In June, Google threw itself into the social networking fray by launching a platform called Google Plus. According to its competitor Facebook, which claims to have 750 million users worldwide, Google Plus has accrued 18 million users since it launched. Whatever the accurate count, government agencies might soon decide Google Plus is worth supporting if it becomes as popular as Twitter, Foursquare or Facebook.
But does this new offering have what it takes to make its way into government agencies?
The answer seems to be “not quite yet.”
One reason is that Google hasn’t established “brand” accounts for use by businesses and organizations (including governments). According to an official Google blog post from July 6, the company said it’s working to make brand accounts on Google Plus available later this year. Google is recommending that businesses and organizations hold off on creating pages until then.
“Businesses and organizations can’t really have an official presence there because [Google Plus] — as it is now — wants to keep all the accounts as personal accounts,” said Lee Yount, a program analyst for the Catawba County, N.C., Technology Department. “But that creates quite the challenge for business organizations for external means of communication to the public.”
Yount said his department is potentially interested in using Google Plus when the time — and features — are right.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Google Plus separates a user’s followers into different groups or “Circles.” According to Google, this arrangement improves the privacy of communication by allowing a user to post certain information to a specific group of people. According to a blog post last month by Jed Sundwall, president of Measured Voice, an Internet communications consultancy, the Circles feature is a good way to organize contacts and manage distribution of content.
Furthermore, along with Circles, Google has created “Huddles,” “Hangouts” and “Sparks.”
Huddles is a group messaging feature, Hangouts are group video chat — whether it’s on a desktop or mobile phone — and Sparks are content fees for different topics a user may be interested in, according to Google’s official blog.
After brand accounts are available on Google Plus, a few more tweaks might be necessary so government agencies can use the platform efficiently. The platform’s security and customization will be crucial, according to Thom Rubel, vice president of research for IDC Government Insights.
“I think it has to be modified in ways that recognize the highly sensitive nature of public information and government-owned information,” Rubel said. “It needs to be customized in a way that offers state and local governments a high level of confidence that there’s some specificity around certain kinds of services or certain kinds of government information.”
Catawba County’s Yount said he would like Google Plus to facilitate a more open exchange of information. He wants Google Plus to emulate Facebook groups and Facebook pages, which are open to all users and don’t require the acceptance of friend requests. Google Plus should follow suit once brand accounts are available to government agencies, Yount said.
“Google is going to have to create that environment for brands or organizations to leverage that, so that it’s a much more public environment, so that they can show everybody the information rather than necessarily having to add somebody to a Circle or a thing like that,” Yount said.
Since social networking first gained traction among college students with the birth of Facebook in 2004, its purpose has expanded from a platform for communicating with friends to a way for government agencies to engage with citizens. Whether it’s to announce new government services or to alert the public of an emergency, social media has slowly evolved into a main source of two-way communication between citizens and government.
But as government agencies use and support more social media platforms, staff workloads increase. If government agencies eventually decide to adopt Google Plus, Sundwall said adding another network to the list will certainly create more complexity for staff in charge of maintaining an agency’s social media pages.
“A lot of agencies and organizations are still trying to catch up to figure out how to use social media,” Sundwall said. “I imagine Google Plus is going to change all the time — there are going to be continuous innovations, new functionalities and features, and stuff people need to keep up on. That adds up because you’re already on Facebook, and likely, you’re already on Twitter.”
Government agencies may ask themselves if the platform is a right fit for their agency. Rubel said agencies should ask themselves, before committing to the social network, if there’s a specific business need that Google Plus addresses. If the answer is yes, agencies should identify the needs that aren’t currently being met through other social media networks.
Rubel said agencies should ask themselves questions like, “Does [Google Plus] meet a business need that will improve our services or improve the information that we’re providing to citizens? How so? How does it do that?”