Department of Defense: access to Internet-based capabilities is critical, despite risks

In 2011, Internet-based capabilities, including social networking, are no longer a “nice to have” at the Department of Defense. According to official documents, policies statements, and the example set by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, these capabilities can and do contribute to the missions of the Pentagon. Yes, loose tweets may sink fleets, as a read of the U.S. Navy social media handbook reminds sailors, but the opportunities appear to balance the risks.

Eight days ago, a subtle shift in a Department of Defense memorandum catalyzed a broad discussion of what the next steps will be for the Department of Defense social media policy. Writing on Govloop, the government social network, Noel Dickover expressed concern about the expiration of the policy that he had been involved in drafting.

The DoD’s social media policy, titled, “Directive-Type Memorandum (DTM) 09-026 – Responsible and Effective …” will expire on March 1, 2011.  Through discussions with people in DoD, I’ve learned that the stated plan to replace this policy with a long-term Instruction has been shelved indefinitely, and all resources associated with this effort have been terminated.

Asked for comment, Lt. Col April Cunningham, spokesperson for Department of Defense, responded to a question about the implications of this change in policy for the Department of Defense, including the impact upon for service members and their families. [Emphases below are mine. -Ed.]

Internet-based capabilities, including social-networking services (SNS), have become integral tools for all manner of operations across the Department of Defense (DoD) and in collaboration with other federal agencies and the public. However, inconsistent development and implementation of policies regulating access to these capabilities among DoD components created confusion regarding what is or is not permissible. Establishing a DoD-wide policy allows the components to confidently, responsibly, securely and effectively utilize these tools, while ensuring consistent and open access for all DoD employees.

The review of Internet-based capabilities revealed that these capabilities have had a transformative effect on how the DoD does business internally and across the federal government. The DoD components, through their input, also revealed that they use these capabilities to communicate with many key stakeholder groups external to DoD, for purposes ranging from public affairs to recruiting to research and collaboration. Additionally, DoD families revealed how important Internet communication is to their morale and welfare during deployments.

As a result of these findings, it was determined that access to Internet-based capabilities is a critical functionality that must be preserved, despite some associated risks. Therefore, rather than restricting access to these capabilities, the NIPRNET must be configured and guidance integrated regarding the proper use of Internet-based capabilities into OPSEC education, training and awareness activities to allow safe use of them by all components.

This statement gibes with the Pentagon’s reply to Wired, which has reported that while the Pentagon may delete its social media office, the Pentagon will not ban social media. Instead, the DoD appears to be shifting to a posture where the use of social media, both in external and internal platforms, will be integrated into the work of all service members, aka “components. As Gartner government analyst Andrea di Maio put it, that position would validate the notion that social media is the new normal:

By dismantling their social media office (see article on Wired), which had been in place for two years, and making social media the responsibility of every member of his staff, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs Douglas Wilson shows how the future of social media will look like.

No more specialized offices, no more social media silos, no more experts or consultants building new strategies. Social media is a tool, amongst many others, for public affairs professional to do their job more effectively and efficiently.

The next step is to realize that every single employee and soldier will end up using social media. Not for fun or as an additional task, but as one of the many tools to do their work. Be that communication, intelligence, administration, or combat.

Whether the Pentagon – or any other large enterprise – needs to have an office dedicated to evangelizing these tools or consulting internally upon their use will likely continue to be a topic of discussion throughout the business and government world. The immense size, complexity and mission of the Pentagon will continue it an important case study for the success of Gov 2.0 vs the beast of bureaucracy, although that same mission means that gaining full insight into what, exactly, is working (or not) is difficult.

Members of the military have long known that they must adapt to rapid technological change or founder, often with disastrous consequences. In 2011, that adjustment now means leveraging open source intelligence while carefully managing security and privacy risks. For certain parts of government, embracing the potential gains and mitigating the clear risks inherent of these platforms has moved from a “nice to have” to a “must have.”

To whit, the U.S. Army’s social media handbook, released to the public yesterday, is embedded below. The handbook earned quick approval from Jeremiah Owyang, one of the world’s top social media consultants, who called it excellent.

Army Social Media Handbook 2011

View more documents from U.S. Army.


While increasing connectivity within the Department of Defense is not without significant risks to sensitive information, as demonstrated by the continuing strategic challenges posed by Wikileaks, the shift back from a “need to share” mentality to a “need to know” stance in the wake of these leaks is not a return to the conditions that existed a decade ago. Simply put, the ground has shifted in the meantime, with increasing adoption of connection technologies throughout businesses, education, nonprofits, civilian life and, increasingly, government institutions.

About Alex Howard

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.

11 thoughts on “Department of Defense: access to Internet-based capabilities is critical, despite risks

  1. Alex – You know I’ve agreed with this basic premise for a while (see http://steveradick.com/2010/11/24/the-new-media-director-position-is-just-a-means-to-an-end/ and other posts of mine), so I applaud what the DoD is doing here. However, a part of me is a little scared that without that one guy, that one office, dedicated to pushing the envelope and making change that the DoD (or any org for that matter) runs the risk of falling back into the comfortable, old habits from before.

    Ultimately, this is where organizations need to go, but I’ll be watching closely to see what the long-term impacts will be. Will we continue this upward trend, or will we slowly start falling back to the status quo?

  2. Your concerns are legitimate, based upon the thread of commentary at DiMaio’s blog and expressed elsewhere online. It’s interesting to see that the DoD appears to be moving in a similar way to large media companies or enterprises, with respect to making social media enterprise-wide. While the NYT may not have a “social media editor” any more, however, there is a group within the organization that’s entrusted with it. I hope you’ll share what you see as this goes forward.

  3. Great post, Alex. And yes, Steve, I too have that concern. Regardless what DoD says, the rest of DoD PA is not social media savvy. The removal of the social media team at PA for budget reasons will have a significant negative impact. And yes, we all need to by on watch to ensure that the next policy iteration that codifies the current DTM keeps the critical policy statements (I know I will).

  4. A significant problem is that the issue is multi-faceted with parts owned by different offices and agencies within DoD (Public Affairs, CIO, USDI, J Staff and respective agencies like DISA, NSA and DIA). Because no one owns the problem, there is no one to make sure these organizations play well together to get to a solution set. I consider many of the documents that have come out similar to the proverbial man with a clipboard in the motorpool – looks busy like he knows what he’s doing but it’s all a facade. That’s what we’ve got right now – a facade that is not seriously considering how to really embrace the technologies effectively (both internal and external facing) while mitigating risks including those that cannot be shared in open press. Would be nice to see less reaction and more proaction in this area.

  5. Hey Noel, saw you quoted, nice!

    I share the sentimate here. While eventually “social media offices” may not be needed, they do the hand-holding necessary to make sure the new culture takes root.

    Yes, while it is the eventual dream for the DoD to ride its own bikes, taking off the training wheels too soon will just end up with a lot of spills, falls and the general consensus that social media might not be so neat after all.

  6. Great article, one of the concerns I have faced volunteering with non profit organizations helping job seekers and training them on social media is the lack of clarity and understanding of the DoD concerning the use of social media by civilian contractors and employees of government contractors. Can you tell us what the DoD policies are for these individuals.
    Thanks

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