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Social Media & Government: An Oxymoron or a Perfect Challenge?

http://www.nagconline.org/ orginally published by NAGC Newsletter, February 2010
Social Media & Government: An Oxymoron or a Perfect Challenge?
Author: Andrea Schneider

Social Media is an Open System. Thriving social media sites are interactive, ever evolving, receptive to change, build relationships, share information, and rely on constant communication. They are community building, dependent on participation, and highly collaborative in nature.

Successful social media sites thrive on energy, the more people share and “give away” the more benefit to the user and user community. Hold on too tight, fight for too much control and users won’t play, they won’t come back. Facilitating social media sites seems counter-intuitive much of the time.
Contrast this with a closed system, which might be your car, your stereo, or any entirely self contained entity. If it needs fixing you can identify where it’s broken, fix the wire or connection and it’s done. You can manage the whole system and it operates in a defined space.

If an agency has a closed system culture using social media may disturb the status quo.
In closed organizations, it’s easy to see why social media might create anxiety. It’s risky, unknown, without a track record, without precedence, extensive research, or a road map. Going further, current work is the early research. No one has prior experience.

The use of social media is moving at a breakneck speed. It can feel like jumping on a speeding train. Working with it can feel overwhelming, new articles seem to be written almost instantaneously and it’s easy to get lost in the internet vortex of information and ideas. We have the technology expertise, but little expertise in the applied setting. Mashable.com recently featured a short article about the 4,487 social media experts in May 2009. Today there are 15,740. These are self-identified “experts” which teaches us two things at least — there is a bandwagon and follow the money.

Given this context, we want strong and confident leadership. Organizational leadership provides “safe” spaces for new ideas to flourish. The context has changed radically and fast. Leaders have to set the organizational pace and tolerance for change.

While clear leadership is essential, so is continual education. It is not safe to assume “everyone” understands or wants to understand social media or the depth of this change in communication techniques.

We know innovative practices can get stuck in some corner of the managerial structure, the bureaucracy, the rules and regulations and certain protocols. If the use of social media is getting stuck, for the wrong reasons it is a problem and obstacle to your success.

Working with open system social media is a balancing act within the current government structure. Pushing the threshold for change is in order. While we might not have a natural fit, working with social media is not a contradiction in practice.

The new Open Government Directive provides clear support for change. The job is to become a part of the change and capitalize on this opportunity.

Tips: * Stay connected with others doing the same thing you are doing. * Find the simplicity in the complexity for your audience. * Distinguish between different kinds of social media. They are not all the same nor serve thesame function. * Clarify your expectations, purpose and goals. Adjust, do failure analysis and evolve yourthinking, do not get intimidated. * Different social media applications need different kinds of management, time, and resources. * Make sure you have the backing of your organization. It is impossible to use social media, without organizational support. * Evaluations should be quantitative and qualitative measuring both big and small wins. * Share your learning.

* Using social media or running social networks is a real job. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, don’t. Sift through what makes the most sense for your agency, everything does not have to happen at one time.
* Connect and collaborate with others inside and outside your group. Be prepared to help develop a learning organization.
* Create a team at your agency. Nothing about this is ordinar y. * Find colleagues to collaborate with and learn together. * Don’t be afraid to think ahead of the curve. Look for opportunities to enhance, not only your websites and email, but your programs and agency projects. “Yes, let’s try it here and here.” * Find the most interesting sites. You will be amazed at the convergence of ideas right now.

* Create some demonstration projects. Evaluate and change as needed. People want to see, point to and touch, the product, so to speak. * Get some results. Wins of all sizes count. * Not everybody “gets it” or wants to understand. Some will stay “stuck in a rut”. Educate those in decision-making roles, as well as anyone else who will listen. * Remember and understand generational differences. Do not underestimate how important this is in the social media world. Take advantage of intergenerational knowledge and skills.

* Find out how other government programs are using social networks and social media. Create relationships, network to enhance collaboration and innovation, connect people, increase communication, reduce problems, expand best practices and breakdown geographical problems. * Network and share wherever you can. * As you plan your strategy, identify results and core outcomes. Think about and tell the story.

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