Why Government Has to Get Social

A panel of social media practitioners from the public and private sectors gathered to highlight why social media is vital for government.

by / February 27, 2015
Brandi Boatner, IBM's digital experience manager, says government officials don't have to use every social media platform, but they do need social media to communicate their stories to the public. Jason Shueh

Social media for government is a lot like doubling down at the blackjack table: The stakes can be high, win or lose.

Today, however, it’s also a game that must be played. This was the argument expressed by a panel of social media experts Feb. 25 at the 2015 California Public Sector CIO Academy in its session Going Beyond Likes and Tweets. The discussion answered a score of questions on potential trepidations as well as finding real value.

Wherever opinions lie, IBM’s Digital Experience Manager Brandi Boatner was emphatic about one fact.

“If you’re not social now, the question is not if you’re going to be, but when,” Boatner said. “You have to make tech that meets the needs of the people.”

Despite the risks, Boatner observed that the once emergent practice of social media has come of age. Like the private sector, the sentiment from the panel was that governments can either curate their own social media story or have it done for them.

Speakers from the California Highway Patrol (CHP) agreed. Fran Clader, CHP director of communications, and Officer Jacob Williams, said even in law enforcement — tasked with handling a lot of sensitive information — social media provides significant benefits. Key among these are the capacity it holds to foster community, tell stories news outlets might miss, and hold the media accountable with correct quotes and information.

“We're having a lot of success with our social media program and it’s only growing,” Clader said. “And for those departments that aren’t using it I would strongly suggest they consider it.”

Robert Schmidt, a CIO at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, is an equally devoted social media practitioner with a personal Twitter account that ranks as the second largest for public-sector CIOs. Schmidt's 96,000-plus following is outranked only by the FCC’s David Bray at 100,000 followers.

As a panelist, Schmidt said analytics including social media data help define the department's audience. For instance, he said, an analysis of the department's social media accounts showed that truck operators were frequent users and tourists often use their website to learn more about state locales. Similarly Food and Agriculture's metrics have been used to craft Web and mobile apps for citizens such as the California Farmers’ Market Finder and the Report A Pest app, that helps residents identify and alert the department to harmful, non-native plants and insects.

Schmidt said social media analytics can additionally be inserted into performance reports to measure citizen impact and engagement.

Yet the discussion didn't conclude without a few words of caution. Boatner said departments should have social media policies in place, as IBM does, when posting. Schmidt said posts should be screened by a public affairs team if possible. Williams added that it’s also important to have a disclaimer somewhere on a profile page so residents understand that not all content comes directly from departments — such as reply posts or discussions from outside contributors that could contain misinformation.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.