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How Government Can Deal with Tangled Webs of Agency Social Media Accounts

From deciding which agencies need their own social channel to figuring out when it's time to call it quits, governments are discovering there is more to pulling the plug than they might have originally thought.

DENVER — For an everyday citizen, spinning up a new social media account is as simple as linking an email and finding a flattering profile picture. But for governments — big and small — there is much more to think about. 

Until fairly recently, the government social media landscape was essentially a veritable Wild West of hundreds of “rogue” agency accounts, little to no oversight and even questions as to who was responsible for messages going out to the public.

During two separate sessions at the Government Social Media Conference April 25 and 26 in Denver, experts from state and county governments discussed how they are overseeing their respective channels and how they decide when it’s time to shut them down.

In Michigan, Andrew Belanger is responsible for all things social media as the statewide digital content administrator. When he started in December 2016, the state had hundreds of individual agency accounts with little to unify or guide them forward. 

“Over that three-year period, there was no centralized governance across all of our social media administrators, our agencies — there was a lack of a global strategy and there was limited collaboration on projects,” he explained.

What at first search appeared to be 149 official accounts turned out to be more like 450, many of which Belanger said had been forgotten or were without clear management.

“One of the first things I was tasked with, in addition to creating a policy, was to try to figure out who was doing what, where, why and how,” he said. “Through working with our teams and sending out surveys and a lot of organic research on platforms and countless hours just going out and searching Google + and Facebook, searching variations of partner agency names, we identified over 450 active accounts.”

While multiple, or even forgotten, accounts might not be unusual for an individual, for the state, the issue posed was one of disjointed branding, customer service and adherence to policy. 

Ultimately, without the clear channels of ownership, Belanger said accountability was missing and left hurdles in accomplishing the overarching strategy. 

“Throughout this entire process of figuring out who was doing what and where, we had the opportunity to assess our digital landscape and really take a look at all the accounts that were out there and through that process, we identified over 155 accounts that we actually unpublished or deleted. There just really wasn’t a need for those pages.”

The move set the state’s social following back by around 50,000 followers but cleared the way for realistic conversation about how all agencies should proceed with their efforts.

Rather than simply clearing the slate, outlining new rules and setting staff free online again, the Michigan team developed forms — similar to an application to run an official account — to identify clear account ownership and accountability.

King County, Wash., Digital Engagement Officer Warren Kagarise discussed some of these issues in a separate session, dedicated to knowing when to unify account and when to let social media teams run free. 

The county’s large territory and more than 2.1 million residents has made a number of individual agency accounts — 182 to be exact — almost a necessity, but Kagarise said not all of them are actually providing the value they should, and some are even costing taxpayer dollars to keep up. 

He advocates for taking a careful look at the digital assets agencies want to push out and having candid conversations when it comes to requests for new accounts.

“Who are you reaching? Who are you talking to?” Kagarise said of niche accounts with small follower counts. “Our smaller Facebook pages only have a few hundred likes. They’re reaching a few dozen people on a given post. How can I justify that [return on investment]? Think of the staff time that went into generating those posts.”

Kagarise said his team is currently working to identify the right size for the county’s digital footprint, but that there is no simple answer. While unified, single-channel approaches work well for smaller city governments, larger entities often have niche agencies that need their own accounts to reach a specific audience. Natural divisions like geography can also play a large part in the conversation.

While multiple accounts can mean a headache for those charged with overseeing them or ensuring compliance with federal, state and local rules, they can also be a headache for citizens in search of information, Kagarise warned. 

“Simplicity should be the key to all of our customer service. That’s a good argument for [consolidating] your social presence,” he said. “The more that you make them dig for it, the less interested they are, [and] their level of anger starts to rise.”

But simply shutting things down and shrinking online assets is not so simple. For government, there are things like records retention requirements to contend with. If it looks like there are some account closures on the horizon, Kagarise recommends looping in the legal counsel to ensure compliance with policy and law.

The county official also suggested looking carefully at how those accounts might be rebranded to retain the audience and make what might otherwise be a dormant profile useful again.

Eyragon Eidam is the web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at