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Challenges and Opportunities of Social Media Implementations in the Public Sector

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Tafoya
May 24, 2016

social-1148035_640The use of social media offers a promise for government to enhance the capability of quick communication with citizens to increase engagement but as with all technology, it offers challenges in its implementation in the public sector. There are concerns with transparency and consistency that perhaps contrast with the democratization of information. As with many public management tools, social media has great strengths that reside alongside its weaknesses.

If we define social media as the websites and applications that allows users to share information with other members of a community, the definition is broad enough to include the most frequently used mechanisms. According to recent research from Statista, the most popular social media websites are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit. Of course, there are also subject specific websites that include information that fits the definition. In today’s fast news cycle, these tools are used at every level of government from federal, state and the local town hall.

Boston has a social media center that shows a catalog of outlets, as well as which departments and offices use the application. For example, the Boston Public Library has a presence through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and more. The city uses social media to engage the community in the wide range of services and initiatives that serve the public. The city has faced the normal set of issues confronting institutions that try to use social media including improper conduct and fake accounts purporting to be from the city. The typical method of addressing the area of conduct is to monitor the sites and delete posts that violate terms of service. Some sites do not allow for user interaction but rather only for the moderator to post.

Philadelphia also has a detailed set of rules governing the use of social media. This means checks and balances between the chief innovation officer and department heads on the establishment or cancellation of accounts. The city directs users to its social media presence directly from its home page but each department may have its own presence. For example, the Free Library has its links to its social media accounts from its own Web page and it engages in a variety of activities including event publicity.

However, Philadelphia has run into another set of problems with social media: monitoring or regulating personal use of social media by employees. It is common for public entities to ask their employees to refrain from identifying themselves as public employees in their social media presence. While understandable on one level—only certain officials should represent the municipalities’ views—such a stance calls into question issues of transparency because users would not be aware of affiliations that could color commentary.

At the federal level, there are also guidelines for how social media should be used to inform the public. The Department of the Interior limits the official use of social media to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. The limits are justified due to the need for strict information transparency and a policy that calls for a signed terms of service agreement with the vendor. The policy encourages the agency “to use social media tools to communicate their missions and messages with the public” but they modify the statement to include “when there is a legitimate business case.” There must be a good business case. On Twitter alone, the agency has more than 700,000 followers.

In the guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), their policy states that all information that is posted for the public should also be available on the public website for the agency. This provision points to the reluctance of a public entity to promote commercial entities that run the applications. As with other organizations, HHS also insists that their users follow the branding guidance for use of logos. Public entities are concerned about their own “market” presence.

Elected and public officials make use of social media to communicate with constituents. The ease of posting on sites that are generally free for users offers a good opportunity for officials to address mass audiences. However, for states and communities with open meeting rules, social media offers opportunities to side-step rules requiring open and public deliberation of issues. Social media potentially harms efforts of the public to offer input on issues before officials “tweet” or “blog” their positions. The question remains as to whether it is appropriate for officials to live-blog public meetings for those not present.

Social media is a tool for public administrators to enhance communication with the general public. It offers many opportunities for creative information dissemination. But it challenges managers to ensure that the public can appropriately determine if the information is truly transparent, freely available and that social meeting is not an easy way for public officials to avoid proper deliberation. Public managers must contemplate best practices and minimize the risks of abuse and embarrassment by improper use of resources in communication with the general public.


Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is an academic program director at Walden University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. He served as a local elected official in Massachusetts for nine years and is still active in governmental affairs. Ben has a doctorate in law and policy from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s in economics from Georgetown University. Email: [email protected].

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