Government waking up to social media, survey finds

But some feds still don't even know what it is

Social media use is growing in the U.S. government, but it continues to lag behind the private sector. A report released this spring found that although many agencies used Web 2.0 applications for public outreach, there had been few attempts to adopt the tools for internal use. But the study also found that the situation is changing as federal organizations scramble to meet new rules mandating the use of social media.

The study was conducted by Market Connections, a research firm that serves the public sector and commercial firms contracting with the government. Growing customer interest in social media prompted the firm to commission a study of social media trends in the federal government, said John Kagia, director of custom research services at Market Connections.

The report consisted of three stages: a series of interviews with senior executives in the contractor community and two concurrent studies targeting decision-makers in the private and public sectors. The surveys examined how federal and corporate audiences used social media tools, where the challenges and priorities lay with social media, where social media stood relative to other sources of information and communication, what kinds of investments the organizations were making, and what tools they used.

A key finding was that government use of social media is still quite low while its use is higher in the contractor community. Nearly 40 percent of federal employees were not using social media at work or in their personal lives. And 5 percent of government employees did not know what the term "social media" means.

Also, many agencies had policies banning the use of social media. The study found that before this spring, federal organizations had to provide robust business cases explaining why and how their employees were using Web 2.0 tools. But that policy has changed.

In late April, the Obama administration released social media guidelines that reversed previous regulations. The new policy requires department heads to provide business cases indicating why their employees should not be allowed to use social media. The default rule now is that government employees can use social media as long as they abide by appropriate guidelines and meet security requirements.

“By virtue of the fact that the administration’s policy became ‘you can use this and you have to justify why you can’t,’ we’ve seen this cascade of new guidelines coming in from the agencies themselves as well as new applications for social media, now that there’s broader latitude for the agencies to use the tools,” Kagia said.

The report also found that the public and private sectors had differing views on the importance of security in social media applications. Although 75 percent of the federal agency community identified security as their key concern, security ranked in the middle of overall concerns among federal contractors.

“Government contractors are much more focused on measuring the return on investment in social media,” Kagia said. He added that contractors see the value of using new media to form relationships, reach new audiences and engage existing audiences in a more personalized, strategic manner. However, given the current state of the economy, he said, firms are wondering about the level of return on their investment with regard to social media tools.

The study also found that proper security training was critical for social media use in the federal sector. The report indicates that training is essential because 40 percent of agency employees are not actively using social media tools and are therefore unfamiliar with the risks and realities of participating in a social environment. To address that weakness, there has been a deliberate emphasis on user training and guidelines in the federal government.

“The risk of them engaging in activities that increased the level of vulnerability of their personal information — or, worse still, the information of agencies they represent — cannot be overstated,” Kagia said.

He added that his firm has told government contractors that although they might be comfortable with their level of social media security, they cannot discount how important security is to their federal customers. Security in social media environments is a key message that firms must convey to their government clients because it is their major concern, he said.

The study also highlighted the use of Web 2.0 tools to facilitate communication. “There [have] been a number of things that social media has made possible that were never feasible before in the public sector,” Kagia said.

One key benefit of social media is that it dismantles the hierarchy of communications in the government. He said federal agencies are by nature hierarchical in how they pass information among decision-makers. “Generally, you’d have to go through a number of layers or gatekeepers before you had access to those people,” he said.

Social media makes it possible for any person with valuable information to communicate with the people who find it most relevant and useful. Kagia said social media makes it easier for experts and thought leaders — the kinds of people whose skills the federal government might be interested in — to be recognized.
But what is not yet clear, he said, is how decision-makers on the government side are rating, reviewing and judging the content they find through online social applications versus traditional communication channels. We don’t know “how much value is being placed, and how influential is social media content and interaction to a federal agency decision-maker relative to in-person meetings, webinars, conferences and trade shows, reading articles or advertising within the trade press,” Kagia said.

In previous Market Connections studies, when federal decision-makers were asked to rate the importance of various information sources, the number of those who valued social media consistently rated in the single digits and never totaled more than 5 percent, Kagia said. But in the most recent group of surveys, the number of federal decision-makers who considered social media important rose to 25 percent.

“You’re seeing in a very short time a significant jump in the importance being placed on social media as the source of information,” he said. “But how it’s being used to influence strategic decision-making, purchasing behavior and agency policy...is still an unanswered question."

Government organizations, especially in the Defense Department and intelligence agencies, are getting around their security concerns by developing applications such as milBook and Intellipedia that operate behind federal firewalls. Kagia said there is no longer any argument in many parts of the federal government over the value of social media tools.

However, concerns about sensitive discussions taking place in public forums are one reason there has been a significant investment in building internal tools or creating customized versions of commercial applications that are tailored to civilian defense agencies. Kagia believes that trend will continue. He cited the General Services Administration’s FedSpace as one civilian agency effort. The tool will serve as the government’s equivalent of Facebook and offer a uniform social media site for agencies to tailor to their content and applications.

Those applications will keep the conversation within the firewall, which will help lower the possibility of compromise and make it easier for those who need the tools to begin using them in a low-risk environment.

“If people feel that they can use these tools in a setting that doesn’t really pose any substantive risk — they’re just talking amongst their colleagues — then I think the rate of adoption is likely to be significantly higher than if the tools that are being used are public and there is the constant concern that anything they might say may be publicly released or used inappropriately,” Kagia said.

Regarding the benefits of social media, the majority of agencies cited educating the public about their mission as a key benefit. That was closely followed by improving citizen access to agency information. Kagia said those two points are externally focused. But internal awareness for social media use in federal agencies remains relatively low, even though a recent Government Accountability Office report said 22 of 24 major agencies are using social media. He added that the reason social media awareness is low is that the tools have primarily been used to engage external audiences and constituents.

Much of the information being shared via social media tools, such as the Environmental Protection Agency's reporting about the recent Gulf oil spill or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s posting of immunization materials, seeks to re-engage the public about agencies’ missions.

“What we’re seeing is the evolution of social media in the public sector entering its next form,” Kagia said.

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