Governments Need Social Media Policies to Avoid Pitfalls

Over the past year, more states and cities started considering and creating social media policies to address acceptable uses and minimize risks.

Governments are finding out the hard way that social media is a double-edged sword. On one end, social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, provide direct access to the public. But unchecked, these Web 2.0 tools can do more harm than good.

That’s the story in Orange County, Calif. In the middle of a corruption scandal, the former sheriff used the Sheriff Department’s blog to bypass the media and address public perceptions surrounding a police shooting and an inmate's death at a county jail, according to the Los Angeles Times. Ultimately, the Times notes, his reign ended with an indictment and the jail beating lead to a vicious grand jury report, signifying the perils of unbridled social media power.

The push for transparency and collaboration has government agencies across the country flocking to the Internet, using social media tools to interact in new ways. Some social networking projects have been praised, such as the YouTube channel launched by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
. Other efforts have been criticized for redundancy and due to security concerns.

Back in February, the National Association of Counties (NACo) reported that 41 percent of member county governments used Twitter and 36 percent had a Facebook page, but most had no social media policies. Incidents, such as the one in Orange County, have spurred several cities to rethink their Web strategies: Redondo Beach, Calif. put the city’s Facebook page on hold in August fearing liability from posted comments, and San Francisco quit archiving its Facebook posts. But the social media wave isn’t dying down soon, so governments need sound policies to provide direction for state and local agencies on how to address any legal and regulatory issues.

Some governments have put policies in place to develop a social media presence and evade the pitfalls. A year ago, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue announced via Twitter the state’s first government social media policy and online tutorial to state agencies. The guidelines were designed to make sure the use of social media complies with public records and archiving laws. California issued a social media policy in February to provide guidelines to managers and help state agencies consider the various risk factors associated with online communication tools. The Internet, however, is new territory for many other governments, which makes it hard to know where to start.

A recent study from the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the University at Albany, State University of New York identified eight key elements for a social media policy: employee access, account management, acceptable use, employee conduct, content, security, legal issues and citizen conduct. And as social media continues to evolve, policies must be adjusted to keep up.

“One not only has to contend with an ever-changing landscape of the social media environment, but also with the various ways governments employees are using these tools to do their work," the study notes. "And, as with any other policy, social media policies should be reviewed periodically to ensure that they continue to reflect the agency’s changing strategy and priorities.”

Russell Nichols is a GOVERNING staff writer.