Two emerging technology trends in the public sector — social networking and cloud computing — have now been combined in IBM’s recently released SmartCloud Social Collaboration for Government, a private cloud computing service for government agencies.

The service, officially introduced last week, is Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) compliant and designed to keep data in a private or community cloud, meaning that no one outside the government agency using the service would have access to the data, said Chip Emmet, manager of social collaboration for IBM government and public sector.

Social networking tools offered in the SmartCloud Social Collaboration service include internal blogs, microblogs, wikis, social file sharing and user profiles as well as more traditional forms of communication like e-mail and instant messaging, according to IBM.

Through social file sharing, users can save PDFs or Microsoft Word documents in the cloud and similar to Facebook’s photo-tagging function, users can tag the documents so others in the network can view them. Emmet said the social networking tools like the social file sharing have been integrated into the cloud computing service because government agencies are making social collaboration a higher priority.

“At the highest level, [government agencies] are looking for better collaboration for both inside and outside their firewalls,” he said.

But will IBM’s social collaboration features help put the company ahead of top cloud competitors like Google and Microsoft?

“To a certain extent, [IBM] is packaging and offering a set of solutions they already had,” said Shawn McCarthy, director of research at IDC Government Insights. “And there’s plenty of competition in that realm right now. So it allows them to continue to be a player.”

A few years ago, IBM launched LotusLive, a cloud computing service that offers the same features of the SmartCloud, however, LotusLive is a public cloud computing service and not FISMA compliant.

Emmet said Web-based social collaboration is an emerging trend and a high priority among government agencies and a private social network in the cloud allows those agencies to share private data among certain government employees or among a specific agency.

And IBM isn’t the only organization finding that government social networking is becoming a trend whether it’s for internal or external purposes. According to a 2010 online survey of more than 600 respondents from federal, state and county/municipality government agencies, 66 percent of government workplaces use some type of social networking tool and 65 percent of those are using more than one tool.

The survey — by the Human Capital Institute, a research and talent management organization — showed that social networking tools are used for a variety of internal and external uses such as employee training and public relations, which is the most common use for social networking in government.

IDC’s McCarthy said while internal social networking tools within a government agency can strengthen communication and help with daily responsibilities, the tools are only useful if the user can help build out the internal social network.

“I could hand you a set of working tools and you can either build me a slab of wood or you can build me a piano,” McCarthy said. “It depends on how good the person is that’s using them.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.