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Social Media in Government: Facing a Tsunami with a Teacup

By Andrea Di Maio | April 18, 2010 | 7 Comments

social networks in government

Last week I had a very interesting meeting with a US local authority that has been struggling for about six months with putting together a social media policy. The meeting was attended by a representative of their legal counsel, the CIO and some of his reports. Topics on the table were ranging from what to consider as a public record to how to manage comments on an official blog or official Facebook page, from how to deal with potential copyright infringements to who to authorize to represent the organization on social media.

As usual, I asked what was the main purpose for establishing an official presence on social media, and found out that their senior leadership wanted to respond to frequent attacks from disgruntled citizens who were complaining about the cost cutting measures that were affecting service levels.

They were visibly disappointed when I used a strong analogy by telling them that they are trying to face a tsunami (actually I qualified that they were not getting exactly clean water…) with a teacup. Establishing an official presence on any social media to pass messages is unlikely to do much to stop or slow down the tsunami. If they open those pages to comments, moderation may become a fulltime job for a team of people; if they do not open to comments, they would be accused not to be willing to really engage in a conversation. In a nutshell, they are probably going to lose, whatever they do with their own Facebook page.

I suggested that they need to go at the very root of where these social media attacks come from, identify who are the influencers, and engage on those people’s turf. The closer you are to the pipe that originates the tsunami, the easier it is to  partially contain (or at least understand) it. We also discussed what would be the best strategy between having senior leadership “officially” appear as commenting and responding on somebody else’s blog, Linked group or Facebook fan page, or encouraging individual employees or external supporters to participate in the discussion on a more “personal” basis, in order to make it more sociable and less formal. Last but not least, if they really feel compelled to do something on Facebook, why not picking up a specific, rather narrow topic and create a page dealing with that, rather than a general one?

During the rest of the week I had similar, although less dramatic, conversations with other government organizations that are thinking about a Facebook and Twitter presence. I suspect that over the next several weeks I will meet or have inquiries with quite a few whom I will try (most likely unsuccessfully) to talk out of the idea of creating an official Facebook page.

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  • Interesting!

    As if you were sitting with us in a similar meeting we had last week in UAE! although the purpose behind creating such policy is different but the discussion was very aligned with the points raised in your meeting (closed private network vs. leveraging FB and other open networks etc..) however, some interesting points were:

    – Every technology is based on a concept, the online social networking is based on the willingness to share and to be open and connected, so tackling the issue with a a traditional gov mindset to “regulate” might contradict with the whole concept and hence lead to a failure.

    – Similarly to the question you raised, we though that Instead of focusing on developing a “policy”, let’s think broader about a strategy that answers the basic questions such as why do we want to have a presence on these networks? how is it aligned with gov overall strategy? and we agreed that we should shift our thinking to leveraging these technology for the good of the gov and society instead of just formulating a “policy”…

    One good thing is that we had representatives of “citizens 2.0” (or the “tsunami”) in the meeting so you can imagine how lively was the discussion!

    Thanks for sharing…
    Ibrahim – Dubai, UAE

  • Mark Drapeau says:

    Representatives of large organizations rarely want to get “intimate” with actual fans, or detractors. They thing that a semi-anonymous online interface can solve their problems. They are wrong.

  • Privacy and Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) differs from country to country but every (governmental) organization need to have a policy that is “simple” and clear however difficult that might be. I wonder if organizations have much “internal” debate about the difference between archiving (audit trail of internal communication) and journalizing (recording documents and communications that is material to FOIA) and how that relates to the open social media platforms like Faceboom, LinkedIN and Twitter?

  • Respectfully disagree.

    In five years, every government agency in the democratic world will operate in social cyberspace. *That* is the “tsunami.” The change won’t occur because agencies are now rushing whole-heartedly into social media–on the contrary, most government agencies are absurdly inert and defensive in their online engagements. Most agency “social” pages do little than offer conventional push content. Is this sufficient? Clearly not. Is it encouraging? Absolutely.

    “Don’t do it today, because you might do it wrong,” is the worst possible advice to offer an agency public affairs department. It reinforces all of management’s uninformed paranoid preconceptions and imposes a nontrivial burden on future agency outreach efforts.

    Change will come because constituents demand it. The suggestion that the whole of society will move information transfer operations online, but that government won’t, is a fundamental misreading of an important question. *Of course* government agencies need to be in the social space, and the sooner the better. Agencies moving into social cyberspace now, no matter how haphazard their initial engagement, will possess profound advantages over their peers down the line.

  • Andrea, you present yet another example of public organizations gravitating towards “negativity” as their motivation behind implementing or resisting the use of social technologies. Ultimately, I believe that the harder question resides with cultural impact. Citizens don’t always know precisely how they want to access their government and government often isn’t ready for the increase in access that Open Government provides. Before tactical responses happening on the citizens’ turf happen (very good advice), I hope more public servants will also look at how Social will impact culture and process and prepare for a sustainable shift rather than short-term, real-time responsiveness only. Your Tsunami and Teacup reference is appropriate from several angles, another nice post.

  • Jeffrey Levy says:

    I agree (as usual) with most of what you said, Andrea. Creating a general FB page isn’t going to address people who are specifically upset about one thing.

    But I think many people focus too much on the strategy and not enough on learning by doing. I’ve watched an amazing transformation at EPA. Two years ago, our chief of staff called launcghing our blog the stupidest idea he’d ever heard, although he let it go forward. From that, we’ve learned how to moderate, senior people have learned the world doesn’t come crashing down because we allow a negative comment, etc.

    Now, as we move into more policy-related efforts, I use those experiences to calm fears.

    So my advice to the agency you mentioned might have paralleled yours, but then diverged to say “with the excellent points Andrea made in mind, go ahead and try a broad-interest Facebook page. Not to respond to your planned audience, but to learn how to be comfortable using social media.”

    @Mark: I often talk about the gold standard and the tin standard. Posting our blog headlines to Twitter via RSS is tin std. stuff – no real engagement, but it does put us where people are. I think everyone focuses too much on the gold std. and ignores the benefits of being out there, even at a low level of engagement.

  • And then on the other side of the coin, there are the corporations and workplaces that want to block employee access to social media apps altogether.

    If yours is one, there’s a helpful whitepaper on the subject. It’s called “To Block or Not. Is that the question?”

    It has lots of insightful and useful information about identifying and controlling Enterprise 2.0 apps (Facebook, Twitter, Skype, SharePoint, etc.)

    Blocking doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” proposition.