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Here’s how some agencies use social media to communicate

Jan. 18, 2013 - 02:19PM   |  

The Energy Department, like most federal agencies, used to rely on exit interviews and word of mouth to collect and share expertise across its disparate workforce.

“Everything was either in binders or in documents in people’s file folders online, or people had personal relationships,” Bob Brese, Energy’s chief information officer, said in an interview.

In 2010, Energy turned to social media. It adopted an internal online wiki, Powerpedia, where progress on departmentwide initiatives, operations and programs are centrally stored and shared. The wiki contains nearly 23,000 pages of information on department acronyms and their meanings, computer assistance, health and fitness services, phone lists, energy-efficiency tips for the office and more. As part of their regular job duties, a team of 80 department experts ensure content is relevant, accurate and beneficial for users.

Relationships are also fostered when wiki users post comments and information. “The cool thing about a wiki is everyone contributes,” Brese said.

While most large agencies are using social media, use is not standard across government, according to a study released this month by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton.

Agencies that have successfully embraced social media are experiencing greater dialogue with their citizen customers and can more readily gather information and feedback from the public and internally, the report says. And under current budget constraints, social media may offer a more cost-effective means for agencies to reach their customers.

Energy invested $22,000 to launch the site and host it, and spends a nominal amount to maintain it. The department used the same open source software the intelligence community used to build its Intellipedia wiki and brought one of Intellipedia’s developers to Energy on detail for about two years to promote use of Energy’s wiki site, roll it out and train experts within the department.

Some social media critics say the time and money to maintain the sites are too great, and it’s hard to track whether the benefits justify the investments.

“This is an investment that we have not tried to track financial ROI [return on investment],” Brese said. The key is creating a community of employees who are continuously improving, learning and collaborating to develop solutions to their challenges.

The Air Force Surgeon General doesn’t have a designated social media budget or staff but incorporates those duties into its public affairs office, said spokesman Jon Stock.

A year ago, more than 50 percent of bases had little to no medical-related content, such as the clinic phone number or hours, online, he said. Today, all Air Force bases have medical websites and 86 percent of Air Force Medical Service’s medical facilities today are using Facebook to communicate with Air Force personnel and their families on issues such as diabetes, suicide and asthma. AFMS gains feedback about their outreach efforts via surveys.

“While it’s difficult to truly know how many people a post may reach, it is easy to understand that additional forms of communication help enable new ways to share our message,” Stock said.

When using social media, the report suggests managers:

• Develop performance measures to gauge the effectiveness of social media. What are people doing with the information agencies share through social media, for example? Most times, however, this data is anecdotal.

• Examine the potential risks, benefits and costs of social media use, including staff time.

• Consider testing social media initiatives in a pilot phase first.

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