John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Not long ago, public agencies were blocking access to social networking sites such as Facebook to prevent their employees from wasting time at work. Nowadays, more and more public agencies are looking to social media tools as a way to boost productivity.
A recent study from the National Association of State CIO's (NASCIO) found an increasing shift toward the use of social media such as Twitter, YouTube, and the like, as a way to better reach constituents. According to the report, "state CIOs may recently have found themselves unblocking YouTube to allow greetings from public officials or Flickr to mount photos of a bridge opening or to document some other important announcement. CIOs may not have been immediately convinced of the business value of these tools as they entered the workplace, but the fact is that this is how effective governments are communicating now, and this is not just a fad."
One of the pioneers in this space is the Transportation Security Administration's Idea Factory, which is a way for management to quickly tap into the collective wisdom of the more than 40,000 TSA employees, many of whom have ideas about how TSA could work better. The Idea Factory is an internal website that uses a wiki platform to allow management to tap into that pool of knowledge.
Instead of just a passive online suggestion box, the Idea Factory allows for dialogue and collaboration. Management may ask the community about a specific challenge, such as "how can we improve the check-in process?" Or "What should our new uniforms look like?" In its first two years, the site has generated 40 innovative ideas that have actually been implemented.
While the Idea Factory enables collaboration within an agency, GovLoop fosters sharing not only between agencies, but between public officials at all levels of government. GovLoop is a free, members-only online community for those who work in and around the public sector.
GovLoop was started in 2008 by Steve Ressler, then with the Department of Homeland Security, and now GovLoop's CEO. Originally geared to federal IT workers, GovLoop has broadened its scope and now boasts 35,000 members, nearly 30 percent of them state and local officials.
Why would an agency want their employees on GovLoop?
"The benefit to the agencies is they get to leverage the lessons learned and best practices from other state and local agencies," says Ressler. A GovLooper can quickly "learn what others are doing on important issues and replicate those practices." Those facing a problem can ask 35,000 government specialists, and bring more brains to bear on whatever problem they are trying to solve. One GovLooper, struggling to name a new website at her agency, put the question to her GovLoop peers and quickly generated 50 replies -- including the winning suggestion.
Like all online communities, GovLoop creates connections. Government auditors, web 2.0 professionals, and regulators all face similar challenges, whether they work for the Department of Agriculture, L.A. County or the state of Missouri.
"The number one benefit of users is they can do their job better since they don't have to work alone," says Ressler. "They have a community of 35,000 others in government working on similar issues."
GovLoop can also help agencies create private networks within GovLoop to collaborate internally. There are a number of cross-cutting topical groups, from acquisition to telework, where agencies can benefit by sharing knowledge with peers working on the same issues.
"People are hungry to collaborate," says Ressler. "I get e-mails and messages every day on how lonely, isolated public-sector employees felt when working on problems and how happy they are that GovLoop provides a forum for them to meet others."
More and more government agencies are using social media tools to disseminate information, to share ideas, and to communicate with the general public.
As with any emerging technology in government, there are concerns, particularly around privacy and data security. The media is so new, no one really knows the rules yet. For example, if a public agency solicits ideas on a Facebook page, are the results subject to FOIA disclosures? Ironically, it turned out that the Paperwork Reduction Act had serious ramifications for the use of online media. The rules were based on an old technology (paper) and were producing confusion when applied to social media.
To clarify these issues, earlier this year the Office of Management and Budget provided guidance around the acceptable use and disclosure rules regarding social media. The NASCIO survey also noted that state government's rules and policies really haven't caught up with the use of social media: "[T]he survey in the aggregate documents a parallel lag between use and policy or governance mechanisms..."
That isn't slowing down the explosion of these tools, however. As the survey notes, "The bottom-line -- social media tools are being actively adopted and used throughout state governments across the country." The first wave has hit shore, and is sure to be followed by more widespread use of these technologies. What government CIO's were recently banning is now understood as a powerful tool in the effort to provide cost-efficient public services.