Advice for federal agencies on social media records management [REPORT]

One of the risks and rewards for the use of Web 2.0 that came up in the July hearing on “government 2.0” technology in the House of Representatives had nothing to do with privacy, secrecy, security or embarrassment. Instead, it was a decidedly more prosaic concern, and one that is no surprise to anyone familiar with governmental institutions: record keeping. And no, this is not another story about how the Library of Congress is archiving the world’s tweets.

IBM’s Business of Government Center has released a new report on social media (PDF) records management, focusing on some best practices for harried federal employees faced with rapidly expanding troves of tweets, Facebook status updates, blog posts or wikis. For those keeping track, 22 of 24 agencies now, at the minimum, have a Facebook presence.

If you’re interested in the evolution of social media in government, a lot of what’s in here won’t be new to you. If not, the report provides a useful framework for why using social media presents headaches for federal records keeping and quite a few best practices and suggestions for mitigating them. As the preamble to the report allows, “this report does not solve the many challenges it identifies. However, it serves as a useful guide for federal managers attempting to use social media to engage citizens while meeting the statutory requirement to preserve historical records for future generations.”

If you’re still wondering what social media is at this point in 2010, Dr. Patricia Franks, the author of the report and a professor at San Jose State University in California, considers exactly that, with judicious references to experts. She offers a number of definitions and then provides her own summary: “‘social media’ encompasses a number of emerging technologies that facilitate interaction between individuals and groups both inside and outside an organization. The best return on an agency’s investment of resources in social media is realized when the goal of the social media initiative is clearly identified and clearly related to the agency’s core mission.”

And that last point is particularly interesting, and frames where much of the federal government stands at the end of 2010 well. The observation was preceded by an apt observation sourced by “insiders”: that the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive created a “Wild West” atmosphere around social media. In that content “eager individuals, embracing the freedom to innovate, moved quickly to use social media both within their departments and agencies and with the outside world. Early government enthusiasts of social media endeavored to establish a presence without first identifying a goal. Only recently have those responsible for social media initiatives begun to ask what needs to be accomplished before selecting the appropriate tool for the task.”

Some new media directors and communication staff have been aligning tools with mission for some time. Others have simply set up the accounts and then pushed updates to them. From what this correspondent hears around Washington, that “Wild West” is getting civilized, with this report representing the latest push to absorb social media into the business of government, replete with established policies, procedures and, yes, reporting standards.

“It’s not OK just to check a box and set up a Facebook page anymore,” said Cammie Croft, director of new media a the Department of Energy, last week at a forum on citizen engagement. “You have to have an idea for what you want to accomplish.” That reflects what Booz Allen social media strategist Steve Radick wrote last month, when he observed that the “new media director position is a means to an end.”

Speaking at the same event, Jack Holt, senior strategist for emerging media at the Department of Defense, reflected on how federal social media use has evolved from “no way, no how” to “accepted procedure” to “standard operating procedure.”

“These are not new tools we need to learn how to use,” he said. “It’s a new environment in which we need to live.”

As the year comes to an end, in other words, the federal government is learning how to live in the same new media world its citizens are grappling with comprehending, where “We the People” has newfound resonance. Yet again, we’re all in it together.

For more on the report, Brian Kalish has a full writeup of social media and agency records management over at NextGov.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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