The article below is from the April 2010 issue of T+D magazine. It has some intriguing info about the advances social media is making in the public sector and some of its implications for learning and development. I hope you enjoy it.


Connecting Government to Improve It

By Dean Smith

As the U.S. government steadily loosens restrictions on social media, some agencies are already benefitting from the next era of community and collaboration.

While social networking tools are increasingly enabling corporations to market and sell more effectively by getting closer to their global customer base, government agencies have embraced these technologies to share knowledge, drive informal learning, and establish communities of practice.

Terms such as "eGov," "Gov2.0," and "opengov" have entered the lexicon. While significant obstacles remain, it's catching on.

"There is power in connecting people in government," says Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop, a social networking site for government with more than 25,000 members, 4,000 blogs, and 1,500 discussions. "It's definitely a learning community."

A recent survey conducted by the Human Capital Institute and Saba titled "Social Networking in Government: Opportunities & Challenges" reports that 66 percent of all government agencies currently use some form of social networking- from blogs and wikis to instant messaging and discussion boards to LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

At the same time, 55 percent of all government workers say that they're uncertain about the future use of social networking tools, but still see them as an effective means of real-time collaboration and have hopes for future application of the technologies in the workplace.

"The public sector managers I have worked with seem to have an intrigue-fear relationship with social networking tools and practices," says Lisa Haneberg, author of High-Impact Middle Management: Solutions for Today's Busy Public Sector Managers. "They are intrigued with the potential in these tools for relationship building, project management, and collaboration. They fear the learning curve involved in becoming efficient at using social networking and worry that it might end up being a waste of time."

The case studies are piling up. The CIA uses Facebook to attract college students to apply for internships or jobs. As a way to share knowledge, build collaboration, and improve employee engagement in contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency created a Facebook network for employees to achieve better talent management. County and municipal governments are leading the way in leveraging digital options for the dual aims of improving customer service and reducing costs: 31 percent of those surveyed have embraced social media as a means of providing a more efficient customer feedback channel.

"The EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are pretty far advanced," says Ressler. "They need to be active to prevent misinformation."

The survey reports that social networking tools within governmental agencies are used most effectively for knowledge sharing and informal learning, as well as development functions. The top three most likely uses of social networking tools in government involve learning and development, public relations and communications, and recruitment. Despite the uptake of social media in government agencies, the government still lags behind the private sector in the overall use of these tools. The top three internal forces barring their widespread use are security concerns, other priorities, and difficulty in building a business case.

"Public sector leaders are learning about how for-profit organizations are using social networking and are interested in how these new technologies might help their teams succeed. Their process involves two types of learning," said Haneberg. "They need to get comfortable with the tools and then translate how social networking will work in their often highly regimented and regulated environment."

Dean Smith is director of publications at ASTD