VA policy seeks to increase use of social media

The Veterans Affairs Department has issued a policy directive that encourages employees to use social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to interact with the public. It also spells out requirements to be met in the VA for approved use of those channels.

The VA released the “Use of Web-based Collaboration Technologies” directive on Aug. 16. Implementation is to be coordinated by Roger Baker, assistant secretary for information and technology, and L. Tammy Duckworth, assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs.

The policy covers tools including wikis, blogs and mashups; folksonomies, which are tools for crowdsourcing tags on content; Web feeds such as Really Simple Syndication feeds; forums such as Facebook, Twitter and chat rooms; and collaborative tools such as Microsoft SharePoint.

“Properly used, these tools can significantly enhance VA’s mission effectiveness,” the policy directive stated. “The use of Web-based collaboration tools such as social media tools is highly encouraged.”

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The VA currently has more than 100 Facebook pages with about 293,000 fans combined. That includes about 138,000 fans of the department’s main page.

The department also has about 50 Twitter feeds with about 53,000 followers combined, YouTube and Flickr channels, and two blogs. By December 2011 the VA anticipates that each of its 152 medical centers will have active Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, the VA said in a news release.

“Veterans should have consistent and convenient access to reliable VA information real time using social media — whether on a smartphone or a computer,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said. “They also should be able to communicate directly with appropriate VA employees electronically.”

Despite its social media activity, the VA also has been criticized in recent months for perceived shortcomings in its efforts on social networks. Some commenters on the VA's VAntage Point blog have complained that the VA communications on those networks are propaganda rather than true interactions. Others defended the VA in that discussion. VA bloggers also have been confronted with apparent suicide threats on the blog.

While the new social media policy emphasizes that it wants to encourage use of the Web-based collaboration tools, it also states that all such tools established for official VA use must be authorized,monitored, and moderated.

To establish an official VA social media account, the petitioning office or employee must demonstrate “a business case” for the site, show that adequate funding is available to establish and maintain the site, and demonstrate that the organization’s previously established website is also kept up-to-date and meets VA quality standards, the guidance document said.

Final approval for all VA social media sites must be obtained from Duckworth’s office, the policy states.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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