California doesn't want to force its agencies into using social media to better communicate and interact with the public -- it wants to encourage them. And that it's doing with the adoption of a social media policy that outlines the do's and don'ts of online communication tools.
The state officially adopted the use of social media tools Friday, Feb. 26, to promote communication and transparency if agencies choose to use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites. The policy, which participating agencies must comply with by July 1, 2010, requires that only authorized users who have been trained regarding their roles, responsibilities and security risks, have access to social media sites while at work as a state employee.
"It requires that due diligence is performed when departments move ahead in using their social networking sites," Office of the State Chief Information Officer (OCIO) spokesman Bill Maile said. "This is yet one more way we can use technology to allow better communication and transparency for the many Californians who do business with the state."
In its IT policy letter, the OCIO provides guidelines to managers, such as preventing unnecessary functions like instant messaging or file exchange within social media. Accompanying the policy is a Social Media Standard to help state agencies consider the various risk factors associated with using social media sites.
While many state agencies use traditional technologies to communicate with the public such as a Web site, two of California's larger agencies -- the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) -- are already on the social media ball.
At CalPERS -- the state health and retirement provider with 1.6 million members -- taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube helps draw traffic to its Web site and helps the agency provide its perspective on various issues to the people, CalPERS spokesman Brad Pacheco said.
"You wouldn't think that people would want to follow a retirement fund on Twitter," he said. "But we have a lot of policy perspectives because we're a big player in the market."
Another big public-sector player is California's DMV, which has 1,400 followers on Twitter and more than 600 fans on Facebook. Even more surprising is the 500,000-plus views on its YouTube channel, DMV spokesman Mike Marando said.
"We have driver education classes at high schools that use this as part of their curriculum," he said. "And Twitter allows us to interact with customers directly on issues that affect a large segment of the population."
While the benefits of government agencies jumping into social networking appear to outweigh any potential drawbacks, one point to remember is the resources to maintain such networks.
"When you commit yourself to those social media tools, there are resource issues and you have to have the manpower to continue them," Pacheco said. "Resources aren't something in the state of California that you can get a lot of - you've got to keep them up if you're going to commit yourself."
Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.