Avoiding 'cliff jumpers' and other tips for effective social-media use at agencies

Tuesday - 1/8/2013, 5:06pm EST

While social media has permeated nearly all aspects of American life, in many corners of the government, employees and managers are still figuring out how Facebook, Twitter and a host of other digital technologies can help them do their jobs better.

"In government today, there are pockets of excellence and innovation where agency programs have incorpo­rated social media and digital applications into their ev­eryday operations and are reaping the benefits," a new report on the use of social media in government states. "However, use of digital platforms is by no means standard across government. In fact, some federal employees are still prohibited from even accessing social media sites."

The report, "#ConnectedGov: Engaging Stakeholders in the Digital Age," a collaboration of the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton, aims to examine how agencies are using social media and technology to further their agencies' goals and missions.

It's not that the federal managers are complete Luddites. All Cabinet-level agencies now have both Facebook and Twitter accounts, and agencies have created more than 1,300 mobile applications, according to the report.

But beyond the mere fact of social-media presence, there are varying levels of effective social-media use across government.

"It is not enough to flip a switch and log on to social media," the report cautioned. "To be effective, program managers need to think strategically about how to use social media to support agency mission and achieve program outcomes."

The report highlighted case studies of effective social-media practices.

Energy deploys internal wiki

The decentralized hierarchy of national laboratories at the Energy Department, paired with a geographically dispersed workforce and the absence of a central intranet system had long hindered employee collaboration, the report found.

So the department rolled out an internal wiki site, "Powerpedia," departmentwide in early 2010 to bolster communication between employees working on similar projects.

The wiki now hosts about 15,000 discrete pages and fields as many as 700 edits a day, according to the report.

NARA goes straight to Wikipedia

Agencies, however, don't only deploy social media internally. Part of the promise of social media is leveraging networks of outside groups and individuals.

When the National Archives began work on transcribing millions of historical records and documents as the first step toward digitization, the agency decided to tap a specialized base of public volunteers — Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia site attracts committed teams of contributors, who research, write and verify articles. And the site draws millions of visitors — the entry for the "United States" article received 900 million page views in 2011, 53 times the amount of visitors to Archives.gov's entire database of documents, the report stated.

Archives has uploaded some 13,000 images to Wikipedia, and volunteers have transcribed and verified about 400 such documents.

FEMA's Facebook strategy

Another case study presents what happens when agencies provide vital government services to the public via social media. FEMA, led by Craig Fugate, a prolific Twitter user, has been a leader in this area, providing important information during weather emergencies, such as Superstorm Sandy last fall.

The report singled out FEMA's efforts using Facebook to coordinate emergency-relief operations following a series of devastating tornadoes that struck Aalabama in April 2011.

The official site, which replaced a group of ad hoc sites created by locals, eventually garnered 4,000 followers and provided key recovery information to the storm's victims, the report noted.

Beware the "cliff jumpers"

As social media continues to pervade the government, managers should use their agencies' missions as a compass point.

Social media use should always advance an agency's goals in the long run, the report said, and forward-thinking agency managers should beware of "cliff jumpers," who "leap to use social media" without a clear understanding of what goals it will help accomplish.

"People might 'cliff jump' just to create an account and seem trendy, but there can be unintended consequences," the report warned. "For ex­ample, if a Facebook or Twitter page is not deployed strategically, it might be updated for a few weeks and then be left unattended, making an agen­cy or program look unresponsive and the website outdated."

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