5 ways social media will change how feds work

From the Government Leadership Summit: Government and industry experts say social networking technology soon will reshape the daily operations of agencies and individual employees.

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. -- Make no mistake about it: Social media, sooner or later, will change how you work.

Lots of people will tell you otherwise, including policy wonks at the Office of Management and Budget and at your local general counsel office. They want to slow it all down until all the privacy issues and other fuzzy areas are fully addressed.

And your agency’s security experts might argue that the security risks are not well enough understood -- or understood well enough to know you’re better off avoiding social media altogether.

Government and industry officials speaking at the Government Leadership Summit say they understand those concerns, but that you better come to terms with social-networking technology, because that is what the public expects. For that matter, that is what many federal employees expect, although not necessarily the policymakers.

Here, in any case, are five ways that social networking will change how agencies and individual feds do business.

* Technology requirements: Get ready to lose control.

Once upon a time, the federal government was seen as Fortune 1, and so had a lot of sway over the development of commercial technology. That is no longer the case.

When it comes to the technical requirements of Facebook, Twitter and similar products, “we are not the ones generating them,” said Mark Oehlert, innovation evangelist at the Defense Acquisition University. “The consumer world is generating them, and we are trying to figure out how to bring [the technology] in and maximize this functionality.”

Worse yet, to take advantage of this technology, agencies must rethink how their organization works, Oehlert said. “There aren’t technological hurdles to this -- these are emotional issues.”

* Public engagement: Get ready to be surprised

NASA was certainly surprised by the results of an online public contest to name 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 talk show host Stephen Colbert, who used his nightly show to rally 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. In case you missed it, NASA chose the name Serenity for the space station, but they gave Colbert’s name to an on-station exercise machine.

* Data analysis: The public knows best

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 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.”

In fact, federal officials would be wise to actively tap into the expertise available in the public large to solve specific problems, she said.

* Communications: Time to clean up your act.

Social media will make it much easier for agencies to share information with the general public or with specific sectors in a consistent, pervasive fashion. But that ability only highlights the importance of knowing what you want to say.

In the area of acquisition, for example, Web 2.0 tools offer a great opportunity to improve communications, said Timothy Dowd, president and chief executive officer of market research firm Input. “But it’s not about throwing technology at it, but thinking about what we want to communicate and how we want to communicate it.”

That concern was echoed by Edward O’Hare, assistant commissioner for information technology services at the Federal Acquisition Service at the General Services Administration. “Putting it out there in a comprehensible way so that you can have an intelligent conversation is a real challenge,” he said

* Workforce management: A new take on productivity

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 to these tools,” he says.

He figures it this way: If you ask him a question that he can’t answer, he will turn to his online network of experts and find someone more knowledgeable. If he couldn’t tap into that network -- if his agency were to shut down social networking -- 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, deputy associate administrator for OCS.

They had an ulterior motive, beyond employee engagement. Having seen the success that 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.

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