Commentary: Five tips for using social media more effectively in your agency

Hint: Don’t forget to talk to the users.

The White House’s Digital Government strategy, issued this past spring, included the following provision:

"The public expects to be able to interact with government anytime, anywhere and on any device, so agencies must ensure they can live up to these ever-increasing customer demands."

As a result, agencies increasingly will use social media and collaboration tools on mobile platforms to improve communication with constituents as well as to improve communication and processes within agencies.

Groundwork already is being laid at the General Services Administration, where social media manager Justin Herman has created the first government-wide Social Media Community of Practice, helped develop the Federal Social Media Directory, and established a Social Media Census for agencies to report metrics and progress.

It’s important to consider whether your agency needs a simple enterprise social media platform, or what’s becoming known as “worksocial” – a more robust approach that brings together business process management, social collaboration and mobile access to improve processes and services for internal and external users alike.

To properly implement social business software, keep the following in mind.

Pick the right technology. Ask yourself whether system users just need to communicate with external users through social media like Twitter or Facebook, or if they need to be able to do things like assigning and completing tasks and accessing enterprise data in a collaborative social environment?

To do the latter, you’ll need a social interface that lets systems and people interact and collaborate. The software can’t lock you into limited integrations. It has to play well with middleware and enterprise systems. Social platforms that integrate with other systems create engaging feeds through the automatic posting of relevant events and data.

Get early buy-in from users. Listen to your end users. In the government, this is most likely your peers and employees. Users already have email, instant messaging, discussion boards, and more. What do they need from social? What don’t they need? Enterprise social platforms offer lots of bells and whistles. If the tool is too big for the organization, with too many features already turned on, users will be confused and adoption will be low.

Actively seek end user input during development, and keep listening after rollout to make sure you are delivering what people need.

Scope out the right first project. Pick a high-visibility, low-complexity business process that requires a lot of interactivity. A likely process might be financial or budgetary, where a number of people need to weigh in. This can highlight how well social technology will work for an organization. It’s hard to ignore a social feed that provides critical financial and customer-oriented events for collaboration and rapid action. It also allows end users to get out of the black hole of endless emails, replies, forwards and wait times.

Use the right partners and the right implementation methodology. Whether it’s the software vendor or other integrator teams, pick only partners with both technical and business expertise. Lack of technical know-how will delay the project. Lack of business expertise will create a solution that doesn’t fully meet your needs. 

Government is increasingly using agile methodology for development, and this should be no different. Insist on a program that allows you to continuously update and improve applications.

Consider openness versus security. Cloud computing has already forced changes in how agencies think about security. Social pushes the security question farther. What can be exposed -- and to whom -- in a social feed? Make sure the solution you deliver allows for tight control of groups and roles, but remember that if you have a "lock it all down" mindset, it kills the value of social business. Bureaucracy limits adoption.

As momentum builds behind social technology in government, focus on the key elements for high-value, widely-adopted solutions. Pick the right tools, processes, people and methodologies to get it right. Listen to the system users -- before, during and after your initial rollout -- to understand their needs.

By matching system capabilities against peoples’ natural ability to collaborate and act quickly, social software can be a compelling tool for agencies to advance their missions.

Medhat Galal is Vice President, Enablement at Appian Corporation. He can be reached at