Has Social Networking (in Government) Gone Too Far?

Note: This was originally posted on my posterous blog on 2/17.

Let me make this clear before I get too far into this, I like social networks and, in particular, I find Twitter an incredibly useful tool to connect and engage with people. I use other social networks to greater or lesser degrees and feel fairly comfortable in the space. I also think that social networks are unparalleled in their ability to bring government and the people they serve closer together. Moreover, I believe there are many valid business cases for using these tools and I do not feel that they will or should go away (though they will certainly evolve).

With that caveat, I often struggle with the proliferation explosion of social media presences across the federal government. Although I was just beginning a four year stint in Peace Corps when the Internet first came to life, my sense is that the government Web space went through an unprecedented, and largely unsupervised, expansion that has a left a legacy that we are still struggling with to this day. My fear is that we are undergoing a similar process now and that a few years hence there will be a digital wasteland of government Twitter accounts and Facebook fan pages with no one paying attention, following or friending. Moreover, will we have lost the public trust and interest because we, even with the best of intentions, have been unable to succesfully and sustainably engage.

I hope that I am dead wrong (and please tell me why I am) and perhaps this fear in unfounded. These could well be growing pains yet to be worked out and the mere fact that we are having these discussions online may prove that the patient is healthy. If not, and we are headed down the wrong path, I would love to hear suggestions about how to stem this tide and turn it into a more productive endeavor that truly brings value to the people we serve.

As always, these are my thoughts, and my thoughts alone.

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I think these trends have a lifecycle of their own. If the Facebook “Fan Sites” are obsolete in a year, no worries, there will be another platform that emerges that will allow us to engage in deeper and more meaningful ways.

Web Manager University is sponsoring a webinar next week on some tools that we can use now for such debate, you can register here:


Using In–Depth Discussion Tools to Engage Citizens

Format: Webinar
Instructors: Representatives from Delib, Disqus, and IntenseDebate
Date: Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Time: 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm ET
Place: Webinar
Fee: Free

Pablo Castro G.

tools and plattforms evolve, change, vary, a few years ago we were thinking “why does my organization needs a webpage?”, a couple of years ago we were thinking “why does my organization needs a facebook page”, now we are wondering “why my organization needs a twitter account.?..

“oh, look, I can broadcast online, free and easy”,- thats great, but do i have something to broacast?
“Hey, we NEED a twitter account!”, – But Sr… there are no twitter users in our country…

i think that as communication managers we will always face this questions.

Tools are only A PART in the communication system, we must think about the message, the audience, the media, the channel, the codes, the language… and the tools…

i agree with Megan…
we will be tempted with new tools to communicate with our audience in ways we never imagine..
we went digital, now we are mobile, what are we going to be next? i guess visual, instinctive, perceptive, intelligent browsing…

organizations will always exist, and so will real people, tools will evolve and try to integrate with our real lives as they keep moving from one shape to another…

At least in countries or in organizations with limited resourses (both human and economic) a very important question is: DO I REALLY NEED THIS TOOL? is there a critical mass of users that makes my organization efforts worth?

I love twitter, but in my country its penetration is less than 0,1% of internet users. Does it makes any sense for an uruguayan organization to communicate through that channel? will someone be watching?

we need to know our audience, what THEY USE, how they use it, when they use it, what kind of information are they interested in… and then, we must try to join THEIR conversation…

Best regards,
Pablo, from Uruguay.

Andrew Wilson

Thanks for the comments. I agree that the tools are mostly irrelevant but the relationships that are established on these platforms are important and abandoning someone with whom you have established a connection is not acceptable to me. Perhaps when it becomes easier to follow/ interact with people wherever they might, or want to, be (platform-independent interactions), the issue of too many sites will be less of an concern as *where* people interact will be inherently transitory. That being said, things still do feel pretty chaotic right now…

Gerry La Londe-Berg

To create value for the people we serve this question has to be addressed in multiple dimensions. The electronic communication tools we are using are just one aspect.

The most compelling and encouraging evidence I see each day on GovLoop is how people are dedicated to the service of citizens. I like what Pablo said about knowing our constituents. A lesson I’ve learned is that change in bureaucracy can be excruciatingly slow. It is participatory, so we have to let people, and systems, come up to speed… and be patient while they do.

Attention to the core mission in all we do is critical. As long as we have shared sense of core purpose and mission, we can experiment within those parameters. In the process we’ll find some widely accepted/adopted modalities for service.

In summary, don’t be discouraged and enjoy the process of moving forward. We’re in this together.


I agree. Things feel pretty chaotic right now but maybe that’s good.

As they say, with chaos and greyness brings opportunity.

A great time for gov’t to lead on a lot of these issues.

imho – it’ll take a few years until it doesn’t feel chaotic.

Andrew Wilson

@Gerry thanks for the comment. I agree that perhaps the best aspect of what is going on right now is all of the tremendously talented & dedicated gov staff willing to participate and engage in these spaces. I am encouraged everyday by this and feel that, collectively, all of the individual interactions we have will make a very positive difference.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I’m guessing three things are going to happen: assessment, aggregation and automation.

Assessment: Agencies will assess and adjust their tactics based on where they’re getting the most ROI. I just learned on a webinar with Jeanne Holm that NASA did an assessment of their social media tools and found they were getting the most engagement from Facebook…so they applied more resources in that direction.

Aggregate: Also, they’ll recognize that they have a lot of data going in a lot of different directions and will likely pull the streams into one uber-feed using tools like Yahoo! Pipes

Automate: If they aren’t already, I’m guessing that agencies will take that aggregate feed and pump it back out to the their various web tools (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Also, guessing that they won’t have bandwidth to respond to everything, so they’ll take the top themes and respond en masse.

What would be great is if agencies that haven’t dipped their toes in the social media water yet can learn from these early adopters and avoid the mayhem, then more rapidly replicate successful practices. Of course, they may just need to throw some spaghetti against the wall themselves to see what sticks!

Andrew Wilson

@Govloop – Agree. We are in the midst of a period of pretty unprecedented change and it can be often hard to see the finish line when you are in the middle of things. Moreover, you might be right about it being a good thing – may take real paradigm shift in the way we look at things for real change to take place.

@Andrew Great points. I have long been an advocate of trying to aggregate (or make sure that the info is being put out so that it can be easily aggregated). A very narrow example would be for a Dept. to use a common hashtag in Twitter across all offices/ agencies that are related to a given issue. The related RSS feed could then be used for all sorts of purposes (and certainly automated).

An additional challenge to this is how can we encourage better gov’t-wide collaboration and coordination where there is an overlapping mission or issue. I could be wrong but I am pretty sure the average person doesn’t really care what agency is responsible for what they need, they just want 1) what they want 2) when they want it 3) and how they want it. A final, further, degree of integration is to bring in the state and local level….

Jaime Gracia

I believe this will continue to be a struggle, but the focus needs to be on ROI and engagement. Many “tools” are available, and software companies are springing up overnight in this emerging market without providing Federal clients with the foundation for success. My firm is taking a different route, as our tools are based on analysis and engagement, which focuses the agency on their social media mission, at the same time the software is really secondary. The NASA example is great, as they were able to analyze where the message has the greatest impact and influence based on the response. I just wonder if they are hitting their target market based on factors that the agency is trying to promote.

I do believe that collaboration and information exchange has tremendous potential for overlapping missions, and thus the hope for Acquisition 2.0, where knowledge transfer can be a great factor in improving cost, schedule and performance outcomes across Government.

Adriel Hampton

Andrew, I think that one of the positive effects of social media is putting a more human face on gov’t. But, many agencies and officials aren’t doing that so well, simply treating the new media environment like the mass communication channels we’ve all grown up with. Some of these new tools enable radical disintermediation, and it’s my hope that they will help bring policymakers, officials and line workers closer to the public they serve. Bureaucracy grown perhaps even faster than population – network tools can help manage relationships at scale, and perhaps make a more human, more responsive government. That’s what I’m working for.

Gerry La Londe-Berg

For Adriel et al Haiku for you

Watch for radical
Short term gains for what?

Core values and goals. Adriel – you inspire thinking.

Bret Martin

Social networking will help common citizens find more value in government. Think of the continuum: Government funded and invented the internet (by extension…social networking), funded and invented GPS and mapping, and likewise for many other infrastructure projects. Many government projects improve the lives of all citizens. In fact, government = social networking for public good. Of course it needs to be involved.
S/N is much more effective and efficient than town meetings. Also, government is the single organization that has the most to share of value for all citizens. Just think of all its public data sources. More ideas: http://techcrunch.com/2009/09/04/gov-20-its-all-about-the-platform/

Kim Patrick Kobza

This is a very thoughtful post. In my view, spot on. The problem lies in the misuse or alignment of network applications. Largely because of statute and OMB regulation (and application bias) government is frequently using tools designed for internal cooperation – for thousands, or theoretically tens of thousands of people. They also are largely ignoring one of the primary value propositions – building an institutional memory, that can be used for training, learning, discovery and business continuity. With social portals, Facebook, Google, etc., own the data and build consumer preferences against it – depriving the government of the value of the data. The outcome is that because the current applications are often ineffective, predictably, they don’t just erode, but obliterate trust both within (gov employees) and without (citizens/stakeholders) government. On the current path, use of social media tools will be a “grand experiment” not unlike many of the e-government initiatives going back to the late 90’s. As leaders who care about and believe it important to promote public participation for the good of our country and the world, we have a responsibility to get it right.

Andrew Wilson

@Kim – as always, great insight and analysis. You have few peers out there.

@Bret Interesting idea of government=social networking. Need to ponder that one so more. And, just to be clear, I wholeheartedly support government’s use of social media/ social networking (and have used it professionally in government in quite a few instances). My concern is that it there are many cases now where it is not being used for really valid reasons but only b/c it is the hip thing to do.

@adriel Great thoughts and definitely appreciate all your efforts in this space. And, for me, there is almost nothing more important than adding the “human element” to all of this and why I have always strived to interact in as transparent a way as possible.

@Jaime Believe very much in the importance of metrics and ROI and it needs to be a much bigger piece of the puzzle in gov’t than it is now. The value of relationships is inherently hard to pin down though and although people such as @kdpaine may argue otherwise, I am somewhat skeptical that relationships can ever be fully captured.

John McCrory

Andrew–clearly you’ve struck a chord and are not alone in your concerns. I believe your fears are not unfounded; without any strategy or planning, engagement via social media networking will not be sustainable or productive over the long haul. But there is a way to avoid wasting your time with social media. I just takes strategy and planning.

Sure, it is essential to experiment and give social networking a try and gain experience with many of the new communications tools. One can only learn by doing. But there comes a point when this experimentation becomes just a sequence of ad hoc activities that don’t work together to help achieve your overall objectives.

Creating an engagement strategy can help you harness these activities to meet your department’s or agency’s key goals. It lays out step-by-step models for using social media to engage your community around specific activities, such as releasing a report or convening a conference. With a solid engagement strategy, you can decide when to use each social networking tool and how to integrate them with each other and with “traditional” offline communications and PR.

The next step from an engagement strategy is to plan your engagement campaigns. Determine when the engagement begins and ends; who the participants will be; which engagement channels will be used; and what collateral (blog posts, videos, podcasts, invitations, webinar slides, etc.) will need to be created. Plan a “story arc” for the engagment and identify the change points that divide the engagement into stages, and create a step-by-step work plan for carrying out the campaign from beginning to end. Finally, articulate the specific objectives and goals the campaign will advance.

Strategy and planning will provide a means to measure the success of both execution and outcomes. Construct your strategy and plans well and you’ll have you a clear and convincing rationale for your social media initiatives, alleviating that feeling of being lost in a sea of tweets and status updates.

Frederick P. Wellman

This is an intriguing question and I think a lot of the posters have hit some key points already. I would add that there is no question we are seeing explosive growth in social networking usage by government agencies. The Army claims to have 150 official Facebook pages but my company is just now finishing a study where we found that number is well over 500 and growing daily. Everyone from a tiny three man recruiting station in Minot has a page now. But are they effective and will it last? No and no on both questions.

So there will probably be a retraction period where we see a lot of these channels shut down or die as the initial advocates and “rebels” move to other jobs and their successors lack interest or see value in continuing to maintain those efforts.

Concurrently we will all start figuring out the many ways these tools can help us not just as conduits to our constituents but as tools for recruiting, informing our internal audiences, serving as adjuncts to our public websites or as ways of building extended virtual communities in support of our real world ones.

Either way these new info channels are here to stay and will become more mainstream and part of our communications culture just as much as those new fangled inter-web-sites were way back in the good old days of the 90’s.

My key point though is that it is myopic to see social media as just a means to talk to constituents or broadcast the same old crap we are releasing through other means. The dizzying array of ways to use social media is still being figured out and for me it just keeps getting better and better.

Joshua joseph

Great post, Andrew. I keep thinking that in all the good buzz about the progress that’s being made with gov 2.0 (and I know it’s not just buzz, people are learning a lot, sharing info and helping their agencies move forward), there’s not enough talk about who may be getting left behind in government, the potential consequences and what to do about it.

In gov 2.0, as with anything new, there’s always a group of early adopters that are way out in front. But to me it’s less obvious how to bring the great majority of feds up these stairs, many of whom are not just one step back in understanding/using 2.0, but already 3 or 4 or more. How do we keep from leaving a large part of gov’t behind in an area that is likely to be so important to their work? And the more removed feds get, the harder it will be for them to catch up, the more resistant they are likely to become and the more expensive it will be to for government bring employees up to speed. Curious who’s thinking about/planning the set of strategies for learning/improvement around 2.0 for the rest of government and what the plan looks like.

p.s. A parallel set of questions could be raised re: who gets left behind in the public sphere. Though, with so many other channels to gov’t, maybe that’s not a big immediate concern.