The microblogging site Twitter is gaining in popularity, leaving some federal agencies in the U.S. to wonder how exactly they should utilize such new technology.
The British government might serve as a model. It is one of the first federal governments to employ best practices on how government organizations can use Twitter.
Andrew Stott is the Director of Digital Engagement for the British Cabinet Office.
He talked more about what his government is doing across the pond with Chris Dorobek on the Daily Debrief.
Stott said it all started with a post on an internal government message board. More and more requests came in, and different managers started responding in kind, and a best practices list was soon developed.
“It’s not an overall strategy for government as a whole, but it’s a starting place for each department as its working through how best to use Twitter to meet its mission objectives.”
The list is not a be-all, end-all by any means, Stott said.
“Really there isn’t a settled view on how enterprises — either commercial corporations or government agencies — should use Twitter in order to be most effective. It’s not like other channels. There are certain expectations of how you use it, how you engage with the community on Twitter, so we thought — well, here’s a good starter.”
Twitter does, however, have its own cultural norms that Stott said federal governments, in addition to private companies and people, could take advantage of.
“There’s an expectation that you’ll be aware of what else is happening on Twitter, so you will retweet . . . and, also, you’ll listen as well as talk and engage with people through that. Now, that can be quite difficult for a government agency, both in terms of scale and in terms of getting into a public dialogue with individuals about individual cases — but one of the things we want to do is pick up people’s responses and, if there’s a general answer to that, then we use Twitter to broadcast it back out.”
The most difficult aspect of having a government agency tweet has to do with policy. Federal laws and security have to be taken into account, which doesn’t always happen in the private sector.
There is also the culture of Twitter itself. Stott said it is important for government employees to understand how tweets might be perceived and the consequences of certain behaviors, such as the “retweet”.
“Although retweeting doesn’t necessarily imply agreement — and that’s not the etiquette of Twitter — it does [say], ‘Hey, it’s worth going and looking at that’. At the same time, one of the things that retweeting, even from other parts of government, can do is bring the attention of people following a particular department or agency. Something’s related that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”
So, perhaps there is a bit of irony involved with the overall Twitter strategy for the Uk’s government.
It’s twenty pages long, which seems massive when compared to the 140-character limit that exists on Twitter.
“There was a lot of comment about [it] . . . but 19 of those 20 pages are actually about the agencies’ communication strategy — the things they need to think about — and how effective use of Twitter can help them achieve their overall mission goals and help them operate more effectively and engage better with the public.”
The document is not limited to government. Stott said it’s geared toward institutions, which could include the private sector or other governments.
In addition, it also looks at how individuals in agencies can use the technology to communicate in a more authentic way using more than just Twitter.
“We’ve got an overall government social media code, which is based on the civil service code of conduct, which has applied for a number of years to all sorts of media and public statements. We rolled that forward into the world of social media. A number of departments have started to use things like blogs to communicate what people in the field are doing to help people in Britain and around the world.”
Stott said his government expects the document — and its usage of Twitter and other social media — to evolve.
“It’s not a fixed document. One of the purposes in publishing it was to get other people’s ideas on some of the questions in there. . . . One of the things that we’re trying to think about as we move forward on this is not just how we use the tools that are available and in general use now, but how we build some of those capabilities to spot new ways of engaging . . . and learning how to use those as they become generally available.”