Surveys see developing use of gov 2.0 tools in state and local government

Gov 2.0 and social media tools are seeing growing use across the federal government, but two surveys try to understand how these new technologies are fairing at the state and local levels. What they find is a developing landscape with a growing amount of government IT professionals who understand its use, but are unsure how to move forward smartly.

A little under three years ago, social media technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube began finding use by select groups of government agencies – mainly at the federal level. Old government buzzwords like accountability, transparency and open government began to take on new meaning.

An amorphous term was soon born, and the subsequent lexicon of Gov2.0 has been evolving ever since. In an unusually short amount of time (for government) technologies once relegated to teenage bedrooms and dorm rooms are now accompanied by standard government SOPs and ROI matrices.

This evolution has been documented by Microsoft’s Mark Drapeau as consisting of three distinct phases: surprise, experiment and solution.

In 2008, Mr. Drapeau says, agencies were generally dismissive of social media technologies for official use. “Government was not talking with people from these companies, not making formal agreements. Most people had not heard of a lot of these things,” he said in a recent interview.

But towards the end of 2008, and into 2009, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense and NASA began acknowledging the existence and possible use of things like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

“President Obama brought in a lot of people that did have contacts at these companies, did understand these technologies and it became more of a priority. Yet no one really quite knew what to do, so people were experimenting.”

Throughout 2009 and into this year, Mr. Drapeau says a lot of agencies began experimenting with how government communicated with the public and leveraged certain platforms. For instance, HHS and the CDC asked, what if we used Twitter and Facebook to communicate about swine flu? GSA made formal agreements with YouTube, Flickr and other social media companies to begin using those services across the federal government. And NASA furthered its exploration last fall with the launch of “Be a Martian” website, which enables the public to participate as “citizen scientists” to improve Mars maps and take part in Mars research.

Clearly, some agencies have moved beyond experimentation with social media and are starting to integrate these technologies with existing and more traditional government IT, Mr. Drapeau said, referencing Be a Martian, which utilizes Microsoft’s Windows Azure cloud platform in addition to social media tools.

But how much of the buzz is being picked up by state and local government IT professionals?

Two recent surveys, including one from Hewlett-Packard and another by the National Association of State CIOs have attempted to ask this question. HP surveyed 103 government IT professionals, 77 percent of which were from state and local government agencies, on their use of “Gov 2.0” tools and strategies. The NASCIO survey was completed by 43 state CIOs and focused on their use of “social media” tools and strategies.

Both surveys found a mixed landscape of social media use at the state and local level. HP’s survey found that three-quarters of respondents understand what Gov 2.0 means, yet only half reported using general social networks (56%), blogs (48%) and video & multi-media sharing (44%). And while 43 states have reported some level of Gov 2.0 tools through their CIO shop or in the executive branch, 35 percent of states are not currently encouraging broader use, NASCIO found.

Reasons varied, but some barriers to implementation, or further implementation, included security concerns, budgets, and lack of buy-in at top levels of leadership.

Christina Morrison, public-sector marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard, said most agencies are still in an early adoption stage. “It’s not a bad place to be – this is still very new – a lot of state and local governments are looking around at best practices and trying to take advantage of this.”

The NASCIO survey confirmed this viewpoint by finding that 36 percent of state CIOs are looking for case studies with analytics and 64 percent are looking for social networking policies or guidelines.

Ms. Morrison said she was somewhat surprised by the level of those looking for case studies, but she also acknowledged the broader difficulty in quantifying ROI.

“ROI is always going to be tricky with social media,” she said, “but when you compare it to the opportunity to get real-time feedback and communication, the intuition is there.”

She recounted an instance where California began publishing wait times at the DMV to alleviate long lines. “There’s a case where you provided real-time service to citizens,” she said. “It’s a priceless thing, but its also hard to quantify on paper.”

Beyond making a business case, both surveys found barriers centered on security. In the HP report, 40 percent of respondents said security was a barrier to Gov 2.0 adoption and the NASCIO survey indicated that 25 of the 43 states ranked security concerns “high” on constraints of broader use of social media.

One area where there was divergence was on budgets. HP found that 21 percent of respondents saw lack of budgets as the main barrier to the adoption of Gov 2.0 in their agency. NASCIO respondents did not have to comment on the issue of “cost to implement” but did report that 98 percent of users were leveraging “free” tools.

“Implementing a social media strategy is something you have to put resources behind, with man hours being the biggest component,” Ms. Morrison argued. “Once you start up a program, citizens will count on you to keep the information coming.”

“It doesn’t give you a feeling of confidence that they’re interested in two-way communication if responsiveness decreases.”

As for the question of how social media and government 2.0 is received at the state local level, Ms. Morrison said it reminds her of the early 90s when governments were hesitant to rollout email across the enterprise or put up small agency websites.

“People would ask ‘do we really need email?’ ‘do we really need a web page?’ Who’s going to come to it?’ But it’s really much more than that and in the next few years we’ll see a surge of use to communicate with others,” Morrison predicted.

“The only place is up, there’s only room to grow, and the sky’s the limit.”

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