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GSA signs deals for agencies to use social networking sites

Agencies can now engage with citizens through popular media technologies such as video-sharing service YouTube, using pre-negotiated service agreements that comply with federal terms and conditions.

After nine months of negotiations, the General Services Administration signed agreements with four video-sharing and social networking sites: Flickr, Vimeo, and YouTube. GSA also is negotiating with the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace.

"We found when we reviewed standard service agreements that they were not a good enough fit for the [requirements] of the federal government," said Michael Ettner, GSA general counsel.

For example, most terms of service agreements contain indemnification clauses that require a party to agree to be financially responsible for specified damages, claims or losses. Under the Antideficiency Act, the government cannot make payments or commit to payments at some future time for goods or services if not appropriated by law, and that includes possible payments for damages or claims. Most service agreements also hold users subject to state laws, but federal agencies are required to follow federal regulations, not state laws.

The agreements are memorandums of understanding, "efforts to put down on paper the expectations of the parties," Ettner said, and cover free services only and can't be used to negotiate premium services that require a fee.

GSA did not make an agreement with the online messaging service Twitter because the agency determined the provider's standard terms and conditions aligned with federal requirements.

At least 17 agencies have signed, or are in the process of signing, agreements with one or more of the providers using the template provided by GSA. Agencies with existing agreements with any of the providers can be grandfathered in to the terms and conditions negotiated by GSA. The agency recommends federal employees check with their agencies' Web managers and attorneys to determine the steps they need to follow to enter into an agreement.

Most agencies will appoint directors of new media to determine how they can use social networking tools to meet mission goals and comply with President Obama's open government directive, said Sheila Campbell, team leader of Web best practices for the government portal and co-chair of the Federal Web Managers Council.

The directive will instruct agencies to make their operations more transparent and to create a process that asks the public to submit opinions on policy issues and enable collaboration with organizations in the public and private sectors.

"Agencies that already have a business case to use these tools will have the legal footing to do so," Campbell said. Tools should be used strategically, she added, "not just for the sake of using them, but to accomplish agency missions."

A number have begun to experiment with the new media to communicate with citizens and distribute information. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used Twitter and Facebook to inform the public about the recent recall on peanuts, and the Library of Congress uses Flickr to share its vast collection of photographs.

As agencies increase their use of online services to share information, they'll also require enhanced capabilities for weeding through comments and questions received.

More tools will be developed to help agencies deal with the volume of online communication received, Campbell said. Instead of weeding through thousands of comments, they'll be able to cluster and filter messages to recognize trends and prioritize people's concerns.

"Agencies are interested in what solutions they can find to help aggregate all these comments they're getting from the public," said Teresa Nasif, deputy associate administrator at GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications. "They want to know if there are tools available governmentwide [and] what we can do collaboratively that makes sense."

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