While many state governments are riding the social media wave that’s swept the nation and much of the world, most of them lack policies or guidelines to manage social media’s use and have unresolved concerns over security and legal issues, according to a new study released Monday, Sept. 27.

The social media working group of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) surveyed 43 states and territories on their use of social media and found many are communicating to their constituents online.

“Like the wildfire that spread through state government during the growth and expanding popularity of Web 1.0, we are now at the beginning of an important jump forward in the capacities of government to transform their relationships with citizens and the users of state services,” the survey said. “Just as in that earlier time when many state IT departments suddenly found they had rogue servers put up by agencies independent of any oversight or standards, state CIOs may recently have found themselves unblocking YouTube to allow greetings from public officials or Flickr to mount photos of a bridge opening or to document some other important announcement.”

The survey also found that the average age of a major social networking site user is 40 years old, and nearly all state governments (98 percent) pay nothing to host communications on such sites. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were the top three most popular channels to communicate with the public, the survey found.

“Government entities at all three levels — federal, state and local — are clearly choosing to employ the same tools that consumers are adopting, and at least at the state level, are doing so under the same terms as citizens,” the survey stated.

Some of the survey’s key findings include:

  • Social media adoption rates are broad across state governments, whether controlled by CIO offices or not.
  • Two-thirds of survey respondents lack enterprise policies addressing social media.
  • One-third of the responding states have enterprise policy frameworks, guidance and standards, and a sizable number of states are in the process of developing these.
  • Business drivers have most commonly been communications, citizen engagement and outreach, along with the low cost of entry.
  • Thirty-five percent of responding states are not currently encouraging broader use of social media.

There is a lag between social media usage and the policy that governs it, the NASCIO survey found, although the association said a number of states have moved aggressively to adopt the technologies strategically and to govern their use through enterprise policies, guidelines or standards.

“Despite the rapid growth, the survey reveals continuing concerns of state CIOs in the areas of security, legal terms of service, privacy, records management and acceptable use, and this has led to a wide variation in patterns of adoption,” the survey stated. “Some states are completely balked by uncertainty over legal use of the tool. It can be concluded that overall, state approaches lack significant maturity.”

Policies Lacking Sometimes

The forces guiding states’ social media adoption and usage are varied. One-third of respondents said it was due to a formal enterprise policy or directive, while one-third said they are operating by “default” or by perceived benefits to individual business units rather than formal policy. Only 7 percent are operating under a formal CIO policy or directive, while 26 percent are being guided through an individual agency or program policy or directive.

A sizable number of state CIOs has identified the need to establish social media policies, guidelines or standards, the survey said. Some states — Alaska, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey and New York — indicated they have policies or guidelines in draft or near adoption.

Most Common Concerns

The top five concerns or potential risks associated with social media use by state governments focused on security, terms of service/legal, privacy, records management, and employee use and abuse, the survey stated. In particular, according to a white paper by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association such concerns include introducing viruses and malware into the organizational network, mismanagement of electronic communications that must be saved for e-discovery, and several others.

While the NASCIO survey didn’t specifically measure the extent to which such risk-related concerns were actually slowing social media adoption, the association asked the states and territories what they were doing to mitigate such concerns. The top methods include developing/implementing policies or guidelines, educating users, monitoring use and selectively blocking users.

One other area of concern is the terms of service on popular social media networks. NASCIO’s legal team has tried to engage in discussions with Facebook and YouTube representatives to develop model revisions to standard social media provider terms — like the federal General Services Administration recently accomplished. Though nothing changed for states as a result of these discussions, a degree of progress was made with both social mediums “at least in terms of creating better understanding on both sides of the issues,” the survey said.

Best Practices, Considerations and Observations

NASCIO makes several recommendations for best practices on social media usage and management:

  • Gain comprehensive awareness of existing use and social media tool capabilities.
  • Develop a documented strategy and goals that establish a policy floor for administering social media.
  • Establish a multi-disciplinary team that includes business, technology, policy, legal, records and accessibility stakeholders.
  • Confer with your state attorney general to establish mutual understanding of legal issues pertaining to social media.
  • Know the risk and mediating steps associated with social media use.
  • Be ready for outages, with the understanding that free services carry no concrete guarantees of reliability.
  • Continuously monitor terms of service modifications by social media providers, especially where these impact privacy.
  • Anticipate that provider business models may charge without warning – are states prepared to pay for what is currently free?
  • Carefully consider branding and representation on multiple social media. platforms – are they consistent and enhancing enterprise marketing strategies?
  • Get started on policy, guidelines and standards, and expect to update these iteratively as new opportunities arise.
  • Use metrics to link analytics and strategic intent – the private sector does this very purposively and with great sophistication – leading states are adopting that strategy.
  • Expect surprises. The nature of social media will present unanticipated challenges and opportunities.

“Time will tell just how transformative social media will be, but in a much more complex network of relationships, beginning to manage new opportunities is crucial,” the survey said.