Blog post

Could Facebook or Twitter Have No Business Value for Government?

By Andrea Di Maio | January 14, 2011 | 11 Comments

social networks in government

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a couple of clients from a US federal agency. The topic was how to make the best possible use of Facebook and Twitter to better serve and interact with specific constituencies (mostly businesses).

As they went through their current experience (like many agencies, they have multiple Facebook pages), I could hear their frustration in sharing how their best intention of engaging with the public had turned out to attract mostly negative comments. While they are honestly trying to make an institutional use of social media, they are having a hard time.

They are not alone. There is a big and disappointingly growing distance between the enthusiastic claims of government 2.0 supporters and the real experience of government agencies in the trenches.

All those who believe this just a cynical view should reflect about how they behave on social media in their relationships with service providers, such as an airline, a consumer technology retailer, a bank. We rarely post on their pages to compliment them for their service or product, but we are quite quick in criticizing when something goes wrong. After all, this is not dissimilar from traditional media: an alleged criminal gets his picture and name on the front page when he is arrested, but just a small article in the back pages (if any) when – weeks or months later – he is cleared from all charges.

Government agencies are a big and easy target for criticism, both founded and unfounded. It is questionable whether spending time and money moderating and responding to negative comments on an agency’s own virtual turf is a wise use of public money.

Unfortunately, social media cannot be ignored. It is one of those areas where you are damned if you join, and damned if you don’t. Elected officials and political leaders use social media to connect to their constituencies, so agencies have to. Too late for second thoughts.

However countless examples that I have heard over the last two years seem to indicate that there is little value in establishing an institutional presence on Facebook, Twitter or other mainstream social media platforms, unless there is a narrowly defined purpose to do so, and that purpose is clearly connected to a problem to solve or a mission priority.

Government social media strategies need to be deeply revised, rebalancing the institutional, professional and personal presence, looking at examples of agencies that have taken the right steps,  focusing on how to make a social web presence relevant, and using the right combination of tools and approaches.

Gartner clients are welcome to re-read a couple of old research notes (client login required) that may help formulate a more focused approach:

Comments are closed


  • Cliff Tyllick says:

    Andrea, you have a good point — governmental agencies cannot afford to take social media lightly. But that doesn’t mean they should slow their entry into Twitter, Facebook, and similar venues.

    It just means that each agency needs to consider the risks and opportunities involved. After all, Twitter, for example, is out there. If someone wants to use Twitter to complain about an agency, nothing is stopping them from doing so, even if their complaint is unfounded or misguided.

    But the only thing that stops the agency from responding to that complaint would be that agency’s failure to consider what kinds of conversations it is willing to have on Twitter, what type of response would be appropriate, and what resources the agency should devote to making that response.

    It isn’t as if there is a publisher and a team of editors deciding whether the vindication should get the same attention as did the allegation.

    The playing field is there. No one is stopping you from entering. Learn the game, choose the right team, and then play as well as you can.

  • @Cliff – I do agree. But what I am saying is that they also have to choose the right playground. And that may be somebody else’s rather than their own Facebook pages.

  • Andrea,
    Social media are of course not the panacea that he advocates sometimes claim, but just another channnel which cannot be ignored. The channel mix is getting more complicated, so finding the “right playground” can only come about by experimenting. Good question is whether it is possible by now to summarize experience into do’s en don’ts? Matt

  • There is an interesting debate going in The Netherlands about crisiscommunication and social media. During a recent big fire at a chemical plant, the absence of official information via social media was rightly criticised, especially so as the national crisis website was down. This compared unfavourably to the Australian desaster communication via social media. See my blog at

  • @Matt – We published a note on “Government 2.0: Do’s and Don’ts” ( – client access required). Interestingly enough it is not one with the best ratings by our readers. I suspect that many are not prepared yet to accept that they cannot drive social media engagement, but have to participate on somebody else’s playground first. Everybody is OK with experimenting, but on their own virtual turf. Which is why most do and will fail.

  • Leah Stone says:

    It is true that often a business’ social media site can be the dumping ground for complaints from their customers, but that does not make it a failure. Quite the opposite. This is information the company didn’t have before. You can’t correct a problem unless you know about it. By receiving the criticisms you would otherwise miss, you can turn an unhappy customer you are about to lose, to a life-long customer who knows the company does their best to fix issues.

    On the other hand, if you are a business that is only racking up complaints and rants and cant do anything about it, then you have deeper issues and you now know you need to work in it…

    This applies to Government entities as well. It opens doors you may not yet understand. So you get results that you didnt expect. Fantastic, because innovation comes from “huh, that’s funny” moments more often than “Ah ha!”.

  • Andrea, having spent the past three years consulting with government agencies (mostly DoD) about the responsible and effective use of social media tools and collaborative principles, I hear many of the same frustrations and disillusionment that you’ve expressed.

    I have two responses. First, people don’t trust institutions, they trust PEOPLE. More specifically, they trust people whom they KNOW — with whom they have relationships. Social media is inherently social. It is a platform that facilitates trusted relationships.

    Second, I’d argue that government agencies are approaching the social media space in a far too obtuse manner. Having an individual (or small team) “representing” an agency’s many missions, programs and directorates makes no sense. Social media public affairs officers are not the subject matter experts who can engage in great depth on each and every topic relevant to every program office throughout an agency.

    Government agencies have, for the most part, been too centralized in their approach to social media participation. (This is not a surprise given their top-down organizational structures.) While guidelines and policies should be consistent and govern an entire agency/department, social media participation will only be successful when agencies take a distributed–not a hierarchical–approach that empowers those at the lowest levels to engage and participate in the discourse. There are too many niche missions and areas of specialization for The Department to have one voice and, simultaneously, valuable and meaningful relationships with all of its Twitter “folllowers” and Facebook “friends”.

  • @Maxine – You hit the nail on the head. Excessive centralization and desire to control is the main issue. Not sure how easy is for them to overcome this though. And there are way too many consultants who keep telling them that they need ONE social media strategy…

  • Ed Milligan says:

    Maxine, great response that succinctly articulates the direction government (to included DoD) must take. Without this direction and follow-through government relevance with many of our National challenges will lose importance/credibility.

    One thing that remains consistent…change! Communications began its evolution when we defined the requirement as “a means of communicating between geographically separated people.” Messengers on horseback, smoke signals, hand signs, carrier pigeon, USPS, telegraph, telephone, fax, IRC Chat, email…..there’s no stopping the transformation!

    What is the saying for the Air Force? “Flexibility is the Key to Air Power” I think we should come up with a Fed motto – bumper sticker summary of the attitude we must adopt to remain a leader in IT-enabled communications.

    Mr. Kundra, how about sponsoring a contest for the slogan. This may help get people thinking about the issue.

  • Teri Centner says:

    @Andrea You said in your response to Maxine that too many consultants are telling agencies they need ONE social media strategy. To some extent, I do believe that’s a true statement. (I believe that’s what Maxine was saying, when she wrote “…guidelines and policies should be consistent and govern an entire agency/department…”)

    It’s the excessive desire to control part that’s the issue. As Maxine also said, “…social media participation will only be successful when agencies take a distributed… approach that empowers those at the lowest levels to engage and participate in the discourse”

    In otherwords, each agency should have centralized guidance, but de-centralized execution.

  • @Teri – Centralized guidance as far as policy, yes. But I have a hard time at seeing how a “strategy” could be centralized. Each agency has several objectives and various processes and activities that contribute to those objectives. The use of social media should be determined by those who are in charge of those processes and activities. The best analogy is: do we need to have an agency Internet use strategy? or an email use strategy? What we need is a policy, setting the parameters for fair use, but the tool is going to be used is up to the individual.