Government Gets Savvy on Social Media

In an effort to optimize one of their primary functions – communicating with constituents – government agencies are increasingly turning to social media.  According to a recent study from the Human Capital Institute and Saba, 66 percent of all government agencies currently use some form of social networking and 31 percent of counties and municipalities surveyed consider social media a more proficient platform for constituent feedback than traditional channels such as town halls.

Clearly, there is a shift taking place in government operations—and we’re finding that in this shift, mobile devices are playing a significant role. American City & County recently featured an article on the growth of “e-government” services and the coinciding substantial increase in mobile device penetration, reporting, “Mobile device penetration has grown from 5 percent globally in 1998 to 55 percent 2008. It is predicted that by 2018 the penetration rate will be as high as 96 percent.” The article discusses how local governments have been quick to innovate, providing new and engaging mobile applications, which focus on public safety, transportation, information services, interactive mapping, and more.  In fact, just a few months ago, the CIA launched social media enhancements to its public CIA.gov website, noting how more than half of internet users browse with mobile devices. Furthermore, Washington Technology, which cited “mobility” and “social media and collaboration” as two of their “9 Tech Trends to Watch,” recently spoke with a group of CTOs from various government contractors about the important technologies that their companies must master during the next five years. In addition to noting the value in utilizing social media platforms in future government operations, the need for mobility was also underscored. Deborah Dunie (executive vice president and CTO at CACI International) commented, “The entire world has gone mobile, so the reality is we have a mobile workforce and mobile lifestyle.”

At the surface, their involvement in the premier digital-social-spheres is clear, with many government agencies having amassed significant followings in the online social-media realm.  The U.S. Army has over 55,000 Twitter followers, the DoD Pentagon Channel has clocked in more than 72,000 YouTube channel views and the United States Marine Corps has accumulated upwards of one million Facebook “Likes.”

The benefits resulting from this newfound digital government presence are significant and include: enabled real time communication, internal collaboration, messaging tool during emergencies, recruiting, voice for citizens/means for creating positive change.  For example, when a devastating tornado touched down in Cincinnati, Arkansas, this past New Year’s Eve, the enhancing impact of integrated social media solutions on government was apparent.  During the incident the Arkansas Homeland Security and Preparedness Agency was able to provide real-time storm reports via Twitter, warning citizens of hazardous road conditions and weather patterns. Arkansas CTO Claire Bailey commented on the effect of using social media for emergency response, stating, “We were overwhelmed by the level of volunteers who came into support our citizens in their time of need … we had to turn people away.”

While it is clear there is a great deal to gain, it is also important to recognize the risks associated with government social networking. As Charles Robb (senior policy analyst at National Association of State Chief Information Officers) warned in a recent GovTech.com article , making social media available to a large number of public employees not only opens up a whole new point of entry into a network, but it also brings into play issues related to acceptable use. Maj. Juanita Chang (Director, Online and Social Media Division of the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, U.S. Army) spoke to this point during a Defense Daily webinar titled, “How is the Department of Defense using social media?,” and stressed the importance of education (e.g., training on basic operations security – what can and can’t be posted), which the DoD considers the key requirement that will keep family members and soldiers safe online.

Although risks related to security and shared content should certainly not be taken lightly, it is possible that the most considerable social media threat might very well be to not use social media at all. This point is articulated by Steve Ressler (president and co-founder of GovLoop.com), “By banning social media outright, federal and state agencies risk frustrating their constituents, alienating potential recruits, and stepping away from an opportunity to set the record straight or better inform the general public. And that’s a conversation worth having despite the security risks.¨

In the end, there is no denying the impact of social media. As government workers become increasingly more mobile in their respective fields, it becomes increasingly apparent how important it is for portable devices to be well equipped for the integration of social media applications. As a leader in mobile technology, Panasonic Solutions Company continues to monitor the evolution of social media utilization within the government space, remaining cautious and aware of the related risks, but excited by the prospect of continued digital innovation.