Importance of the Social Media Office for Our Future

We are living in interesting times, especially if you are in the Government and happen to be working on implementing Government 2.0 in your agency.  Doing this is not something that happens overnight.  It takes a lot of time and perhaps more importantly it takes dedicated, passionate people who have patience and a lot of intestinal fortitude.  There are a number of challenges we must address as we work on trying to help our respective agencies use these new technologies in the most effective and responsible way possible.  Some of the challenges we must work through are: privacy, security, personal vs. professional selves, ethics, contractual issues, intellectual property and copyright issues, procurement concerns, records management, accessibility for the disabled, legal issues and many more.

This only addresses the immediate concerns that effect all of us, it doesn’t get down to mission specific issues or the cultural changes we have to battle with daily.  These can seem insurmountable, but in just over two years the government at all levels has come a long ways.  This has been accomplished through the hard work of dedicated people who wear their scares as badges of honor.

One of the ways agencies have begun to organize themselves is by recognizing they have new responsibilities to take on due to the advent of social media and the influx of new emerging technologies.  In some cases agencies have added these responsibilities to existing people’s portfolios, in other cases they have hired people specifically to address these issues.  Over 50% of the agencies, who answered my recent survey, had either developed a social media office or had added these responsibilities to an existing group of people.

The responsibilities that are or what people want a social media office to handle are as follows.  Not all items were ranked the same, but all were considered important responsibilities that need to be considered by all agencies.  See Figure 1 for the top ranking responsibilities.

  • Research emerging tools and technologies
  • Develops custom apps, sites, platforms etc.
  • Provides one-on-one consultations to others in the organization
  • Develop resources to help people use emerging technologies
  • Create policy and guidance for the effective and responsible use of emerging technologies
  • Manage an agency’s website
  • Manage an agency’s social media presence
  • Develops content for websites and social media
  • Provides Community Managers
  • Provides training for all employees on use of social media
  • Provides graphic design expertise
  • Manages a centralized Help Desk for Social Media
  • Develops strategic and tactical direction of the use of emerging technologies

Figure 1 - Social Media Office Responsibilities

Why is this important?  If we recognize that the world has changed, how we do business also needs to change, and the tools are constantly evolving then we have to figure out how we are going to address these changes.  Gone are the days where we could afford not to be proactive.  Now, we must start thinking more strategically.  We must be thinking about how to build a strong foundation for our future.

If we are to remain relevant and if one of our goals is to develop a government that can better relate to its citizens, then we need to find better ways to engage with them.  We will need to build working relationships with them.  We are now in an age where citizens must participate in their government as much as governments must reach out to citizens.  We are now equal partners in this new age. If we are to be successful and ensure our joint survival then we are going to have to start thinking about how we can establish this foundation for success.  One of the ways we can do this is by making an effort to encourage innovation and by establishing the structures to ensure these innovations become institutionalized into how we do business.

Innovation is the lifeblood of all organizations and countries.  Innovating a new way of doing business or developing a new process isn’t enough.  We must establish organizations who can help us through these changes.  They must be agile enough to sit at the intersection of government, citizens, and technology.  They must be able to have the vision to see what new things are coming.  What opportunities and risks are present with introduction of these new emerging technologies.  They must evaluate them for government and citizen use.   And perhaps most importantly they must help employees leverage these technologies so that they can effectively and responsibly use them.  People have an emotional response to change and it usually is one of fear.  It can be decreed from on high, but if people aren’t willing to embrace and adopt the changes then it won’t happen.  People need help to be successful.

Most people understand the first part, the researching and evaluating what new technologies are out there.  More often than not, they forget about the rest because this is the harder part.  Plus it’s a lot more fun to talk about cool tools than it is to actually integrate them into your work.  This is where we have to balance the current laws and our operating environment with how these emerging technologies will change how we think about our work and how we do this work.  If we haven’t established policies on how to use these technologies, helped people overcome their fears, and taught them how to effectively and responsibly used them then ultimately we fail.  This is where having an office or group of people dedicated to these responsibilities will help ensure our success and our ability to stay relevant.

The biggest problem is we have a long ways to go.  Most agencies feel they don’t have an environment where innovation is part of the culture or is encouraged.  There are significant deficits in training, responsibility for training and the development of training resources.  Agencies have also identified the need for additional resources, funding and more empowerment to make decisions as areas that could significantly help them better integrate social media and other emerging technologies into their organization (Figure 2).

Figure 2 - Resources for Success

We are in challenging times where hard decisions need to be made.  Some have already been made that could potentially be putting a major agency at risk.  When employees don’t have access to the guidance and training they need, the potential for error increases.  How can we expect employees to know all of the legal issues and other complications that make using social media difficult for government?  We have people working full time on these things.  They are not intuitive.  By not establishing a group of people to take responsibility for addressing these concerns it puts all of our future at risk.  You are building a foundation of sand.

With the threat of a Government shutdown looming, we need to think about the future we want and how we plan on getting there.  Agencies are already struggling to determine if they are willing to make the investment in emerging technologies since they have to choose between funding existing programs and cutting new programs like social media and emerging technologies.  We need to balance our existing programs with what we need for that future.

This is more than just funding for programs, but also the ability to maintain and keep intellectual resources.  With a potential government shutdown, government faces not just the loss of funds and programs, but perhaps even more critical the potential loss of younger workers.  These are the employees who have the skills and knowledge we need for our future success.  We need to invest in the future we want since it doesn’t happen overnight, but is built day by day, one brick at a time.   As President Obama stated, “…it will also require investing in our nation’s future – training and educating our workers; increasing our commitment to research and technology; building new roads and bridges, high-speed rail and high-speed internet.”  As with most things, the most valuable thing we have is our people and our investment in them is our future.

If you are interested in voicing your opinion on my survey about the role of the Social Media Office please add your thoughts here. Final results of the survey will be posted in a separate post by the end of March 2011.

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7 Responses to Importance of the Social Media Office for Our Future

  1. You are spot on about the need for government to embrace innovation and forward thinking, but are often left behind because of fear. After eight years in the Federal Government and building a social media strategy from scratch, I learned innovation and thoughts cannot sit in one office or location…no matter how hard I pushed. True change from this seed of innovation being plated across the organization, nourished by evangelists of all ages and management levels, and setting roots into the very DNA of the organization. Each person is on the front lines of social media (indirectly or directly). Yes, there needs to be a steward, but beware of the office concept…you may be creating another silo.

    • Lauren,

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t disagree with your thought of creating a real office could be just another silo. I think creating a real physical office or group of people can be problematic depending on how your agency is set up. For us, it has been part of our success. But in the future everyone needs to start thinking of themselves as innovators and that they have the ability to help the rest of the organization through these changes.

      Based on my survey, agencies have had a number of different approaches. They have either set up a centralized office to handle these issues, added it to an existing central office or in a number of cases have a hybrid format where there is a central policy office with the people who are training and implementing emerging technologies scattered around the enterprise. I don’t believe any of these approaches are wrong since the size, complexity and culture of the various agencies and international governments varies widely.

      An interesting experiment would be if you could create a virtual office in the government that would have people scattered in various physical locations working on behalf of the central office to integrate social media and other emerging technologies into people’s current processes. They could conduct training, one on one consultations for specific business lines, would have the benefits of being close to the customers and have the support of a centralized presence to help provide support pieces such as policy guidance, templates etc. This would also ensure consistent branding and knowledge transfer. Just an idea that could be interesting to see government try.

      • Ari Herzog says:

        Your virtual scatter idea is something that could easily be implemented with the U.S. Postal Service — for they, more than any other federal agency, are already interacting with every household in the country whether personally or through their mailboxes.

  2. Steve Radick says:

    Lovisa – I think it’s telling that the #1 resources that people said they needed more of to be successful is “more funding” and the “empowerment to make decisions quickly.” Government social media offices don’t just need more funding – they need the ability to use this funding in the right way. It’s not just about getting more money to hire more people or add new contracts – it’s about being able to use that money to hire the RIGHT people. That may be paying more for the right person vice hiring two junior people because that’s what you have billets for. It’s not just about having a Social Media Office for the future, but having the right people in that office. It’s not the organizational alignment or the size of the budget or the number of people – the #1 thing that’s needed is just hiring and retaining the right people. Focus on that first and everything else falls will fall into place.

    • Absolutely! Your people are your most valuable asset and where you should be investing. They are your future and will help us meet the President’s goals if given the latitude to do so.

  3. Doug Hadden says:

    This is an interesting piece of work that illustrates the challenge of any paradigm shift in government. It must go through intermediate stages conditioned by former media. The Government 2.0 end-game is deep citizen engagement. So, it’s no wonder in the “always-on” and “non-linear” social networking are seen as risky compared to the specialist, standardized and linear governance models in use by government.

    The use of a social media office, and the use of social media in-house look like practical first step solutions to tap the network effect for innovation and solving “wicked problems”. The financial crisis and potential budget shutdown may be compelling events that motivate governments to consider the network benefits of new technology rather than using older and narrow methods for project justification.

    The “success measurement” for a social media office may be when the office is no longer necessary to encourage citizen engagement.

    • Thank you. I agree that at some point in time, everything we are currently calling social media will be as ubiquitous as having a phone or a computer at our desks. We won’t need to think about them. But in the short term we will have to figure out how to best leverage them for government knowing that not everything will be a good match. And of course once social media is part of how we do business we will be wrestling with the next batch of new technologies coming in the door.

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