As part of The FCW Challenge, GovLoop and Federal Computer Week have been making pretty provocative statements, including the claim that “government social networks are Towers of Babel, doomed to topple.” In fact, we suggested that “social networking sites are designed to break down the silos of work and social groups and enable people to cross-pollinate ideas, but agencies are just building bigger and better silos.” I actually don’t agree with that idea at all. It’s really just the opposite: social networks are revolutionizing the capacity for government employees to quickly connect and collaborate in ways that they never could in the past.
So I’ve been writing a series of “Top 5” blog posts on GovLoop and they seem to be popular (pretty surprising how many people are interested in the “Top 5 Worst and Best Places to Have a Government Job”). Since people seem to like them so much and since I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from GovLoop with agencies building social networks, here are my “Top 5 Tips for Achieving Social Network Awesomeness.”
1. Enlist: Where is your target audience? If you’re setting up an internal social network, you likely have an obvious group of stakeholders where you can promote participation. But you may also have people outside of your agency – colleagues in other Federal agencies or counterparts on the state and local level – who could contribute to the conversation. Or maybe your mission requires a multi-sector approach and you should include contractors or non-profit organizations. Great things happen when you have the right people at the table.
2. Engage: I’m a Kevin Costner fan, but I have to disagree with his “Field of Dreams” assessment – you can’t just “build it and they will come.” Social networks are 90% psychology and 10% technology. You can build your platform on the best software, but that doesn’t mean the crowd will gather to admire your hard work. Ask the community managers at Army Knowledge Online or NASA’s Spacebook. As we do at GovLoop, they work hard every day to invite thought leaders to post content and proactively share information with key stakeholders. My dream for agencies: “Build it with them and you won’t need to coax them to come.”
3. Empower: Who are your super users? These people are the real catalysts for your community’s growth. Most social networks operate according to a 90-9-1 principle. Nine out of ten members are relatively passive users. Nine percent are regular contributors. And then there’s an extraordinary 1% who are 100% sold out for your success. Identify them. Deputize them. Give them clear roles and make them feel sincerely valued. At GovLoop, I feel an awesome sense of appreciation for the Community Leaders who have stepped forward to greet new members, post Members and Projects of the Week and generally ensure that GovLoop is fresh and vibrant. Who are your rock stars? Give them a microphone and let them sing. They’ll draw a crowd, too.
4. Enforce: For many of my peers in the Gov 2.0 space, policy is the most important word in their vocabulary. Why? It sets the parameters for engagement and gives people permission to participate within the context of the mission. Agencies should take the time to set up policies for proper use of social networking – behind and beyond the firewall. On GovLoop, agencies have amassed over 40 examples of both internal and external social media policies, so you don’t need to start from scratch. Copy, paste and build upon the blood, sweat and tears of your peers in other agencies. Oh – and if people engage in behavior that bends or breaks the rules, you have a baseline for shepherding them (gently) back into the circle of trust.
5. Enthuse: We all want to get big things done in government. But part of what entices people to participate in social networks, I think, is for fun. I am not necessarily encouraging people to use your social network as a web-based water cooler (though they could!). What I am suggesting is that you incentivize participation. Manor, Texas, has established “Innobucks” for their Manor Labs crowd sourcing portal – a virtual currency that people collect as they contribute innovative ideas. Can you tie participation in social networks to a point system…or even make it part of someone’s performance elements? If you can create a culture where sharing information is rewarded, people will likely enjoy the interactions and build organizational trust in the process.
So I don’t think social networks are Towers of Babel doomed to topple. Instead, they just may topple age-old, need-to-know structures that have historically led to a bogged down bureaucracy.