While government agencies keep evolving to "meet citizens where they are" by joining social media sites, creating policies that allay the risks such tools pose can be an arduous, convoluted task.

"Creating a policy for the use of social media policy by a government agency is not a simple task," states a recent study from the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the University at Albany, State University of New York. "One not only has to contend with an ever-changing landscape of the social media environment, but also with the various ways governments employees are using these tools to do their work."

While there are many examples of government agencies effectively engaging citizens via social media tools, these best practices remain relatively new and unexplored for the majority of governments nationwide, according to the study.

"What we've noticed is there's a lot of fears, questions and concerns related to social media use," said CTG Program Associate Jana Hrdinov√°. "We try to take these fears and concerns and classify them into manageable areas -- to make it easy to follow through all the various questions and not get lost in the process."

In a study of 26 publicly available government social media documents, along with results from interviews with 32 government professionals already using or considering using social media tools, the CTG winnowed its findings down to eight essential elements to address for the use of social media.

Those eight elements include employee access, account management, acceptable use, employee conduct, content, security, legal issues and citizen conduct. While these elements don't cover every possible issue (the guide is part of a larger project under way that focuses on government use of social media tools), it's a jump-off point:

1. Employee Access -- Not long ago, social media sites fell under the "non-work-related" umbrella, and thus governments tended to restrict access to these areas of the Internet. But those lines have blurred lately as personal, professional and official agency use of social media tools has become common, raising questions about whether employees should have access to social media sites and the proper means for gaining access.

Agencies are managing access in two ways: controlling the number and type of employees allowed access to social media sites or limiting the types of sites that are approved for employee access. Most agencies interviewed by the CTG restricted access to such sites, instead allowing access for only a handful of designated individuals or functions (such as leadership or public information officers).

But formal policies that specifically address access appear lacking: Of the 26 policies and guidelines CTG reviewed, only five specify access procedures. "Of those five, most required employees or departments to submit an official business case justification in order to access and use social media sites," the study said.

Based on its interviews, balancing unrestricted and controlled access is a dilemma for many agencies. "While some agencies may value the potential opportunities for professional development when employees are engaged in educational, collaborative or knowledge sharing activities fostered by open access to social media sites, many are still fearful of the perceived legal and security risks," the study said.

2. Account Management -- This entails the creation, maintenance and potential destruction of social media accounts. Lacking a policy for this could result in a situation where an agency's leadership is in the dark about what types of accounts are being established, maintained or closed by their employees for professional or official agency use, according to the study. In policies reviewed by the CTG, such strategies varied. One strategy required approval by only one designated party (most often the public

Karen Wilkinson  | 

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.