If you’ve been following the conversations at South by Southwest this week, you know there’s been some spirited debate about government’s use of social media. From our vantage point looking across the federal social media landscape, we’ve made big advances in adopting emerging social technologies. But there’s no doubt about the untapped potential for social media as a public service and building awareness of how agencies are using these tools.
Like many of the public servants at SXSW this year, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ underscored the need for government to use social media as an interactive, collaborative platform — not just an “announcement system, like you used to listen to in class: the cafeteria will be serving roast beef, and I will be at this place or that place.”
We couldn’t agree more. We’d like to take this opportunity to show how agencies engage with citizens through social media to improve services, and share ideas for how all of government can do better.
Social media in government should either measurably improve citizen services for all or reduce costs. What does that mean for citizens? Here are some examples:
Many people depend on student loans for pay for college, and that’s why Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Program hosts monthly Twitter chats and answers questions daily using the #AskFAFSA hashtag. In January alone their small team interacted with 500 citizens and answered 156 questions — and they’re looking forward to answering more questions from communities around the nation.
- Engagement isn’t just about answering questions though — citizens can interact with government to learn how to better use services when it counts. Right now through the Nation Disaster Preparedness Training Center, FEMA and other partners are providing an interactive training experience for emergency response using the #NDPTC hashtag. We all remember the coordinated preparation and response to Storm Sandy — now emergency response teams in affected areas and anywhere can learn from and contribute to emergency response education to make our services even better.
- Social media can also save government time and money through crowdsourcing. The National Archives and Records Administration launched the Citizen Archivist Dashboard to create an engaged community to transcribe 300 digitized documents (more than 1,000 pages) in only two weeks. When the 1940 Census was released in 2012, more than 170,000 socially-engaged volunteers indexed or transcribed more than 132 million names in five months. The ability to create such an engaged community is something all agencies in public service can achieve.
From there we look to TRICARE’s social customer service for military healthcare; Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Thanksgiving town hall on hunger; or 260 overseas and 56 domestic State Department offices using social media to engage with citizens on visas and travel safety. USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov set a goal for FY13 to answers 1,500 questions alone in English and Spanish, an increase of 25 percent.
These are just a few examples of using social media for direct customer service engagement. There’s also huge potential we’re seeing for entrepreneurs to create better programs and services through social APIs, or social data analysis for earthquake early warnings or prediction of flu outbreaks.
While we think engagement opportunities between agencies and citizens is far from roast beef as usual, we also know there is a lot of hard work ahead of us to reach the full promise of social media as a public service. Some of the keys to success moving forward will depend on:
- Mainstream awareness of opportunities to collaborate. We need communities to know they can participate in the kind of engagement that Mayor Booker is talking about.
- Collaborative approaches — more integrated, cross-cutting solutions.
- Unlocked social data through APIs and analysis to empower programs, citizens and small businesses.
- Improved accessibility for persons with disabilities and the aging population.
And of course, there are those who are still only sharing, and not yet listening or engaging. Just like you we frown upon it:
We want to get to YES. But that means being able to measure return on investment. This is why the Federal Social Media Community of Practice released federal-wide social media performance metrics guidance, so agencies can better measure, report and improve strategic outcomes of social media.
There’s a lot of work ahead to get there, but we’re here to do it. The important part is that together with citizens, small businesses and other organizations we are committed to listening to feedback and using it to improve our social media services as the technology continues to emerge.
So the question is, what can we do for you?
Share with us your ideas here or on the #socialgov hashtag, and we’ll be there to meet you.