The Government Leader's Guide To Social Media

Social Media in the Public Sector Field Guide provides practical advice for government technology, policy, and communications leaders.

David Carr

January 10, 2013

8 Min Read
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If you work in government, be prepared to lose control. If you don't go out and meet social media head-on, it will happen anyway, all around you. Loosen your tie and get ready to tweet, post your status and respond to posts from the voters.

That's essentially the prescription of the Social Media in the Public Sector Field Guide by Ines Mergel and Bill Greeves. "To be clear, we are not suggesting a three-ring, no-holds-barred circus act at your service counters," the authors write, recommending "an innovative yet measured approach" to taking advantage of what social media has to offer. Their field guide provides a grand tour of the essential characteristics of social media and the most important sites and formats, along with details on government-specific concerns related to records retention, disclaimers and comment policies.

I had spoken with Greeves a few months prior to the publication of this book about archiving concerns in particular. Because social media posts are generally treated as public records, just like memos or constituent complaints, government agencies who make themselves available through blogs or Facebook pages need to be sure to capture not only what they publish but the comments and other feedback it generates.

Greeves is the chief information officer for Wake County, N.C. and has more than 12 years of experience in government technology leadership. In 2012, Greeves was named the most social government CIO in the U.S. by the Public CIO magazine. He is also the founder of the MuniGov 2.0 community for sharing best practices.

Mergel is assistant professor of public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University and also keeps a blog on social media in the public sector. The field guide is a companion to Mergel's Social Media in the Public Sector, a more formal peer reviewed academic text on the topic. I've only skimmed that one so far, but I can see it offers some distinct and perhaps more in-depth information. Still, the field guide stands alone as an introduction with lots of practical information. The authors say the field guide is particularly intended to provide all the basics for those who might be taking on social media management as a new role. I found myself dog-earing and marking up pages so I could find my way back to key insights.

Although many of the concerns of government agencies also apply to businesses, the authors note, "Government agencies rarely have the luxury of appealing to niche markets or captive audiences. Generally, by the nature of their mission, governments have to be all things to all people."

Criticizing government is also such a popular citizen pastime that government officials can be forgiven for asking why they should hang out a "kick me" sign by exposing themselves to social media. But just as product companies have discovered, if you don't provide the outlet for criticism, there are plenty of other places for social media users to express it. At least if you are part of the conversation, you have the opportunity to respond and perhaps correct rumors or other misinformation. Like the customers of a business, the constituents of government agencies have an unprecedented opportunity to make themselves heard, and they expect to be listened to.

Blogs and social media accounts are only effective when they allow and encourage commenting and discussion. To maintain a civil tone, you will want to have a comment policy stating what is acceptable, mostly for purposes of justifying the deletion of truly offensive material such as profanity. However, the authors say it's more often than not a mistake to delete citizen input. For example, in 2011 New York State Sen. Joseph Robach saw his Facebook page flooded with comments about his position on gay marriage -- an uproar that only intensified following a heavy-handed purge of all public comments from the page. "This action, taken without notice or explanation, left the senator's constituency feeling disrespected and with concerns that the incident violated their freedom of speech," the authors say.Another requirement of an effective social media presence is that it be interesting, which may require that the agency not take itself too seriously. For example, the Centers for Disease Control spiced up its public health blog with a discussion on the issues of preparedness for the zombie apocalypse. Writing in plain language, rather than bureaucratic gobbledygook, is also important.

While social media sites bring complications, they also have great benefits. For agencies that lack the resources to field custom self-service websites, "social networking services can be an affordable and effective substitute," they write. That is, a basic Facebook page may not provide sophisticated features like bill payment or a reporting form for public works issues, but it's a highly usable and familiar way for citizens to share their ideas and issues.

Meanwhile, more ambitious applications are possible. The City of San Francisco created a Facebook app that ties into its 311 system (the non-emergency channel for requesting government services), allowing citizens to file reports without ever needing to leave the social network.

The authors have a lot to say, but they make the book better by inviting contributions from other practitioners and experts.

Government can exploit social media "by leveraging its collective brainpower," writes Steve Ressler, founder and CEO of GovLoop, a social network for government leaders. "The beauty of government is we are all on the same team. This is not Red Sox versus Yankees, Apple versus Google. City of Cincinnati is not a competitor to City of Las Angeles. Environmental Protection Agency should be learning and sharing resources with Centers for Disease Control."

Stephanie H. Slater, public information officer for the Boynton Beach Police Department, offers that social media has become important partly because the journalism industry has atrophied and no longer has time for the "little things," the items of community interest that the department wants to communicate. So her agency has to be its own publisher.

In a few cases, social media has also proven to be an aid to criminal investigations. "Recently, we posted surveillance photos on Facebook of a woman who was using someone else's credit card to buy thousands of dollars of merchandise from a local retailer," Slater relates. "Several days later, the woman contacted police and admitted to committing the crime. A friend told her she was wanted by police after seeing her photo on BBPD's Facebook."

The field guide includes detailed guidance on the breadth of the definition of what constitutes a government record, which according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration extends to just about any communication, image or document "regardless of physical form or characteristics." This may extend to posts on the personal pages of government employees, particularly if they could be perceived to be communicating through those accounts on behalf of their agencies. Thus, the need for disclaimers and notices. For example, the Twitter profile of White House new media director Macon Phillips, which includes a notice that tweets within his orbit may be archived as public records.

There's also a whole section on how to write a disclaimer that you're not necessarily speaking on behalf of your employer. Bill Schrier, CIO for the City of Seattle, contributed a short essay on that topic alone. "I've been challenged by certain folks who say I should remove my title and affiliation completely from the blog," he writes. "However, it is relatively easy to Bing search and find my 'day job.' So, rather than have people think that I may or may not represent the Mayor in my writing, I add the disclaimer."

Mergel and Greeves note such disclaimers "have yet to be fully tested" as legal protection but probably can't hurt -- and at least serve as a statement of your intentions.

Meanwhile, to those who are overwhelmed by the options in social media, they recommend against a "shotgun" approach of trying to do a little of everything in favor of a "less is more" strategy of focusing on a handful of channels that are effective for your purposes. For specific choices of software and other tools, the website from the U.S. General Services Administration provides useful guidance.

"Approach the tools with cautious optimism," they suggest. "Social media are not going to be the cure-all elixir that solves all government communication and participation issues." Still, the very nature of media has changed, and government needs to change with it.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr or Google+. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the new, all-digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

David Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Healthcare and InformationWeek Government (columnist on social business)

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