Department of Veterans Affairs releases progressive, structured social media policy

In 2011, it might feel a little late for federal agencies to be issuing social media policies. How governments use social media has shifted from a niche concern, debated by new media and policy wonks, to an issue that makes international headlines when global leaders alternately decry or celebrate the impact of connection technologies upon their countries.

Think again.

As anyone who has worked in a federal bureaucracy will tell you, squaring usage policies with rules, regulations and laws is a fundamental need if there’s going to be any progress towards 21st century governance.

“One of the biggest, long-standing complaints about VA is how it’s an opaque, monolithic bureaucracy that doesn’t respond to the needs of vets,” writes Brandon Friedman (@BrandonF), director of online communications for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in an email today. “We’re finally putting a human face on it. Everything we post on our blog or our main Facebook page or Twitter feed has a name attached to it. This shows even the largest, slow-moving federal agencies can make progress in becoming more agile and responsive.”

There’s also a matter of default for usage of these tools: open, versus closed. Consider that the emphasis below is the VA’s:

The use of Web-based collaboration tools such as social media tools is highly encouraged. Web-based collaboration is intended for information sharing within and outside of VA. To increase accountability, promote informed participation by the public, and create economic opportunity, the presumption shall be in favor of openness (to the extent permitted by law and subject to the exclusions noted in this Directive or other policy)

The entire policy, which has to be considered progressive for an organization with military DNA, is embedded below or available as a PDF. Given the stance that other federal agencies have taken recently on social media usage, this policy is not a watershed but is extremely important to over 300,000 VA employees and the millions veterans they serve. If access to Internet-based capabilities is critical at the Department of Defense, similar access for veterans is important.

Today’s announcement also serves as a reminder that the VA has come a long way in a short time, particularly in the context of an enormous government institution. “Less than two years ago, VA’s primary method of engagement with the public consisted of telephone calls and the USPS,” wrote Friedman. “Today, hundreds of thousands of veterans can get help navigating the bureaucracy via social media. We can also make a direct difference in peoples’ lives. One example I use concerns suicidal ideation on Facebook and Twitter. We’ve actually intervened in at least half a dozen instances where veterans have talked about killing themselves. We’ve been able to jump in and link them up with assistance. As we always say here, it’s about leveraging new technology to get the right information to the right veteran at the right time. For so long, many veterans have lost out on the benefits to which they’re entitled because they weren’t even aware of them—or they didn’t want to deal with a complex bureaucracy. Social media allows us to get them the information and to help ease the transition from the military into the VA system.”

It’s an important shift. Next up? Work to leverage technology better to reduce the backlog in veterans’ benefit applications and help vets who have returned from service abroad get back to work in a down economy.

Getting social with security and privacy

Embedded in this policy is are security and privacy provisions that instruct to the deputy assistant secretary for information security to issue an information protection policy, do a risk assessment, provide patching, training and a “Trusted Internet Connection” for the desktop images of VA users.

There is also instruction for the director of the VA privacy service to address policy concerns and to public affairs, granting “the authority to disapprove any outward-facing content on official VA blogs and social media sites which do not meet accepted standards of quality,” along with audits to ensure same.

For a deeper dive into what social media means to the military, read this talk on connection technologies and global organizations. It’s by U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Roughead, a title which effectively makes him the “CEO” of that global enterprise. He talked about “burning the boats” as the Navy enters this operational space — an extremely powerful metaphor, given his occupation — but perhaps a fitting one, given that achieving and maintaining situational awareness in a changing information environment has become a strategic capability.

As the VA looks to support the considerable needs of the men and women who have served their country, it looks like social media will be a part of the plumbing that connects them together.

Department of Veterans Affairs Social Media Policy

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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