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Guru by Default: New Professional Perspectives on Social Media and Time Management in Public Service

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

By Amy Uden
December 2, 2014

This month’s PA Times Online theme considers social media in government. Largely, this consideration can be positive in nature—adding influence and persuasion to boons such as reduced costs, fewer transactional work tasks and more streamlined operations. Having a low-to-no cost solution that taps into common methods of communication provides an array of options not available to public administrators of the past. However, these positive resources also bring some often-explored negative externalities to public service, such as public relations risks and records-keeping liabilities.

Uden decLess frequently discussed is the impact that social media tools can have on public administrators and their day-to-day workflow. Since young professionals in public administration typically have greater exposure to and familiarity with social media tools, they are likely to be disproportionately influenced by these technological factors. This impact is tied directly to one of the major challenges generally faced by new professionals to the field of public service: time management.

Many public managers find it invaluable to use the tools of the age, most notably social media, for citizen engagement. Particularly, one Governing magazine article suggests that engaging the public in the internet age relies on the use of technological tools to make civic engagement easy, fun, and appealing. These goals are worthwhile and the outcomes described in the article are excellent. However, particularly at the local level and in smaller and less robust units of government, a lag remains in institutionalizing social media and technological tools. Anecdotally, in past experiences as a new professional with smaller units of government, handling social media communications has seldom been a part of anyone’s job description.

As many in the new professional generation can attest, this often means that whoever is considered most technologically-adept, i.e. youngest, gets automatically anointed with the “social media guru” hat. Technological proficiency, which is increasingly expected of young professionals, becomes a double-edged sword. I have found it common that the youngest person in the office generally gets tasked with database management, social media posts, trouble-shooting tech difficulties and myriad other extraneous tasks that consume time and effort. These tasks tend to flow not from a particular relevance to the new professional’s job description, but from the assumption that youthfulness automatically leads to proficiency with technology. As such, they can cloud and consume time that could be intended for other tasks, leading the urgent to drown out the important.

New professionals will be better equipped to fill this role with a few guiding parameters on time management. In fact, the issue of technology is a lens for a host of time management concerns new professionals must navigate.  As compared to the academic world, time moves in strange segments in the bureaucracy. Depending upon the nature of one’s work, there may or may not be any true pattern in the work transactions conducted within cycle of the fiscal year. This stands in contrast to the academic year, with its regular patterns of activity and rest.  Moreover, for a young professional used to the structure of a course syllabus, decisions about prioritization in the workplace, required rapidly and in variable patterns, can be surprising. Immediate needs and unexpected work frequently arise, which can be problematic.

Conversely, some functions of the bureaucracy occur at a much slower pace than young professionals are accustomed to in their up-to-the-minute personal lives. To offer some examples from the local level, often regulatory frameworks require long delays between application and passage for permits, and hearing schedules are spaced out to accommodate schedules of part-time village presidents. A strong public administration professional must work to understand the ebb and flow of time within a bureaucratic agency and sort out priorities along timelines of both importance and immediacy. Social media tasks have potential to make this even more challenging, with their constant monitoring requirements.

The complications of social media are exacerbated when these tools are handled on an ad hoc basis, rather than institutionalized into an employee’s responsibilities and work flow. Again, experience with local governments, especially those with less time and financial capacity, suggests that this has not yet effectively been achieved. Forbes magazine points out the disjuncture between administrators’ desire to use the tools of the day and their lack of willingness to invest in a comprehensive strategy for their use.

In examining the social media policies and practices of several organizations, it seems likely that this ad hoc approach also stems from a fear of the genuine risks associated with putting public sector information out to the public via these dynamic tools.  The Harwood Institute thoroughly explores the concept of risk latent in a meaningful dialogue with citizens. Social media compounds this risk because there is no time filter between words and the general public. The organization has less time and opportunity to shape the message, and this makes social media use intimidating. It accordingly moves down on the priority list for managers. As a result, social media tools are not fully integrated, and become a time management liability for young professionals who are already in an unfamiliar time-flow environment.

To assuage these difficulties on the supervisor’s end, time management concerns can be overcome by empowering new public administrators with freedom over their own schedule and guided discretion about task prioritization. New professionals can work to have an awareness of their tasks, both formal and informal, and to seek formalization of their roles related to new technology.  Until social media and technologies are fully integrated in all levels of government in a strategic way, they will continue to exacerbate time management challenges faced by young professionals and all those who wear the hat of “guru by default.”

Author: Amy Uden is an Assistant Director for Regional Medical Programs at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. The views expressed in this articles are personal and do not reflect to views of her employer. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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