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Social Network…May Appear in Government?

Note: This post is of my own personal opinion and is not endorsed or supported by any local, state, or federal government agency.

This article on Ars Technica caught my eye. The beginning of the article states:

“Now, in light of tightening budgets, a VP analyst at Gartner says it’s time for government departments to move past previous failed endeavors and wake up and smell the social. Considering the explosive social networking growth revealed by a survey Nielsen just published, now may be a great time to begin transitioning some government operations to social media tools.”

I think many government organizations, including my own (USGS) have already started to move some of the traditional processes or tools, and even generating new communications products, through the use of social media and social networking tools. Many governments have been doing this for a few years now. In fact, I would wager that there’s a lot more internal social tools than there are public government social tools. The obvious reason, of course, is that there’s no privacy issues when dealing with employees since there is no privacy inside your own network as your subject to government rules when you sign on. On the public facing sites, though, there’s a entire world of privacy issues, policies, and regulations that need to be considered and dealt with before implementing social tools.

This article just really caught my eye because it makes me feel as if the public has no idea that Government already is using social media and networking tools…and quite effectively. They just don’t know about it because they’re not on the “inside” of the fence. I don’t mean that to sound like one of those “you have to sit at the cool kids’ table to be popular”-type thing. But because we [government] do have to deal with all the various public privacy policies and issues it makes it hard for us to show the public how much we really do deal with social media on a daily basis within our own organizations. Certainly there are a lot of public government examples to point to but that’s only a small fraction of what is really happening.

Govies get it. We understand the value and the benefits of social media tools. We know how, used effectively, these tools can increase production, encourage inter-disciplinary and inter-program work, and increase employee communications. We get it. We got it. We use it. We just happen to have less flexibility when it comes to privacy issues than the public sector does. And let’s face it…you can’t exactly have a “social” network unless you’re willing to let go of some privacy. That’s the point of being social…to share information…and in many cases your own information.

So the next time you’re talking to a non-govy, or you read a blog post or an article about how Government needs to get on the social train before it leaves the station, let them know we’re already on that train. In fact, we were on the first train…after we built the station that it runs out of.

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I agree. From my participation at conferences on social media, the government is actually doing pretty good. If you notice, most of the private sector examples are the same 4-5: Best Buy, Cisco, Lockheed, etc. Even the founder of the term Enterprise 2.0 at Harvard, Andrew McAfee has said such to many people.

I think we are still in the infancy stage piloting and working out the kinks to the social media tools. In 3-4 years, we won’t even think of special – they will be like an agency having a website or employees having email. Just expected.

Scott Horvath

I agree completely. In fact, I would say that even now, for the young employees, they’re expected to be in the organization. Even if they’re not applications run by the agency, they want to have access to the current ones they use daily outside the gov’t. That’s important because that’s a younger generation of workers communicate. It’s just a given that they use social networks to connect with their peers, family, and colleagues. Not offering those services means you’re pushing away potential talent.

Tom Vannoy

This is a hot topic for me now and something I’m working to lay the groundwork for now so our usage of these tools can explode over the next few years. Things change in small ways and big ways as the new generation(s) come into the workplace. A small way example – the other day I was talking to a Gen-X that was recently promoted to a Director position and she was contemplating how best to tell her direct reports that she expects them to be on IM. At first I thought, huh, that will be interesting and then my second thought was ‘how cool is that?!’. Another example of a Gen-X I talked to who is bright and full of potential – I asked him what are your career goals and he answered ‘To work less.”. That stumped me so I asked him to expand and I took his response to mean he wanted more work at home which meant less commuting time so in effect he’d be working less. I talked to him again later and it was also about having the tools available to share information with others. My two hot issues now-a-days are recruiting and social networking tools and I’m hoping they end up becoming inclusive of one another – as they should be.

Scott Horvath

Regarding IM, we have an internal IM system here but hardly anyone uses it. You only see “tech” people using it. Most managers, supervisors, and non-techies don’t use or don’t want. The biggest reasons I hear are because IM is “for my kids,” “I don’t want to be bothered when I’m working by some window popping up all the time,” and “It’s a waste of time and is not productive.”

It’s funny because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve headed off something from happening because I was able to directly contact someone through IM, send them a link, pass them some code, etc without the delay of email. Yes, email has a much bigger delay factor compared to IM and in some cases is just inefficient.

Simple tools like IM are essential to many jobs. But some people simply don’t realize how helpful it can be if used correctly. That’s the kicker with anything…”if used correctly.” It can definitely be used to the point where it does become unproductive…but that’s where a little training for effective uses can come in handy.

Christopher Parente

Scott — good piece. Previously I hadn’t thought of how different the 2.0 scene could be internally vs. externally.

But is that really the main thing holding back Gov’t 2.0? Aren’t the cultural issues also a big challenge, of the kind this comment string makes reference to?

Scott Horvath

Cultural issues do exist. I think we all know that. I can see that here within my own organization. If you can show how effective it can be, even internally, then I think employees and management will start to “warm up” to social media tools. Then you can flip that and show (theorize) how that same type of tool will play out on a public facing site.

Now, if you manage to get to that point, then you’re still going to have to deal with the policy and privacy issues. Personally, I think that’s the biggest challenge…not the cultural ones. We’ve implemented a blogging software application to replace our internal news items. But we didn’t call it a blog…even though that’s what it technically is. Once we people realized they were able to comment and provide feedback on any news item they didn’t care if it was a blog or not…they just liked it. It gives them a place to discuss what’s happening within the organization. So, shifting people’s cultural values within an organization is possible. Shifting policy is a bit different.

Tom Vannoy

@Scott – thanks for teaching me that little tidbit. Had not seen that before and I’m relatively new to the comment/blogging stuff so ‘norms’ like that are helpful.

I agree, the trick is trying to get something in front of them that provides value so they can envision what is possible – the policies that then surround it will be more difficult to articulate. Unless of course NIST comes out with a standard we can be measured against. I like the idea of enabling comments to news items, I’ll have to send that over to our portal person.

Scott Horvath

No problem. Yeah, we found employees really wanted a way to interact with management and other employees much more easily as well as being able to provide their own thoughts regarding new directions within the organization, or award recognitions, general news items, etc. Enabling the news in a blog format provided that ability. It really makes a difference. Not to mention makes it easier for us to post news.

Sabrina Clark

Thanks for a great piece, Scott. I just came from an international conference with more than 1800 education and training professionals, very few from government agencies. The week prior I was doing another training program which involved visiting Chief Officers from major private organizations, such as Boeing, Motorola and others. The topic there was innovation. You have highlighted one of the major focus areas in each of the organizations and companies, and that is social networking. The learning professionals talk about the need to foster informal learning through social networking. The companies that were profiled to be masters of innovation talked of their use of social networking in connecting with employees at all levels through this technology. You are quite correct that feds are using it with or without policies and direction. It will continue and must if we expect to even pretend that we are interested in staying abreast of these emerging technologies.