John Monroe’s article on Federal Computer Week earlier this month collates advice from social media experts at May’s Government Leadership Summit in Williamsburg, Va. He outlines 7 key steps towards achieving social-media success within government. These steps quantify the risks associated with social media, and explain how only by embracing these can success be achieved. These 7 steps are key tenets of Web 2.0 and are expanded on below.

1. Take control by giving up control

This is about recognizing and accepting that a brand’s value is inherently based on, and reflected by, whatever people say it is. While perceptions can often be inaccurate, they reflect the view of a brand from the outside and cannot be said to be ‘wrong’. Rather, it’s better to accept that the marketing or communications department cannot control the message, but instead should engage with those discussing it. The growth and power of social media means brands are becoming more heavily reliant upon consumers/citizens for survival, and therefore reaching out to brand evangelists/government enthusiasts cannot be underestimated.

Charlene Li notes that while communication specialists do not like the idea of giving up control over their message, it’s important to realise that in a socially networked environment controlling messages is not feasible. Instead, it’s better to participate in, and become a part of, discussions relating to the message. This can be through social networking sites, blogs, twitter or other communications platforms upon which your message is being discussed. The State Department’s twitter account participates in conversations regarding their mission, and can be seen as a tool in rebuilding the US brand overseas.

2. Keep the finger off the policy panic button

Any social media policies should guide employees on how to use new technologies, rather than simply outline what they can and cannot do. The recent Dow Jones social media guidelines are an example of what not to do. Your employees are usually your best brand ambassadors and should be trusted to uphold the values and aspirations of their employer. Harnessing and embracing their passions and expertise is a much more suitable policy, than restricting exactly how they can represent themselves.

Nevertheless, there are many considerations that need to be taken into account when creating sustainable policies and guidelines. There are many legal and policy challenges, that need to be acknowledged in any set of guidelines. Many agencies have included aspects of these in their different social media policies.

It’s also important to appreciate that policies can and should be flexible to deal with unexpected scenarios. This is aluded to in one of Steve Radick’s twenty theses for Government 2.0:

Policies are not written in stone.  With justification, passion, and knowledge, policies and rules can and should be changed.  Sometimes it’s as easy as asking, but other times will require a knockdown, drag-out fight.  Both are important.

There is, however, a need to update existing practices to allow the use of new tools to break down barriers to communication and information. The Open Government brainstorming sessions outlined many policies which need to be looked at – and potentially updated – in order to effectively promote citizen participation. These include the Paperwork Reduction Act, Federal Cookie Policy and Records Management. Notwithstanding these existing policies, we’ve already seen many examples of successful social media initiatives. Therefore, there should not be any assumption that existing policies or legislation create barriers for any agency to engage with social media.

3. Brace for, and embrace, the unexpected

The example of NASA’s online contest to name a new module of the International Space Station is cited as an example of how online participation can produce unexpected results.

More than 230.000 people suggested the name Colbert as a result of comedian Stephen Colbert, who used his nightly talk-show to rally audience support for this name to be used. NASA did not expect this when they conceived the contest, but it was not necessarily a bad thing.

As a result of Colbert’s campaign, and the subsequent appearance of a NASA official on his show, NASA received a lot of great publicity. Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said:

You just have to understand that there will be unexpected ‘opportunities’ that social media will give you

In the end NASA named the station Tranquility — in honor of the touchdown site of Apollo 11 — but gave Colbert’s name to an on-station exercise machine.

The story above highlights how engaging in social media, and soliciting public feedback can have unintended consequences. NASA’s ability to deal with this through a compromise highlights a fundamental trait which all social media initiatives must adhere i.e. if you seek public participation and feedback you must be prepared to recognize it even/especially when it’s not what was originally expected.

4. Relinquish your pride in your own expertise

Beth Noveck (Deputy CTO for Open Government) explains this when she says:

We [Government] do not have a monopoly on the best ideas. We do not have all the answers …to the tremendous challenges we confront today.

An acceptance that all the subject-matter experts – in relation to government data – do not work in government agencies, is the first step towards creating platforms upon which outside ideas are solicited. These platforms have been enthusiastically embraced by the Obama administration and many State agencies. Recent examples include:

Vivek Kundra recently blogged about using different technology strategies to empower government officials and the public to work together. Federal officials should actively tap into the public’s expertise to help solve specific problems. Whether this is how to improve a website, or ideas on Healthcare reform, this form of citizen to government interaction is a central pillar of an open civic system, and should be utilized to enhance existing agency expertise.

5. Everything you know about productivity is wrong

The prevailing orthodoxy within many government agencies is that access to social networking sites should be restricted, or actively banned. The theory is that staff will be so busy updating their Facebook or Twitter accounts, that they will neglect their work.

Instead, agencies should evaluate the productivity risks in not allowing people to access these tools. RRW recently reported on a study by Australian scientists which found that allowing access to ‘websites of personal interest, including news sites and YouTube, provided workers a mental break that ultimately increased their ability to concentrate and was correlated with a 9% increase in total productivity.’

Social networks can be used to harness the knowledge of experts to find better answers and ideas to work related issues. Networks such as Twitter can provide feedback on all kinds of questions, and serve as real-time information repositories. The Army has recently ordered bases to stop blocking Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites, in order to ‘facilitate the dissemination of strategic, unclassified information’ among troops.

The Federal Web managers council outlined this issue in a paper last year. They identified the reasons for blocking these sites as relating to security, time wasting and bandwidth. Nevertheless, their view was the ‘new Administration should require agencies to provide access to social media sites unless the agency head justifies blocking certain employees or certain sites’.

6. Same employees, new job descriptions

President Obama explained in his Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government:

Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.

Collaboration within government and among citizens will become a much more important aspect of how agencies and their employees work. Whether this is through sharing best practices within networks such as Govloop, or contributing to blogs and twitter streams, online collaboration will become a matter-of-fact activity, in which everyone may be required to engage with.

The recent Open Government brainstorm session distilled ideas on collaboration into three main topics:

  • Enhancing Intra- and Inter-Government Collaboration – to improve institutional collaboration
  • Creating Incentives for Public-Private Partnerships – to ensure all government partners work together
  • Innovating in Alternative Dispute Resolution – ideas on dispute resolution strategies

The ideas submitted around these topics highlight the public’s expectations of great collaboration within, and around government. The Enterprise 2.0 movement – primarily concerned with greater collaboration and networking possibilities – is fueling a reorganization and re-evaluation of roles within corporations. Successful social media and government 2.0 implementations, will necessitate similar changes in job descriptions to prioritize collaboration and sharing among government workers.

7. Fail early, fail often

One of the best measures of success might be failure. During Clay Shirky’s recent talk at TED@State, he repeated his oft stated mantra of how failing fast and quickly is sometimes of tremendous benefit. Failure can be informative and serve to create longer lasting success; it’s synonymous with risk taking and experimenting. Also, the public is often forgiving of failure if it’s in the execution of a worthy principle.

Charlene Li notes how managers should try to imagine five to 10 worst-case scenarios and create plans for mitigating or responding to these if they come to fruition. This enables the risk associated with failure to be actively managed and contained.

The steps highlighted above do not conform to traditional governance models of how to achieve project success. The tenets of social media i.e. transparency, human interaction, collaboration and conversation, represent a paradigm shift in how government institutions can dialogue with citizens. Understanding what makes social media different is a key ingredient towards achieving success in this area.