The rise of social media has forced government agencies to revamp their online offerings in order to keep pace with perceived public expectations. Some departments have made a smoother transition than others to e-government strategies that often center on Facebook and Twitter.

There are many issues to sort out — such as usage policies for social media, Web design and back-end system integration. There’s sentiment that many governments may not have enough expertise to make these decisions themselves, especially with an aging workforce that was hired long before “Retweet” was a word.

At least a few companies believe this perceived knowledge gap is bringing forth a business opportunity: social media consulting that caters to government clients.

One such entrepreneur is Kristy Fifelski, the Web services program manager for the city of Reno, Nev. — who is also known by her online alias GovGirl. Two weeks ago Fifelski launched her own social media consulting firm called DigitalGov Group, which will work with city, county and state governments when they develop social media and policy. Fifelski’s company is offering social media assessment, policy development, account setup for websites like Twitter and Facebook, and staff training. The company is offering its services either online or onsite.

Fifelski, who is the CEO and lead social media expert for the company, said she considers her startup to be one of the first founded specifically to work with government clients.

Why should a government consider hiring consulting firm like Fifelski’s? A robust social media presence for government agencies creates return on investment for agencies, she said. Agencies should seek outside help, she said, when creating social media that helps citizens — particularly to prepare for emergency situations that require mass communication efforts.

“It’s not the time to be thinking, ‘Well I guess we should have set up social media channels for communication and in emergency events,’” Fifelski said. “I think it’s critical to put the work and thought in about this beforehand.”

Another reason for social media consulting, Fifelski said, is that when agencies don’t have proper policies in place, government employees can come under fire if they post embarrassing or inappropriate content on their personal social networking accounts. For example, if employees mention on their personal accounts that they work for a specific government agency, the inappropriate material on those accounts can put the agency at risk of public uproar. Developing policies helps agencies follow protocol on how to handle such mishaps or prevent them in the first place, Fifelski said.

Fifelski’s new firm isn’t the only company working within the nexus of government and social media.

Jed Sundwall, president of Measured Voice, an Internet communications consultancy for the private and public sectors, has worked for more than three years with the federal government on social media and their policies, he said. Sundwall’s company helped develop social media and social media policies for USA.gov.

Sundwall said he doesn’t see big demand now from government for social media services from private consulting firms. But he does anticipate it to increase in the next few years.

“There’s all this other pressure that if social media becomes more and more mainstream, and as more and more consumers use it, it becomes less easy to deny that it has to be a pillar of your communication strategy,” Sundwall said.

Staying In-House

It’s probably too soon to tell if government agencies contracting with a private company for social media work is a viable long-term strategy. Some governments have steered away in favor of developing social media and policy all in-house. Utah, for example, released social media guidelines for its employees in 2009 and never sought outside help when developing the rules.

Utah CIO Steve Fletcher said the benefit of developing the guidelines in-house is that those who enforce the guidelines will better understand them and the policy will relate directly to what the state wishes to accomplish with social media.

Utah adapted its guidelines for social media from similar policies already enacted in the private sector. The state received permission from companies to use their best practices for social media.

Fletcher said he thinks creating social media guidelines isn’t a difficult task. And because creating accounts on websites like Facebook and Twitter costs nothing, he said spending money on a consulting firm to help develop those accounts isn’t a worthwhile expenditure.

“There are lots of difficult tasks that we do hire outside help for,” Fletcher said. “But personally, for me, this wouldn’t be one of those because there’s so much information already out there.”

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.