Social Media in the Government – Part 2

by Stuart Ridgway, Original Music for Film and Television

This article is Part 2 of the Social Media in the Government series. This is a reprint of an article I published May 18, 2010. Social Media has a evolved a little bit since then so don’t be surprised if some of the material is a little out of date. 😉

~ Collaborative Tools ~

Wikis

Wikis are online encyclopedias that enable the easy creation, editing, and linking of web pages. Typically, wikis are created to enable multiple contributors to capture knowledge and share information about a specific subject. That knowledge is then searchable from the wiki’s search engine using a web browser. The most famous wiki is Wikipedia but wikis do not have to be public and can be confined to a select group if required.

Visitors to a wiki are granted various levels of access: read, write, edit, or publish depending upon their permissions. For example, a team of content creators may be allowed to read, write, and edit pages but only a handful of administrators may be allowed to publish those pages. This enables the team to collaboratively contribute and capture knowledge but allow only one person to approve the final product.

The state of California has a best practices wiki that enables state agencies to learn about, adapt, and apply tools and processes that have worked in public programs. State employees can submit best practices directly onto the wiki as well as view and search for other best practices throughout California’s government. Participants are encouraged to provide comments which fosters an atmosphere of collaboration.

Takeaway: Government agencies can use wikis to tap into the wide knowledge base that their employees and constituents have. Participation among agency stakeholders is highly encouraged. Instead of keeping knowledge trapped within various silos of an agency, a wiki provides a platform for making that knowledge more readily available.

Requirements: The agency must first determine who will be able to create, edit and publish content as well as whether or not the wiki will be publicly accessible. An agency should establish a workflow to facilitate the creation and editing processes.

Wikis are specialized web pages and therefore require dedicated software to support them. PBwiki, Socialtext, and Wikia are examples of such software.

Ideation Tools

Ideation tools are specialized web pages that provide at platform for collecting ideas from a group of stakeholders. Typically the sponsor, such as an agency, asks a question and accepts feedback. Visitors can submit ideas, discuss and refine others’ ideas, and vote the best ones to the top. This is an efficient way to quickly surface the best ideas regarding a specific topic.

Additionally, the agency can assign a status to each idea. For example, an idea could be “under consideration,” “implemented,” or “declined.” This demonstrates to the stakeholders that the agency is indeed listening.

The White House created the Open Government Dialogue in 2009 when soliciting the most important ideas relating to open government from the public. Visitors were offered several questions to consider regarding open government. They were then given the opportunity to vote existing ideas up or down and submit their own. After the polls were closed, the White House categorized the most popular ideas giving the public a succinct picture of the most important open government issues.

Takeaway: Government agencies can use idea exchanges to easily and efficiently solicit straightforward feedback from its stakeholders.

Requirements: Ideation tools are not built for in depth discussion. Instead, the agency will need to distill the issue into a simple question to which stakeholders can provide feedback. Furthermore, an agency should have moderators on hand to review submissions for appropriateness as well as to assign statuses to ideas.

Ideation tools are specialized web pages and therefore require dedicated software to support them. UserVoice and IdeaScale are examples of such software.

Forums

Forums are specialized web pages that allow multiple visitors to discuss a topic. The forum area of a website has multiple “boards” that pertain to a variety of broad topics. Each board has multiple “threads” where discussions on narrow topics take place. Each thread consists of several “messages” that are submitted by any number of visitors and comprise the discussion.

Because each message is completely open-ended, visitors can thoroughly discuss a topic. Additionally, visitors can rate a message or a thread based on how relevant it is to a topic. This helps visitors who are new to the board determine which threads they should read.

The Business.gov online Community has seven boards in its Discuss Popular Topics forum. Small business owners are encouraged to search the boards for answers to their questions. If they don’t find exactly what they can need, they can start a new thread in the relevant board by posting a message with their question.

Takeaway: Government agencies can use forums to provide a platform for its stakeholders to discuss open-ended issues. Forums are one of the most objective forms of feedback. By gauging the tone of messages and threads, an agency can better understand the sentiment of its stakeholders.

Requirements: Because forums allow for such open-ended discussion, an agency should have moderators on hand to review submissions for appropriateness. Threads can easily drift off topic or, more seriously, become rants. The topic for each board should be broad enough to allow multiple threads of conversation but not so broad as to become a free-for-all. Moderators must be well trained to understand how to diplomatically keep threads on-topic.

Furthermore, the agency should clearly state the goals of the forum. Is the forum being used to allow stakeholders to discuss issues and come to consensus? Is it to enable the agency to take the pulse of its constituents? Is it a tool for decision makers to narrow down the obstacles constraining various issues?

Forums are specialized web pages and therefore require dedicated software to support them. Lithium, Jive and Ning are examples of such software.

Facebook

Facebook is a commercial social networking website where members connect with their friends, exchange information and share multimedia such as photos and videos. There are several other commercial social networking sites such as LinkedIn and MySpace. For government agencies, Facebook and LinkedIn have become the most popular and work similarly.

Members of Facebook set up a profile with information about themselves. In the case of an agency, the profile may contain information about the department hosting the Facebook profile, relevant URLs, as well as contact information. Members also have a “wall” which is a specialized web page that allows other members who are “friends” to post news about themselves and comment on other posts.

Similar to Twitter, agencies can use their own Facebook wall to post recent news, information about policy updates, and other important messages that coincide with its public relations. Unlike Twitter, the Facebook wall is not limited to 140 characters.

Agencies can also create “group” and “fan” pages on Facebook. Depending upon the agency’s needs, it can use these pages to:

  • Host discussion forums
  • Send message to all of its members or fans
  • Collect metrics on visitors
  • Host videos and photos
  • Create events

As a result, the agency can host in one place multiple interactions with its constituents. Furthermore, these interactions are available to the public as well as all of the agency’s “friends.” As such, one post from the agency that provides information and answers can reach an enormous number of people.

Takeaway: Government agencies can use Facebook as a centralized location for many of their social media strategies. They can use it as a means to support all of their messaging, such as Twitter and blogging, in addition to more traditional channels.

Requirements: An agency must actively maintain and moderate its Facebook pages. If the content is outdated, then visitors are less likely to return or recommend the pages to their network. Additionally, because Facebook allows visitors to comment and have discussions, an agency should have moderators on hand to review submissions for appropriateness.

Final Considerations

Social media tools can bring a new level of excitement to an agency’s web presence.

Nevertheless, there are several final considerations that an agency must take into account before deploying a social media effort.

Top trafficked social media sites according to Alexa

Why Do It At All? Agencies often resist pursuing a social media strategy because they do not want to expose themselves to public criticism on their own website. However, dissatisfied constituents will always find a way to publicly criticize an agency if they desire. Therefore, it may make more sense for the agency to host those discussions in order to better manage the responses and the possible fallout.

Cost: Many of the tools are free which eases the burden of procuring them. Nevertheless, the human resources required to continually vitalize these tools are not free. An agency will need to create a robust plan for supporting them long term. Apps.gov provides a list of products approved by GSA.

Terms of Service (TOS): GSA has negotiated Terms of Service with several social media companies. These TOS address terms with which the federal government cannot comply, such as arbitrating breaches of the agreement in a State court. The Web Content Managers Forum has more information.

PRA: The Paperwork Reduction Act can be triggered depending upon the kind and the amount of information that a social media tool collects, especially if it requires a visitor to register and login. The agency will need to review its current PRA to determine if the new tool falls within its purview. OMB has released the Social Media, Web-Based Interactive Technologies guidance PDF to help clarify these issues.

Participation Policies: As mentioned above, visitors are allowed and encouraged to leave feedback about the agency, discuss issues, and comment on the content. Because the tools allow for open-ended responses, the agency’s moderator must continually review visitor feedback to ensure that the feedback is appropriate.

Nevertheless, the agency should be careful not to censor visitors. As such, the agency should provide conspicuous notice of the policies it has for use of its social media tools. For example, the policy should contain rules of conduct that prohibit irrelevant, commercial, abusive, or vulgar posts.

508 Compliance: Not all social media tools comply with Section 508 regulations of the Rehabilitation Act. It is incumbent upon the agency to ensure that all of the tools it uses comply.

Measure its Success: Social media tools are notoriously difficult to measure the return on investment. Part of the implementation plan for each tool should include goals and the metrics that will support those goals that ultimately further the agency’s mission. Furthermore, the agency should consider the benefits of each tool it employs such as furthering its messaging, improving public relations, and empowering its constituents.

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