Big Brother is Blogging: Survey Reveals Federal Adoption of Social Media


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The administration is still wiping egg off its face after the social-media fueled Shirley Sherrod debacle. Bureaucrats demonstrated they’re human—whipped into a frenzy by unsubstantiated information to achieve a malevolent goal. But despite the government’s textbook missteps, there is growing sophistication in the government about social media, and more agencies are adopting the tools—something many Federal employees might not know.

Those were insights that John Kagia, Research Manager at Market Connections, Inc. shared this week at a conference I attended, Social Media in the Federal Community. Kagia’s 2010 survey of 321 Federal employees revealed that 23% didn’t know if their organization or agency used online social media. But when asked about the expected agency use of online social media in the next 12 to 18 months, two-thirds of respondents predicted an increase. The top social media tools agencies reported using today are non-government specific social networks (26%), Wikis (23%), content aggregators (22%), and online video (21%). Further down the list were agency blogs, podcasts, and monitoring/commenting on blogs. The top open-source social network for government? Hint: It’s not Facebook. LinkedIn was the top choice.

It wouldn’t be government without the red tape. Impediments to social media adoption in the government mirror the private sector. According to the survey, 73% of respondents cited security concerns, 62% cited legal/governance issues, and 61% cited privacy concerns with open networks. Other adoption challenges reflected concerns frequently mentioned in the commercial world. “Aligning a social media strategy to the organization’s overall objectives” and “measuring ROI and developing performance metrics” were mentioned by 46% and 40%, respectively. Curiously, “inability to control the message” (31%) resided near the bottom of the government list—after “lack of resources to maintain social media presence” (34%) and “identifying which channels to invest in” (33%).

Predictably, Federal contractors have joined the social media dance, but it’s hard to know whether it’s tango or spin dancing. Kaiga’s survey revealed that among contractors, adoption of online social media tools is also growing, but the goals are different from the government agencies they serve. Topping the list for purposes of contractor use of social media: Customer engagement and communication (59%), marketing campaigns (59%), generating leads (48%), and recruiting/retaining employees (42%). Near the bottom of the list was “product development” (14%).

Bev Godwin, Director of New Media and Citizen Engagement at the General Services Administration, and a panelist at the conference, explained some of the agency/contractor disparity. In a related Federal ComputerWeek article, she said “nearly all federal agencies are on the first level (of social media adoption), using social media for promotion and marketing, and many agencies are on the second level, using it for public participation and discussion. She added that only a few agencies are operating at the third level, which involves using social media tools for co-creation and collaboration.”

For contractors, Wikis represented the greatest current and future use of social media. Seventy-two percent of contractors use them now, and 28% plan to use them in the next twelve months. Non-government specific social networks (39%/10%), Corporate Blogs (25%/17%), Monitoring/commenting on blogs (28%/11%), and Government-specific social networks (GovLoop) (20%/15%), followed on the list.

Odd bedfellows, social media and government. Imagine! The authors of Sarbanes-Oxley and the Patriot Act using freewheeling, open-source tools like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. Fittingly, The Washington Post reported this week (GSA Could Impose Rules for Facebook, July 27, 2010), “the General Services Administration is attempting to become the first civilian federal agency to codify how workers should behave on Facebook and Twitter . . .” According to the article, “Tim O’Reilly, a social media expert and leading advocate for offering more government services online, said the public sector has struggled with adapting to new technologies for years. He recalled trying to convince lawmakers in the 1990’s that they needed to use e-mail to reach constituents. ‘Some listened, others didn’t, and the ones who didn’t listen lost . . . There are organizations resistant to using social media or any of these new technologies, and they’re going to be less effective from the people who do, and they’re going to lose.'”

Although the Market Connections survey identified adoption challenges, the findings reflected more realism than the phobia that O’Reilly described. Beyond examining concerns about social media use, policies, accepted tools, government-compliant licensing agreements, and who “owns” social media function within agencies, the Market Connections study asked where government social media investments are headed and what are the adoption rates. Sounds like work in progress.


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