Success with Web 2.0 requires risk

7 keys to social-media sucess in government

Social-media gurus often sound like Zen masters when they try to explain their discipline to initiates or skeptics.

To take control, give up the illusion of control.

Learn from your audience and embrace the unexpected.

Failure is one of the surest signs of success.

Social-media pioneers and proponents from government, academia and industry gathered in Williamsburg, Va., last month at the Government Leadership Summit, which was sponsored by the 1105 Government Information Group, the parent company of Federal Computer Week.

Many of their conversations focused on the paradoxical nature of tools like Twitter and Facebook. It’s not that social media defies logic, like a Zen riddle. But its logic does not necessarily fit easily into government’s traditional models of governance.

Agencies typically take a top-down approach to deploying new applications, with a central office providing the resources and defining specific rules of engagement. That won’t cut it with social media, which works best at the grass-roots of an organization.

Successful deployments involve a push-pull balance between the two. Agency officials need to define basic goals and parameters for the use of social media, but they also need to let an application take on a life of its own.

This way of thinking is a challenge for the federal workforce, said Robert Carey, chief information officer of the Navy Department and one of the first federal CIOs to have an official blog. Some guidance might be needed “to get us out of this very bureaucratic structure into a more collaborative, flat environment,” Carey said.

Here is a choice selection of the adages and advice offered by the experts at last month’s conference.

Take control by giving up control

The beauty of social media is that anyone anywhere can say anything, which is exactly what some executives worry about.

In social networking, “people communicate in a way that matters to them, not in a way that matters to the enterprise,” said Barry Libert, author of “Barack, Inc.: Winning Business Lessons of the Obama Campaign.”

This is especially a concern when organizations interact with the public, said Charlene Li, a business consultant and author of “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies.”

Top leaders, in addition to their communications specialists, do not like the idea of giving up control over their message, Li said. But the fact is, organizations that deal with the public — with or without social media — never really have control what people hear or say. So they are not giving up control, simply the illusion of control, she said.

Some leaders also worry about the possibility of scandal. What if people were to post comments that were abusive, obscene or otherwise offensive? You cannot control what people post, but you can let people control themselves, said Mark Oehlert, innovation evangelist at the Defense Acquisition University.

One approach is to invite users to rate comments, with poorly rated comments being pushed to the bottom of the pile. In most cases, the abusive commenters will get discouraged and go away. If not, they can be blocked. “People will create the rules,” Oehlert said.

Keep the finger off the policy panic button

In the minds of some managers, social media is a technology just begging for new policies.

“Social media brings a lot of change, and with that change come fear, uncertainty and doubt,” said Emma Antunes, an information technology specialist in the Office of the Chief Information Officer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

And the common response to fear, uncertainty and doubt is to crank out policy that defines what can and cannot be said and done, she said. But agencies already have policies on the appropriate use of technology, and they have policies on what can and cannot be published online.

“Previously, we educated our webmasters about publishing rules,” Antunes said. “Now we just have a whole new population to educate, because everyone can publish.”

Carey said he believes agencies might need to create new policies to guide how their employees use these new technologies. But “guide” is the operative term. “The policies have to based on [the idea that] we trust our folks,” he said.

Most policies are based on mistrust, he said. Social networking, which puts a premium on open collaboration, “basically throws that paradigm out the door,” Carey said.

Brace for, and embrace, the unexpected

NASA was certainly surprised by the results of an online public contest to name a new module of the International Space Station.

More than 230,000 people wrote in the name Colbert, compared to just 40,000 votes for the runner-up name, Serenity. Those results were engineered by comedian Stephen Colbert, who used his nightly talk-show spoof to rally audience support for his cause.

This was not what NASA officials had in mind when they conceived of this contest, but that was not necessarily a bad thing, said Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Courtesy of Colbert’s campaign, and the subsequent appearance of a NASA official on Colbert’s show, NASA received a lot of great publicity, she said.

“You just have to understand that there will be unexpected ‘opportunities’ that social media will give you,” Holm said. NASA went ahead and named the station Tranquility -- in honor of the touchdown site of Apollo 11 -- but they gave Colbert’s name to an on-station exercise machine — a result he accepted with his usual false self-acclaim. In other words, thanks to NASA, he got another laugh out of it, which is his show’s primary objective.

Such is the price of democracy-by-Internet. “Society is going to become more volatile, not less volatile, because people now have a voice and they are going to use it,” Libert said.

Relinquish your pride in your own expertise

Federal officials like to think that when it comes to government data, agencies have a monopoly on subject-matter experts. The public begs to differ.

The National Academy of Public Administration recently worked with several agencies to conduct a national online dialogue about how to use technology to make recovery act spending more transparent to the public.

One point was clear: No one was interested in waiting around for government analysts to vet the data and grind out reports.

“The biggest push from the people was to get the raw data out to the people,” said Lena Trudeau, program area director for strategic initiatives at NAPA. Given that data, “they would innovate with it in a way we could never conceive.”

Federal officials would be wise to actively tap into the public's expertise to solve specific problems, she said.

Everything you know about productivity is wrong

Managers love to talk up the productivity problems that would come with social networking. The theory goes that staffers will be so busy updating their Facebook or Twitter accounts, no one will get any work done.

Oehlert flips that argument on its head. “There are productivity risks in not allowing people to access these tools,” he said.

He figures it this way: If asked a question he can’t answer, he will turn to his online network of experts and find someone more knowledgeable. If that network were not available, he would arrive at the answer eventually, but it would take much longer.

Officials at the Office of Citizen Services took the plunge more than a year ago, setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts and arranging training for employees. “In our office, it’s mandatory,” said Martha Dorris, OCS' deputy associate administrator.

They had an ulterior motive beyond employee engagement. Having seen the success that President Barack Obama was having with the technology on the campaign trail, they realized that change was coming, and they wanted their employees to be prepared.

“You can’t really apply [social media] to the business unless you understand the power of the technology,” Dorris said.

Same employees, new job descriptions

Obama’s idea of making the recovery act spending more transparent to the public through the Recovery.gov Web site signals a major change for the acquisition community.

Acquisition staff members spend a lot of their time focused on compliance issues, ensuring that any given procurement is in line with whatever regulation or statutes that might apply. In this new environment, that will change.

Now, with Recovery.gov and similar transparency initiatives, they have a new job: collaboration. And not just with vendors, as might be expected, but with the public at large, said Edward O’Hare, assistant commissioner for IT services at the General Services Administration's Federal Acquisition Service.

That is no small undertaking, O’Hare said. It won’t be enough to provide them with the tools and training. “We need to give them the space to enter into that collaboration,” O’Hare said.

Don’t underestimate the extent to which social media could change how employees work.

That’s why Oehlert suggests bringing human resource managers to the table. “If we are going to change your job, we better change the way you are assessed,” he said.

Fail early, fail often

Finally, to make matters more complicated, one of the best measures of success might be failure, experts say.

Social media is about building and extending relationships between an organization and its constituency. If you take the technology seriously, you always will be looking to push the bounds of those relationships and foster deeper levels of engagement. And the fact is, “you take a risk by pushing a relationship forward,” Li said. “You have to get used to that.”

So prepare for failure, literally. When developing an initiative, managers should try to imagine five to 10 worst-case scenarios and come up with plans for mitigating or responding if they come to pass. The goal is to “fail fast and fail smart,” Li said.

To soften the blow, she reminds people yet again that a social media initiative is a relationship: “How many of you have perfect relationships?”

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