As agencies find their voices with social media, the next step is to use those online connections to let people have their say, too.
Brandon Friedman’s first order of business when he arrived at the Veterans Affairs Department in 2009 was establishing a consistent voice for VA in social media.
As the department’s director of new media, Friedman helped launch its first Facebook page and Twitter feed. Next came a YouTube channel and a Flickr photo site. In 2010, VA Medical Centers began adding Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. A department blog, “VAntage Point,” launched in November.
As VA continues to hone its communication channels, it is now entering a second phase of social media deployment that involves obtaining feedback and acting on it.
“VA really hasn’t had a mechanism by which we could get feedback from the veteran and really incorporate that in our decision-making,” Friedman said.
The goal is to cultivate a two-way relationship between VA and veterans and make social media such an integral part of the department’s culture that it becomes routine and unremarkable.
“We want to get this to the point where it is not even newsworthy,” Friedman said.
Other agencies also seek to make Gov 2.0 more than an exercise in checking off items on a social media to-do list. Jana Hrdinová, program associate at the University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government, said agencies are taking a more thoughtful approach to social media than they did a year ago. The center offers classes on how to manage social media.
Agencies “are going through the process of actually thinking through the strategy and planning for a good initiative instead of just being on Facebook for the sake of being on Facebook,” she said.
The process can be difficult because best practices in the government’s use of social media — particularly cases in which the emphasis is on processing feedback — are few and far between. Basic research into how best to structure a social media outreach campaign is just getting under way.
The same is true for quantitative analyses of the results of such efforts. In general, industry executives say measuring Gov 2.0’s effectiveness is difficult because it’s hard to separate the impact of social media from other messaging and communications approaches.
Nevertheless, agencies are fine-tuning their Gov 2.0 efforts in four key areas:
1. Disseminating information, the initial focus of many social media programs and an ongoing priority.
2. Obtaining public feedback on policies and programs.
3. Crowdsourcing in the form of challenges and contests as a way to engage the public in solving specific problems.
4. Using social media as an important outreach tool, especially among agencies involved in health and public safety.
Read on for more details about how agencies are using Gov 2.0 technologies in those areas.
1. Getting the word out
The most basic use of social media in government falls in the broad category of information dissemination. Government and industry executives say the most widely used tools in this field are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the Flickr photo-sharing site and the WordPress site for blogs.
Who’s doing it?
Many agencies use social media to broadcast information. Public affairs offices frequently use the technology, with staff members often doubling as their agency’s social media officers. At NASA’s Public Affairs Office, social media hasn’t replaced press releases but instead is used to supplement traditional communications methods.
“We are all charged with integrating social media into our communications efforts overall,” said Stephanie Schierholz, public affairs specialist and social media manager at NASA. “We don’t look at it as an either/or.”
In January, Schierholz used Twitter to announce that NASA has assigned a backup commander for the STS-134 space shuttle mission, due to launch in April. The shuttle’s commander, Mark Kelly, is married to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was critically injured in a shooting incident earlier that month. Moments after relaying the message, Schierholz walked down the hall to another NASA office and heard CNN read the tweet on the air.
“Social media allows us to get information out there that much more quickly,” she said, noting that the agency’s Twitter followers have grown from 1,000 in January 2009 to 750,000.
Communication enjoys the longest run in the government’s short social media history. But that’s not to say that the application is fully mature. Indeed, agencies continue to adjust their approaches. The National Science Foundation, for instance, tweaked its Twitter strategy as it acquired more followers.
Paul Filmer, NSF’s program director of geosciences and Twitter administrator, said the agency has diversified its Twitter feeds. In addition to its main feed, NSF now maintains subfeeds for program announcements and other items of a highly technical nature.
The hard part
Maintaining a consistent voice soon becomes the critical chore for agencies with a bevy of social media platforms.
Andy Beal, CEO of social media monitoring vendor Trackur and co-author of “Radically Transparent,” said an agency needs to make sure the story it tells the public matches the in-house narrative. A recent Transportation Security Administration blog post noted that 11-inch MacBook Air models can be left in passengers’ bags during security checks. But airport agents need to know that as well, Beal added.
“There needs to be congruence in the messaging,” he said. “Otherwise, you are going to create friction.”
Agencies that have mastered the mechanics of social media should focus on polishing the content.
Mark Drapeau, director of innovative social engagement at Microsoft, said one common problem is failing to create valuable, interesting content that connects with an audience. He said people can become overly concerned with the technicalities of live tweeting at events when they should be focused on storytelling.
“It’s easy to set up a Twitter feed or a YouTube channel,” Drapeau said. “But, overall, does it tell some kind of a meta story that people want to be involved in?”
2. Receiving and acting on Feedback
Most social media is designed for two-way traffic: Agencies post Facebook items, blog entries and YouTube videos, and visitors respond. However, agencies are still working to improve their ability to deal with those comments. Some are now developing systems that incorporate feedback into their business processes.
Approaches to the feedback issue range from manually perusing responses to using tools that automatically monitor social media.
Who’s doing it?
In the next year, VA plans to formalize the process of organizing feedback and directing it to the appropriate office, Friedman said. The department already toils to answer questions that arrive via social media.
“We have waded into it and try to answer as many questions and concerns as we can,” he said.
Friedman said Facebook entries generate the most comments but noted that a recent blog post on tips for filing disability claims attracted about 300 comments. The VA deputy undersecretary who wrote the post dove in to answer questions, Friedman added.
The General Services Administration and its Federal Acquisition Service also aim to encourage and use feedback in its Gov 2.0 efforts. GSA’s Interact site, launched last year, includes sections for group discussions, blogs and other social media tools.
A Multiple Awards Schedule (MAS) group is among the first communities participating in Interact. The group includes agency contracting personnel and private-sector vendors. Other groups are in the process of forming, including one that will help users resolve issues on how to use schedules more effectively, said D.J. Caulfield, branch chief of GSA's Communications and Portal Services.
George Price, director of customer outreach at GSA, said FAS has been using training, e-mail and other traditional outreach methods. But social media fosters interactive discussions rather than one-way communication, he added.
In developing its own platform, GSA is better equipped to deal with feedback, Caulfield, said. That’s because Interact provides a single social media location where all parties — internal and external to GSA — can exchange ideas, he said.
"If these Federal Acquisition Service-related discussions surfaced within non-GSA social media sites, like Facebook or GovLoop, we'd have to dedicate more resources to monitoring those non-FAS sites," Caulfield said.
Few agencies can call themselves feedback pros, but some are successfully moving to more efficiently address public comments.
“Agencies, in some cases, integrate the feedback from social media into their processes,” said Lena Trudeau, vice president of the National Academy of Public Administration.
The Labor Department is a case in point. Its ePolicyWorks uses Web technology and Microsoft’s SharePoint to create a virtual workspace for policy-makers.
The project focuses on policies related to employment, disability and health care. Constituent groups such as government agencies, disability advocacy organizations and health care provider associations can submit comments on pending policies and view what others have written via ePolicyWorks, said Michael Reardon, supervisory policy adviser at Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.
The objective is to cultivate a policy-making process that’s more inclusive and efficient. The ePolicyWorks platform lets Labor obtain feedback early in the policy process, which helps build consensus around proposals, Reardon said.
“By the time you are ready to announce in the Federal Register, you have a good deal of buy-in,” he added.
The hard part
Online collaboration marks a culture change for some agencies and communities. Price said the greatest challenge with GSA’s Interact “has been to get people to understand this is a shift, a change in the way people can access their government.”
Integrating social media into government operations will likely require an ample dose of education and training for agency employees and participating communities. Look for agencies to bolster their social media outreach efforts with more outreach efforts.
3. Solving problems
Crowdsourcing — the notion of reaching outside an organization’s walls to solve problems and take on projects — is arguably one of the most tantalizing opportunities in Gov 2.0. Agencies have started using crowdsourcing platforms to conduct competitions that invite people to submit their best ideas. Winners receive cash or other prizes.
Dozens of platforms exist, often focusing on specific industries or communities. In the government, TopCoder and Challenge.gov appear to be making the most headway.
Who’s doing it?
NASA recently kicked off its NASA Tournament Lab (NTL), a three-year collaboration with Harvard University and TopCoder. The idea is to encourage software developers to compete, or in some cases band together, to create code for NASA systems. Harvard will lend its crowdsourcing knowledge, while TopCoder provides what it bills as the world’s largest competitive software development community — some 279,923 coders as of January.
Jason Crusan, chief technologist of space operations at NASA and the agency’s NTL lead, said plans call for at least 20 software competitions during the next three years. He describes NTL as a “long-term pilot [program] to see how we can utilize these kinds of platforms to get real results.”
Meanwhile, Challenge.gov launched last year with sponsorship from GSA and the support of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. ChallengePost provides the technology and offers help to agencies that want to launch challenges on the site. Brandon Kessler, ChallengePost’s CEO, said more than 30 agencies have conducted competitions on Challenge.gov. Examples include the Health and Human Services Department’s Healthy People 2020 initiative and the Transportation Department’s Connected Vehicle Technology Challenge.
The challenge concept has been around for a while, but many agencies had lacked a legal framework for issuing prizes, which inhibited wider use. However, the America Competes Act, which Congress passed last year, gives agencies the authority to conduct prize competitions.
“The America Competes Act will let all agencies use challenges and prizes as an everyday part of their toolkit,” Kessler said.
The hard part
One of the biggest challenges is structuring a contest in a way that addresses an agency’s needs but doesn’t bewilder outsiders.
Crusan said the key is to frame problems so that people can tackle them without needing expertise in a particular area. For example, a NASA challenge involving orbital mechanics could be distilled into a physics or mathematics problem that the broader community could solve, he said, adding that NASA’s software community is quickly learning how to write better problem statements.
“It is incredibly important…to make the challenge well crafted so there is a simple, meaningful message that people understand on their first visit,” Kessler said.
The newness of challenges means agencies lack clear insight into getting the best results. Research should shed some light on how to run them.
Crusan said a series of social science experiments will be conducted with NTL. NASA officials hope to get a sense of how best to structure challenges, gauge the effectiveness of different types of incentives and explore pure competition versus collaborative approaches. In addition, the NASA lab team plans to conduct a quantitative analysis on a few challenges to determine the return on investment.
4. Promoting health and public safety
The use of social media in health and public safety represents a natural progression of Gov 2.0 and its outreach mission. Key platforms include Twitter and Facebook, but specialized public safety websites also embed blogs and other elements of social media.
“Health care and community safety,…these are the kinds of topics [for which] social media has a potentially huge beneficial impact,” said Ben Shneiderman, a computer sciences professor at the University of Maryland.
Who’s doing it?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been using Facebook and Twitter to get the word out on emergency preparedness and response. Meanwhile, NSF is funding about a dozen projects in which social media tools converge with emergency information, said Suzi Iacono, senior science adviser at NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering.
One example is NSF-funded Project EPIC: Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis. It involves the University of Colorado at Boulder and University of California at Irvine, and it seeks to mesh social media and emergency response. The project’s participants have developed a standard syntax for Twitter communications that makes the platform more useful in a crisis.
Iacono said the approach was pressed into service in response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti a year ago.
“When there are emergencies,…we are finding that taking mashups of different social computing technologies can really help,” she added.
Closer to home, Nation of Neighbors provides a Web-based neighborhood watch and reporting system that taps the two-way nature of social media. The service lets participants create or join local community groups. Once registered, users can submit reports of crime or suspicious activity, which are delivered via e-mail or text messaging to other local members and law enforcement agencies.
Health and safety applications, for the most part, are just getting under way. Projects receiving seed money now will take a while to reach their full potential.
“I think we have barely scratched the surface,” Iacono said.
The hard part
The lack of guidance for building effective systems presents a challenge in the fields of public health and safety, as it does for other emerging social media applications. Hrdinová said examples of government social media use are relatively easy to find, but best-practice studies are in short supply. Agencies want to know what makes a social media project succeed or fail.
“That is what people are asking for,” Hrdinová said. “That level of research or analysis we haven’t seen yet.”
Research in the field of health and safety is on the way. Shneiderman and other University of Maryland researchers have received an NSF grant to evaluate Nation of Neighbors, with the goal of identifying the “reasons for successes and failures of the community safety system,” according to NSF.
That is just the sort of information agencies are looking for as they take their use of social media to the next level.