Looking for a few good friends

Now that the General Services Administration has reached an agreement with Facebook, an immensely popular social-networking tool, clearing the way for agencies to use it as they see fit, the question becomes: Why would they?

Now that the General Services Administration has reached an agreement with Facebook, an immensely popular social-networking tool, clearing the way for agencies to use it as they see fit, the question becomes: Why would they?

Facebook facts

There are three ways to have a Facebook presence.

  • A Facebook profile, usually for an individual but sometimes for an organization, includes information about the person, a wall for public messages, and other elements that the user can decide to include or leave out. Users who want to connect with the owner of a personal page become friends.
  • A Facebook fan page, which can be for individuals or organizations, allows Facebook users to join, receive updates and conduct discussions on the group’s wall or in a discussion forum. Users who want to participate become fans.
  • A Facebook group can be created to foster discussion and information-sharing about a common interest. Users who want to be involved join the group.

A college student named Kelsey provides one small, early example of Facebook's potential. She applied for a summer internship with the State Department and then received an offer from an embassy. Kelsey was concerned that she hadn’t heard back directly from State, so she went to the department’s Facebook page to ask whether something was wrong with her application.

In hours, she got her answer from a department official, who explained that the embassy is part of the department, and that it is standard practice for internship offers to come directly from the individual bureau rather than headquarters.

To an extent, that’s the way any direct interaction between a member of the public and government official might go, whether by telephone, letter or e-mail messages. On Facebook, though, the exchange is now semi-public, available for others to read and learn from, and to comment further on.

GSA did not provide the details of the agreement, first revealed April 10 to Federal Computer Week by a GSA official speaking only on background. However, the deal apparently resolved terms-of-service problems that had limited what agencies could do. GSA has recently negotiated similar agreements with Flickr and YouTube. With the Facebook agreement done, individual agencies may now decide if they want to use Facebook and sign on to the pact.

Craig Stoltz, principal at consulting firm Stoltz Digital Strategies, recommends agencies deliberate carefully before they jump in.

“First, figure out why you want a Facebook page in the first place,” Stoltz said. “Because the guys in tech said it would be cool doesn’t count. Neither does ‘The administration is really into this social-media stuff.’ ”

Adam Conner, associate for public policy at Facebook, agreed. “Just creating a page on Facebook is not enough,” he said. “You have to provide something of interest as well. Many agencies have considerable amounts of content at their disposal, but you don’t want to just import an RSS feed of press releases and leave it at that. The key will be choosing the most interesting and active content and targeting it at the most relevant audience.”

Agencies should figure out how having a Facebook page can help them engage the public, particularly with people the agency is not otherwise reaching, Stoltz said. And agencies should commit resources to keeping the page updated. Any page that remains static in the fast-moving social-media world will die a slow, public death, he said.

NASA’s space on Facebook

Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center use Facebook internally to communicate and collaborate on projects.

Linda Cureton, the center's chief information officer, said using Facebook internally helps scientists seeking colleagues working on similar projects or challenges. That collaboration leads to an overall improvement of agency performance, she said.

“It also improves morale by creating a sense of community, or creating villagers within the organization,” Cureton said. This spring, the  center will launch a social-networking Web site, named Spacebook, for employees. The site will mimic Facebook and feature individuals’ profiles, expertise and personal interests. The agency will also keep its Facebook presence, she said.

Another Facebook page that provides a good model for agencies is the AIDS.gov site, said Janice Nall, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eHealth Marketing division. The Health and Human Services department maintains AIDS.gov as both a stand-alone Web site and Facebook presence.

The site posts photos and videos, links to resources, and has an RSS feed from the AIDS.gov blog. It also provides a comfortable and easy forum for discussion, engaging people in dialog about ongoing issues and creating a sense of community, she said.

CDC plans to launch Facebook pages that will provide similar content as AIDS.gov, Nall said. CDC has had a MySpace page since 2007 and has used it to share information on health campaigns and connect visitors to interactive content such as embedded videos and widgets. Nall expects the agency’s Facebook pages to offer similar content.

Embracing the social-networking capabilities of Facebook will be the key to differentiating new efforts from older Web tools agencies use, Nall said, adding that agencies that launch Facebook pages must be ready to allow and respond to comments.

Richard Pople, managing director of Business Insight Services, agrees that agencies need to know what they want to accomplish with Facebook before launching a presence on the site. Agencies might want to target specific messages to a narrow audience.

For example. the Internal Revenue Service could create a Facebook page aimed at accountants. “Facebook posts could give them guidance and interpretation to things that are new in the tax code,” Pople said.

Another IRS Facebook page could be for small businesses and provide communication and information about tax issues relevant to that group, he said. IRS officials could monitor conversations on the page and address issues that appear important to the users.

“The challenge is maintaining the cadence and frequency of updates — every four to six days is probably the right frequency fora government oriented group,” Pople said. “Without frequency, people will sign up and drop off very quickly.”

Looking for guidance

So far, there are few federal success stories because until the GSA agreement, agencies were limited in what they could do. Some social-media experts suggest that agencies should look for models at universities and other levels of government.

Officials in Rockville, Md., use the local government's Facebook page to post photos of events and to share information that is not considered newsworthy enough for a press release. Officials update the city’s Facebook page once or twice a day, said Shannon Loomis, a city spokeswoman.

For example, city posted photos of residents cleaning up a stream bed there on Earth Day. On another warm April day, a post suggested residents try out one of the city’s golf courses. “We see this as a way for people in the community to connect with one another and for us to get the word out about things that we’re doing,” Loomis said.

Stanford University has had a Facebook presence since 2007 and has found it to be a very valuable tool for engaging the larger community, said Ian Hsu, director of Internet media outreach there.

Stanford recently sent admission notices for the class of 2013, and Hsu used Facebook to get a community of Stanford fans to support and congratulate the potential new students. He posted a status message asking students and alumni to tell the new students what makes Stanford special. In an hour, 40 people responded to the request and a dialog among alumni, students and potential students started.

“It happened so quickly and easily, there would have been no way for that to happen before Facebook,” Hsu said.

The university also uses Facebook to share information discovered and learned at Stanford. In a feature named "Stanford Open Office Hours," users can view videos of professors talking about their research and findings. The Facebook community is invited to ask questions and make comments. The professors then respond to the questions.

“So we have this ongoing dialog with the community that people can observe or participate in,” Hsu said.

That kind of interaction between an organization and its constituents is the real key benefit of Facebook, Stoltz said.

“If you start to think about the government activities that involve stuff people really care about, not politically, but personally —personal health, finances, recreation — there probably are opportunities for agencies to create active communities using Facebook,” Stoltz said.

Meanwhile, the unknown factors that user interaction brings to Facebook are risks each agency will have to weigh, NASA’s Cureton said. Using Facebook in the private sector is easier because companies can measure the risks and rewards with metrics such as market share and profit. Government agencies generally do not have those metrics.

“Is the political risk worth the political reward?” Cureton asked. “Rewards are things like lives saved, healthier citizens, spacecraft launched, crime reduced, etc. I think it’s important for federal IT professionals to understand that, so that we can offer advice to those making these risk-based decisions.”

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