5 tips for social government success

Social media isn't optional, but agencies are still learning how to use it well. Here are some winning strategies.

usgs interactive earthquake map

The U.S Geological Survey's 'Did You Feel It?' map allows users to post earthquake reports in real time.

At a Nov. 7 session on “The Evolution of Social Government” that was part of DCWeek, social media veterans from both inside government and out offered tips for agencies hoping to up their online game. Here are their suggested paths to success:

Lead by Example

In a perfect world, every organization’s website would be completely user-friendly and free of glitches. But when a website is less than stellar, the last thing to do is avoid bad publicity by hiding under a rock. The best thing to do is face it head-on, said the panelists.

USAJobs.com, which lists all federal jobs available, is a good example. The Office of Personnel Management built the latest version of the website inhouse, then launched it with a colossal thud as users experienced a range of frustrating problems that took weeks to solve.
 
“They did a fantastic job of being on Facebook all the time, shooting videos each morning showing here’s the real status, here’s what we’re working on…being transparent and showing what was going on was very useful,” said Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop. He noted that the USAJobs Facebook page now has a sense of humor, listing the coolest job of the day, and at the same time has real people responding to complaints about lost resumes and other issues that job-seekers experience.

Use Twitter to Your Advantage

While simply tweeting is not innovative on its own, building a base of followers and knowing what to tweet can make it a useful tool.

Justin Herman, federal social media program manager at the General Services Administration'’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, said that when he started to work in the federal space, he needed to have some of his veteran status paperwork cleaned up. Within an hour of tweeting about it, two employees at the National Archives replied to him from their personal accounts asking if they could help in any way.

“I found that staggering,” he said, noting that it’s the kind of customer service you rarely hear about from federal agencies. “When it’s me needing my veteran paperwork so I can get this job, that is what I see as the real innovations in social media.”

Embrace Social Media or Fall Behind

The performance metric used to be if you used social media at all, you were a success.  Now agencies must have it and use it well.

“We don’t live in an age anymore where people can say ‘we engage in social media’ because that is what people expect,” said Herman, emphasizing that social media should either clearly improve citizen services or cut costs, but preferably both.

It’s also necessary to keep up with your employees’ use of social media, and make sure that it’s done correctly.

“I would spend half my time telling people they couldn’t have social media accounts,” added Brandon Friedman, vice president at Fleishman-Hillard and former director of online communications at the Veterans Affairs Department. “That was half my day, trying to shut down rogue Twitter feeds.”

He emphasized that there was a time when people did not know what they were doing on Twitter, despite the VA’s social media policy (which he wondered if anyone read), and that you cannot manage the strategy if people are just going rogue.

“It’s a balancing act, where you want people using it as much as possible but you want people using it as they should and you want them using it within the framework established for your organization,” said Friedman.

While it was initially a challenge for them, it was ultimately a success for the VA because they got so many social media pages up and running on behalf of the department.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Social Media

In the summer of 2011, Louisa, Va., experienced an earthquake felt as far away as New York City. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Tweet Earthquake Dispatch tool was able to combine scientific data with raw public data, combining two worlds into one.

The USGS also launched “Did You Feel It,” giving users a chance to submit reports of what happened around them, such as the floor shaking or items falling off of shelves, meshing what the public was tweeting about with scientific geological data.

“It’s very compelling, very interesting, and it’s a nice way to pull the two worlds together,” Scott Horvath, USGS’s web and social media chief, said.  “What I hope to see as far as innovation is more of that happening across the board with agencies, finding that niche of how they can meld their data with the public data and making better use of it.”

He also noted that during the Virginia earthquake, data showed that Tweets about the earthquake moved faster than the earthquake itself.

Aim to be the best, not the first

While it is tempting to be the first to try out the shiny new social media platform, it’s best for agencies to focus on quality and improvement with the ones they are currently using.

“One of the things that I would like to see in the next four years is for organizations to focus on doing what they’re already doing, and doing it better, rather than focusing on being first to do the next big thing or the first to embrace the newest technology,” said Friedman.

While being the first may make an impression, it compromises the quality that should be there before moving on to the next horizon, and that most organizations still have a long way to go using Facebook and Twitter. A focus on customer service and true quality will bring out the best results in any social endeavor.

“[Social media] is core to the mission we do, not just this fun thing we do on the side,” said Ressler.

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