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Using social media for your federal agency

Federal agencies first began using social media as a public relations device to share news as well as organizational accomplishments, but many are increasingly using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and other channels to directly engage the public and provide better customer service.

One of my favorite stories is the Department of Education’s use of social media to answer questions on a monthly basis from students and parents. Using the hashtag #AskFAFSA, the department is directly engaging citizens' questions on Twitter about student aid forms and other college financing processes. It then captures all of the questions and answers on Storify, for those who may not have participated on Twitter but want to read through the reponses and educate themselves.

To communicate more directly with veterans and their family members about the benefits and services available to them, the Department of Veterans Affairs last year launched the #VetQ campaign. As part of the effort, the VA invites veterans’ services organizations, including the American Legion, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and Women Veterans Connect, to answer questions and highlight their own services offered. Topics of #VetQ questions range from health and disability benefits to VA home loans, the GI Bill and educational benefits.

If you are a manager and want to make use of social media, you need to work with your agency’s communications and social media teams to determine what you want to communicate, whom you want to reach and what you hope to accomplish. You also will need a plan on how you intend to build, engage and maintain your audience.

According to social media specialists in government, it is critical to have a clear understanding of how those accounts will be managed, who will be responsible and how content will be developed. If the format is informational and takes questions from citizens, you will need subject-matter experts to respond — and understand what they can and cannot say.

While it’s easy to be wowed by social media tools (especially new ones), you will more likely hurt rather than help your agency's outreach if you simply sign up for an account and use it poorly.

If the main thing you’re looking to do is spread a message, Facebook is often a great platform for easy connections and sharing. If you believe a picture is a worth a thousand words — and your work lends itself to some powerful visuals — check out Instagram. If you’re looking to engage in a conversation with citizens across the country, Twitter has proven to be a great tool. If you want to capture everything going on across your platforms, consider using Storify as a place to collect and share all of those conversations.

These approaches may sound overwhelming to those of us who remain something of social media neophytes, but many agencies are developing and employing creative strategies that allow them to better connect with the citizens they serve.

Whatever route you ultimately take, you need to be mindful that doing this right requires investing in staff time and budget (and a healthy dose of trust) to make social media work for your agency and the citizens you serve. Social media isn’t the future, it’s the present, and every agency would be wise to emulate the best practices of others in our federal government.

Please feel free to share your own experiences about using social media by leaving a comment below or by emailing me at I also recommend you check out DigitalGov and the U.S. Digital Services Playbook for more social media resources and best practices.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is a vice president at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.