Social Networking Use Increases, But Has Yet to Transform Government

Web 2.0 can be found everywhere in government, but so far it's no killer app.

by / December 29, 2009

For years, one of the ways the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) connected with the public was by investing in old-fashioned audio-visual production, usually a series of films teaching safe driving. Despite their best efforts, DMV officials struggled to show these films to their most important audience: young drivers.

Two years ago, the country's largest state motor vehicles agency decided to post the videos online by creating a channel on YouTube. Suddenly the videos that no teenager wanted to watch became a huge hit, according to the department's CIO, Bernard Soriano. Today the DMV's YouTube channel has more than 3,500 subscribers and its videos have been watched nearly 500,000 times; "Kyle's Drive Test" leads the way with more than 250,000 views.

"We think the viral effect of the Internet made them so popular," Soriano said. "It really speaks to the power of social media."

What seemed like a radical idea two years ago is becoming increasingly commonplace. Not only is the California DMV posting videos on YouTube, but "friends" also follow the agency on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Numerous government agencies at the federal, state and local levels are doing the same. Mayors are posting their own videos online (check out some of the humorous YouTube postings by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper) state legislators are using Twitter, and government executives like Federal CIO Vivek Kundra are blogging. The White House has approximately 1.5 million Twitter followers and 400,000 fans on its Facebook page.

The pace of adoption has been dizzyingly fast. An August 2009 survey by the Public Technology Institute (PTI) found that 72 percent of cities and counties use Facebook to communicate with citizens. Last year, a Public CIO reader survey found that social media didn't make the list of the 10 technology priorities for 2009. Today it's become the No. 1 topic among public CIOs.

So what's going on?

In the broadest sense, social networking and the social media tools that go with it -- often defined as Web 2.0 -- have generated the same sweeping buzz that the Internet's World Wide Web did in the 1990s. Inexpensive or free software allows people to communicate and interact in an entirely new way. Arguably these tools are changing business models: turning information into a commodity that can be used for new purposes and heightening the value of collaboration.

Some believe the same transformation will happen in government as it adopts social networking tools. This new platform for the public sector is sometimes called Government 2.0. Analysts believe the new era of social media represents the first significant development in the digital public sector since the dawn of e-government nearly 10 years ago.

Author and innovation expert Anthony Williams, pointed out in a 2008 interview with that e-government was essentially a one-way conversation between government and citizen that provided transactions and services that were online, but still stovepiped. As a result, the value was limited.

"In today's social media environment, these one-way conversations fail to build credibility and trust in government," he said. "With the new, function-rich infrastructure of Web 2.0, government no longer needs to work on its own to provide public value."

The expectation is that Web 2.0 will provide platforms for collaboration between citizens and government, resulting in communities of interest that tackle complex problems. Public programs will no longer be the exclusive domain of a single government agency.

Reaching New Constituents

At this point, government's use of Web 2.0 tools and strategies appears to be a mile wide and an inch deep. Interest and use is pervasive, but social media hasn't transformed the public sector yet.

Here is what's happening: If a government agency isn't using blogs, Twitter, Facebook or wikis, it's looking seriously into the matter. In particular, local governments seem to be experimenting with Web 2.0 -- a trend backed by the PTI survey findings. The federal government also has shown strong interest in Web 2.0 tools. Even the ever-secretive intelligence community has taken to social media, in one case setting up a wiki called Intellipedia for internal collaboration.

State governments appear to be taking a more cautious approach, based on anecdotal information. Perhaps because they have the dogged tasks of educating, medicating and incarcerating their citizens, states have been somewhat wary of throwing open their agencies to two-way communication and collaboration.

But as the California DMV has found, Web 2.0 can deliver immediate benefits when the right approach is taken. As one of the few agencies that nearly every state resident must contact, the DMV serves a broad demographic. "We put a lot of thought into who our customers are and how to reach them," said Soriano. Consequently the DMV knows that using a particular method to reach out to one demographic of customers might not work with another. "We found that teen drivers are especially open to communication via social media," he pointed out.

State tourism and parks agencies also have embraced Web 2.0 as a way to communicate with their audience. David Elwart, CIO of South Carolina's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said state tourism agencies already are adept marketers, so using social media is a natural extension. Elwart is an early adopter; he has been blogging personally since the concept first came on the scene a number of years ago. Elwart also uses Twitter and Facebook.

Currently the agency's state park division has a Facebook page with more than 6,000 friends and a Twitter account with 10,000 followers, according to Elwart. Along with providing updates and news about park and tourist-related activities, the social media tools are opening up new services. For instance, Elwart's team of IT developers is working on an application for Facebook that will create an interactive map of South Carolina's parks. The map will eventually be linked to the agency's central reservation system so that visitors can use either the Facebook page or an iPhone app to book a camping site.

Encouraging Responsible Use

As CIO, Elwart sees it as his responsibility to stay abreast of new technologies, and to introduce and guide their potential use within his agency. He has adopted flexible guidelines for social media usage within the agency. After receiving feedback from administrators, especially those who were in charge of outlying field offices, the agency adopted guidelines for employee use. "We recognized people were going to use it, so we actually encouraged it be done, but responsibly," said Elwart.

That approach is more the exception than the rule in the public sector. So far, many agency guidelines and policies strictly control who can post updates on Facebook and send messages via Twitter. At the California DMV, messages and messaging via Web 2.0 are handled almost exclusively by the department's Office of Public Affairs. Rank-and-file employees aren't allowed use these social media tools from their work computers.

Most organizations -- public and private sector -- follow that restrictive approach. In fact, government might be slightly ahead of other organizations in adopting Web 2.0. A recent survey by Robert Half Technology found that 54 percent of business firms have company policies that prohibit employees from visiting social networking sites at work; just 19 percent permit it for business purposes only.

Chris Curran, chief technology officer for consulting firm Diamond Management and Technology Consultants Inc., believes Web 2.0 is too big and transformative to be restricted in the workplace. "If you rewind to 1995, the attitude back then was, 'No Internet use at work.' Then it became, 'No Internet shopping during work hours.' But over time, the issue just went away because a majority of employees are good people, hardworking and productive. Some people are going to do stupid things whether they have access to social networking or not. But it doesn't make sense to ignore a social trend that is bigger than your organization because of a few bad workers."

Taking that inclusive approach is the consolidated city and county of San Francisco, which has a social media center on its Web site that lists the various ways constituents can receive updates, follow activities and communicate. San Francisco boasts three YouTube channels, numerous Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and blogs.

CIO Chris Vein attributes the city's broad and liberal use of social media to Mayor Gavin Newsom's "understanding of how technology can transform government," he said. The philosophy in San Francisco is to "fail forward," which means new ideas and innovation are embraced, not frowned upon.

When it comes to guidelines for Web 2.0, Vein said the city's government is highly decentralized. "I set the vision," he said. "But the day-to-day decisions are done by the separate departments. I try to show the benefits and explain the risks." Control has been an issue, Vein admitted, and the city's legal counsel has probably suffered heartburn over some of the social media projects. But security is always a high priority and the risks are carefully calculated.

It's a Personnel Issue

How to set guidelines and policies around Web 2.0 continues to be a hot debate within the public sector. On one hand, the benefits of using social networking technology continue to expand as more agencies find new ways to use them. On the other hand, government agencies are held to a higher standard when balancing accessibility and transparency with privacy and security.

Increasingly CIOs are stressing that use and abuse of Web 2.0 in the workplace is not a technology issue, but a personnel issue. They advise approaching Web 2.0 from a risk management perspective, with the understanding that different agencies have different concerns about Web 2.0. For example, employees in a state tourism agency will have a more compelling need to use social networking than staff working for a corrections department.

Curran strongly urged CIOs to embrace Web 2.0 on a personal level by using the tools themselves. He recommended blogs as a way to keep both IT staff and government employees informed about all technology doings and their impact on how government operates.

"Trying to ignore this is like ignoring the Internet," he said. "CIOs need to embrace it as a tool and as an opportunity out there, and start thinking about how to take advantage of it."

While it may seem like there's a confusing number of platforms available -- providing more ways for things to possibly go wrong -- the industry appears to be integrating and consolidating. Twitter feeds are popping up on Facebook pages, for example. Curran noted that Google is introducing a new communications platform called Wave, which will combine various Web 2.0 tools with e-mail and collaboration tools. Not surprisingly, Microsoft is looking to jump into the waters with an integrated platform at some point, according to Curran.

"The innovations are going to continue," he added. "It's going to continue to get easier to use the [Web 2.0] platforms and for the common user to figure out where to go for certain kinds of social networking."

Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO