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Ebola Tracking and Zombie Stars: 4 Cool Ways Government is Embracing Social Media

Forget the Uncle Sam posters and Smokey the Bear TV spots: today’s federal agencies have long shifted citizen and customer engagement efforts to online social media. Many government agencies first made the initial jump to Twitter and Facebook in 2009, when President Obama started applying the digital successes of his presidential campaign toward citizen outreach. Three years later, the White House’s Digital Government Strategy called out social media as a method which agencies should strive to utilize while serving and engaging with their customers.

Yet, when it comes to social media efforts, not all agencies are created equal: a recent Government Business Council survey on Digital Strategy progress shows that only half of feds agree that their agency uses social media effectively to engage with customers. 

What does it mean to be effective at social media? And how can the other half of agencies improve customer engagement by leveraging tools like Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram? To take a look at some of the successes in government, GBC pulled four examples of agencies embracing social media platforms to enhance mission effectiveness.

Cosmic Space Lessons: NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is no stranger to social media engagement -- as of May 2014, the agency has over 480 accounts over 10 different platforms. And in 2013, @NASA (which currently has over 7.2 million followers, the highest of any federal agency) was named the 8th most engaged brand on Twitter. 

In September 2013, the agency launched its Instagram account, and since then it has attracted over 1.5 million followers. But beyond posting awe-inspiring, shareable photos curated from NASA observatories, the account often shares educational information and cool facts to promote public awareness of aerospace science and research:

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astronomers has spotted a star system that could have left behind a "zombie star" after an unusually weak supernova explosion. Credit: NASA, ESA, C. McCully and S. Jha (Rutgers Univ.), and R. Foley (Univ. of Illinois) #nasa #hubble #zombie #zombies #stars #universe #hst #space

Government Contracting 101: Small Business Administration

But it doesn’t take rocket science or mainstream name recognition to be successful at leveraging social media. The U.S. Small Business Administration, which serves small businesses looking to sell to the federal government, has found the use of videos to be an effective way of educating its audience.

Government contracting is an incredibly complicated topic: rules for selling to federal agencies are defined in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), a 51-volume, 1,800+ page publication that the Government Accountability Office has previously criticized for being overly complex, to the point where it possibly discourages potential suppliers and decreases competition.

To help small businesses navigate contracting rules and take advantage of programs like Small Business set-asides or the 8(a) Business Development Program, the SBA has established a handy YouTube channel full of “how-to” videos. While its videos on business loans and HUBZone certification may never go viral, the channel has garnered nearly 750,000 views, including thousands of small business owners who can now more easily pursue opportunities with the federal government.

Snowpocolypse Updates: Office of Personnel Management

For its 24,000 Twitter and 31,000 Facebook followers, many of whom are federal employees, OPM’s Twitter and Facebook feeds have also become useful resources for information about their day-to-day jobs. When the Washington, DC, metro area was hit by a major snowstorm in March 2014, many employees first heard the news about local office closures from the agency’s Facebook posts:

And when the Africa Leaders Summit shut down a number of major city streets, OPM and Director Karen Archuleta also tweeted out maps of the closures and encouraged feds to speak to their managers about teleworking:

Ebola Tracking: Health and Human Services

The speed of and wide access to social media has also enhanced the ability of public safety agencies to respond to rapidly emerging threats. HHS has recognized the potential public social posts to allow for faster detection of disease outbreaks: two years ago the agency established a contest for web developers to create an app that would analyze public Twitter feeds and hashtags to identify infection outbreaks. - Following disease trends, 140 characters at a time - HHS/ASPR

The end result is an open resource that medical providers, health researchers, and the general public can access to learn more about current diseases trends. And, given the pervasiveness of Twitter use worldwide even in developing countries, the site can track diseases like Ebola as they spread across international borders. (Nigeria’s government has itself taken note and begun deploying Facebook and Twitter Ebola alerts to its own citizens.)

In many ways, this HHS program perhaps represents a key success in government social media. Not only was the agency able to derive value by crowdsourcing information provided by individual users, but it was able to blend both engagement and service delivery together by soliciting private citizens’ technical expertise through a contest that then guided the creation of a final product. Looking forward, efforts like these can help revolutionize the way agencies interact with their customers and ultimately further their mission.


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