Tweeting for the Public Good

Utah allows employees to use social media on the job, but lays down the rules.
January 2010
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

State and local agencies may be embracing Web 2.0 to interact with citizens and constituents, but they're struggling with social-network use among their own employees. In too many instances, the first inclination of public-agency managers still is to restrict access to popular social-networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube for rank-and-file employees.

That is ironic when you consider some of the terrific uses that state and local governments have found for these tools. Motor vehicle departments post driving instruction videos on YouTube, a practice that's proven hugely popular with young drivers. Transportation and public safety agencies use the Twitter micro-blogging service to broadcast real-time updates on emergency situations and road conditions.

As productive ways of using these tools keep emerging, you have to wonder what potential uses governments are missing out on. Could social networking promote regional collaboration between workers performing similar tasks in neighboring cities? Could it reinvent relationships between social services caseworkers and benefits recipients? It's hard to say unless public-sector workforces are given some freedom to experiment.

Sure, social networks pose legitimate security and privacy concerns for public agencies. They also blur the line between working and simply goofing off. And if government agencies have been restrictive about employees using these sites at work, they're not alone. A survey released earlier this year by Robert Half Technology found that more than 50 percent of private businesses contacted completely prohibit social networking during work hours.

Luckily, the landscape is beginning to change. And as with many things in technology, the state of Utah is leading the way. In September, the state's Department of Technology Services released guidelines that give thoughtful advice to state employees who participate in social networks. The guidelines offer tips for creating interesting and valuable content. They also warn employees to be honest and respectful in their online postings, urge them to think before replying to comments, and remind them to follow state privacy laws. "We want to make sure that when our agencies use social media, they do it responsibly," says Utah Chief Technology Officer Dave Fletcher. It's important to "recognize the difference between social media as a private individual and social media as a public or government representative -- that's not clear to some people."

Fletcher, himself a prolific blogger and microblogger, says guidelines are vital as governments increase their use of Web 2.0 networks. Utah's Web portal includes more than 30 blogs from public entities and more than 200 Twitter feeds from state and local agencies within the state. "More and more, our agencies are using social media," Fletcher says, "and there are increasing expectations from citizens that agencies will interact with them when they have issues and questions."

To create its guidelines, Utah borrowed ideas from businesses and the few available government social media policies. The document also includes the state's own hard-won experience, Fletcher adds. "I started blogging in 2002, so I've observed the evolution of social media. And I've watched as people have gotten fired from their jobs for using social media incorrectly."

What Utah's guidelines acknowledge is that the use of social media at work isn't strictly a technology issue. It's also a management issue. The guidelines don't say which employees belong on social networks and which ones don't -- that determination is up to individual agencies. But the guidelines do make the issue easier for agencies to address. And that's a step in the right direction.