.
IMO, security / privacy sensitive government employee-employee mission critical social networking / collaboration “applications”, built on “social networking platforms”, will have to be behind the “government firewalls”, for obvious reasons.  Unless, of course, we believe that social networking technologies are not appropriate for mission critical subjects / tasks (which I don’t agree with)?

I must also point out, however, that individuals using social networking sites vs. corporations doing so are horses of a different color.  For example, I’m sure that everyone on this thread is aware that Facebook tried to change T’s & C’s of their service a few months ago (actually, they did change them, but then undid the change).  They essentially decided that they had all rights to the content uploaded to their site.  The new T’s & C’s only lasted about a week or so before they pulled it back, but, if they didn’t, it would have meant that if an associate, for example, uploaded the company logo to Facebook, Facebook would have all the rights to our logo.  That would not be a good thing.
This may be less of an issue for governments, but uploading corporate data to “consumer sites” may have unanticipated consequences.  For governments to pick one consumer site over another is also a potentially sticky situation …
We’re in the infancy of this field, but these early decisions could have interesting long term ramifications for firms or governments … having firms or governments just go out and use consumer sites it is no different than using open source without thinking it through and understanding potential ramifications if not done right … the Facebook example shows how things could get sticky very quickly.

Actually, my colleague and I do not disagree at all. It is quite clear that some – and in certain domains most – areas of collaboration will have to remain behind the firewall. The only aspect on which there is a different viewpoint maybe is on the ability to draw clear boundaries between the two categories.

Here is my reply:

I never said that consumer social software should be used for all collaborations. But for those that require those boundaries to be blurred (i.e. employees need to access external knowledge for whatever reason), then using an enterprise platform may significantly reduce the potential.
I fully agree that employee-to-employee communication will have to stay behind the firewall in a number of areas. But what we are trying to flag to our clients, is that those boundaries will blur more and more.
Although we are not a government organization, we have the same issue in Gartner. I am getting now some of the most interesting leads for some of my research from personal connections through LinkedIn and Facebook. We have blogs that link with external blogs and generate a discussion that help create better research. The next obvious step will be for some of our peer review to take place in the open. Now, while for corporations like ours one important boundary is intellectual property, this is less of an issue for public sector organizations. So, while I am not saying that any citizen personal data will flow across the firewall soon (but ultimately will – see Google Health etc), boundaries will become much more fluid than they are today.
Few examples. Human services workers who tap into social networks offering financial support or child care to people in need. Job center professionals responsible for re-employing people who use LinkedIn etc to help their case subjects. Police investigators who tap into crime evidence posted on Flickr or YouTube. Tax auditors performing a fraud audit based on chatter on Facebook or photographic evidence from Google Maps. The US Treasury trying to figure out how the bailout money is being used by banks by tapping into social networks grouping bank customers. Or the OMB and US Federal CIO launching a one-week online consultation to involve IT vendors and normal people in helping them design
All the above looks pretty mission critical to me. Consumer social networks will get their way from the outside in. And it will be interesting to watch how much is left for enterprise social software vendors in that vertical.

I entirely agree that people have to more cognizant of terms and conditions for social networking sites and the Facebook example is an excellent one (it will be interesting to see what happens now that they’ve engaged their users in voting on different T & Cs). My contention though is that – as you say –  for information that is classified as public, this is less of an issue for governments. It is far better to try out (within the boundaries of a fair use policy that several clients of ours are developing) rather than looking at these as insurmountable constraints and then being stuck with internally procured solutions that citizens (as well as employees) won’t utilize.

Certainly an interesting debate, that we will continue internally as well as with our clients.

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