Using social media to enhance the federal mission


(LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
January 17, 2013

Tom Fox is a guest writer of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

When you read the words Instagram and Pinterest, do they appear to be a foreign language? Do you know a “hashtag” from a “handle”?

You’re not alone if some of these social media tools are new to you. Undoubtedly, you are familiar with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but you may not realize these tools can be used to improve your agency’s mission performance. Federal agencies use of digital platforms is far from standard. In fact, some employees are still prohibited from accessing social media sites on the job.

While it’s easy to write off social media as the playground of actors, athletes and the younger generation, savvy leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors are using this new technology to increase transparency, facilitate collaboration, share information and solve problems in ways unimaginable a few years ago.

My organization, the Partnership for Public Service, along with Booz Allen Hamilton examined some of our government’s most successful digital strategies at agencies including the State Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In the new report, “#ConnectedGov: Engaging Stakeholders in the Digital Age,” we offer tips to help you and your team take the plunge into the world of social media.

· Keep an eye on the mission. Don’t simply jump at the chance to use social media because it’s cool. To be effective, it has to be tied directly to your program mission and goals, with a clear understanding of how it will be used to support outcomes. Be strategic, ask your team members if social media will advance your project, program or agency, and think carefully about the benefits and drawbacks. Failure to act strategically can jeopardize successes and even cause unintended consequences.

The National Forest Service got it right when they developed the “Smokey Bear” app for campers and hikers with step-by-step instructions for building and maintaining a campfire, as one of the largest dangers in forests is unintended fires. Another, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s app, informs passengers how long the wait is between getting off their plane and clearing customs, helping to reduce air travelers’ stress and anxiety.

· Understand agency policies. The General Services Administration (GSA) provides clear guidelines on how to use social media without stepping on landmines. Be sure to check out their Web site, which has an abundance of how-to and best-practice information on what agencies are doing and how to get started. In addition, GSA has 62 agreements with social-media providers for government engagement with the public, including the recently added Pinterest where users create pinboards to organize and share images to create compelling visual stories.

· Determine your agency’s social-media structure. Agencies often debate who should control their Twitter and Facebook accounts, apps and other tools. If your agency is new to social media, the first decision is to decide if it should be centralized or decentralized. There are tradeoffs for both, and these decisions will affect how to move forward. Factors to consider include the size of your agency, diversity of missions, resources, expertise and geographic location of offices. One strategy for overcoming tensions might be to have a centralized Web site or app and encourage contributions from various employees. The Department of Energy solicits volunteers from across the agency to participate in video chats, enabling scientists to share their expertise without the worry over social-media management.

· Get agency senior leadership interested. Top leadership buy-in is important for allowing the freedom to innovate and for establishing a culture of acceptance. Some senior leaders “get” social media, but others may not. The fact that FEMA administrator Craig Fugate was active on Twitter enabled social-media pioneers at the agency to advance widespread use within FEMA quickly. Several approaches can help — demystify the tool, give leaders a stake in its success, and explain the benefits by using numbers and anecdotes.

· Measure wisely and creatively. While it can be difficult to measure the impact beyond the numbers of page views or comments, it’s crucial to focus on establishing measurable objectives. The Web analytics field continues to grow and some sites provide free analytics tools. For example, Facebook provides the number of “likes” and “shares,” and Twitter furnishes the number of followers and retweets. These analytics can be very powerful — an election victory photo of President and Michelle Obama, posted on Facebook in November, received 4 million “likes.”

After you launch your agency’s social media efforts, don’t be afraid to continue to develop, adapt and expand those efforts. Feel free to share some of your best practices in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

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