When Social Media in Government Works…Or Not So Much

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is one of the U.S. government leaders in the creative use of social media tools to support its mission. Jeffrey Levy, EPA’s Director of Web Communications, has made it his mission to share his experiences, including successes, lessons learned, and barriers – both perceived and real. He did so again with more than 60 Canadian public service managers at the Systemscope Executive Breakfast at GTEC in October, 2009.

Denise Eisner of Systemscope’s Government Service Excellence practice sat down with Jeffrey after GTEC to discuss his experiences and impressions.


You met with several federal Canadian department representatives during your brief stay in Canada. What stood out for you in terms of the challenges faced by departments who are planning for or engaging in social media to reach their audiences?

The fact that we all face the same issues: serving our missions, being creative, yet exploring new tools while meeting good governance requirements like records management and accessibility.


Any surprises during those conversations?

I didn’t realize that everything the Canadian government does has to be done in both French and English.  I’m guessing that doesn’t merely double the difficulty, but more like squares it.


In your experience at the EPA, how has social media moved the agency’s agenda forward? How were these activities connected to your overall communications strategy?

So far, social media at EPA is mostly about communications and education.  As we consider our needs, we ask what social media tools would help and choose the ones that will help most and fit within our resources.  For example, last Earth Day, we wanted to deliver daily tips to people, so we used a mix of “traditional” tools like email distribution, social media like creating a podcast series that we put into iTunes and also put the tips into a widget people can put on their own site.

We’re also slowly starting to explore using social media for policy development.  For example, our enforcement office currently has a discussion forum running to hear people’s thoughts about setting enforcement priorities:.

And we have two efforts to build communities around managing watersheds and providing training about green jobs.  The idea is that by helping people do their environmental jobs better, we “produce” environmental protection, even when it’s not EPA staff doing the work.

 


Canadian departments and agencies have a number of requirements when communicating with the public, particularly in terms of our bilingual policies. Any thoughts on how to best meet these challenges when engaging in social media?

Start small.  That’s really the same advice I give everyone.  It’s very easy to jump into multiple projects and then discover it’s not quite as simple or quick as you thought.  So especially with the dual-language requirement, try things that lend themselves to being done simply.  For example, we put all of our news releases out via RSS on Twitter.  Since Canadian agencies are already publishing news releases in both languages, set up two Twitter accounts to promote them.

The same thing might go for a podcast series, where you record each one twice, but then there’s no ongoing resource use.

In contrast, running two Facebook fan pages really does at least double the complexity, because you have all the issues of encouraging engagement and then reacting, but now in two languages.

 


At the Systemscope executive breakfast at GTEC in October, you mentioned social media projects that didn’t always go as expected. Can you elaborate on one project and the lessons learned from that experience?

 

Pick 5 for the Environment is a project where we challenge people to commit to at least 5 of 10 environmental actions.  We went from concept to launch in 19 days.  It included a Facebook fan page and groups on both Flickr and YouTube.  Our hope was that it would take off in all three social media communities, without much input from us. We were wrong.  The fan page has actually gotten some attention, and we have nearly 1300 fans.  But the accompanying Facebook app hasn’t really taken off.  And the Flickr and YouTube groups haven’t generated much interest. So now we’re reassessing, thinking creatively about whether and how to use those outlets.  Most of our energy is going into thinking about how the people who signed up can generate excitement, share their stories, etc.

 


As part of our web maturity model, Systemscope focuses on helping clients examine roles and competencies that will support their web strategies. What is the skill set that government organizations need to acquire or build to be truly proficient at social media?

Great question.  Can you let me know the answer? 🙂  There really isn’t a single answer, but here are some of the skills I’m trying to build and encourage within my team: creativity, time management, writing, project management, analysis, and actually using social media tools.  That is, I believe that to use something like Facebook well, you need to use it yourself; reading about features and diving in yourself are two entirely different experiences.  I play Facebook games partly because they’re fun and partly to see what kinds of experiences they create, in hopes we can mimic that in what we offer.  The same thing goes with Twitter, Flickr, and any other site.


What do you like about Canada?

Natural beauty and friendly people.  I’ve had the great fortune of visiting Banff, Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, and now I’ve had the pleasure of exploring at least a little bit of Ottawa.


Denise Eisner is a senior-level web strategist and communications specialist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a member of the Government Service Excellence practice, Denise’s experience and specializations include web strategy development, information architecture, web analytics (WebTrends and Google Analytics) and web project management. She has led large-scale content audits, developed performance measurement frameworks, and coordinated site updates to meet Treasury Board policies standards and guidelines. Engaged in the evolving spheres of information technology, corporate communications and media for almost two decades, Denise has transformed business objectives into web strategies and information architectures for corporate and government clients in the U.S. and Canada.


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