Once a fortress a stone’s throw from the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs is using social media to open its doors and windows and let the sun shine in and becoming a model for other agencies in the process.
Leading the charge into the social media world are two veterans: Brandon Friedman, 33, director of online media and editor of the VA’s blog VAntage Point, and Alex Horton, 26, senior blog writer. Both served in Iraq. Friedman also served in Afghanistan.
“(They) have taken a proactive stretch to reach veterans by any means available,” said Ryan Gallucci of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). “And the VA seems to be paying more attention to the needs of veterans.”
On Tuesday, the agency released its social media policy encouraging VA employees to use this 21st century tool to help shape its communication with those seeking its assistance and care.
Horton, once one of VA’s most vocal outside critics, gained notoriety for himself and VA, when the agency hired him last year to produce the agency’s blog. He has continued to highlight problems as an insider. VAntage Point also distinguishes itself from other government blogs by actively soliciting guest pieces from both employees and the public, allowing veterans to air their grievances and responding to them.
The VA has embraced social media, with more than 100 Facebook pages, more than 50 Twitter feeds, two blogs, a YouTube channel, and a Flickr page. VA’s Facebook pages have a combined subscribership of over 290,000 fans, with the department’s main page reaching over 138,000.
“It is revolutionary within the context of the VA. A culture shift is taking place. How this department communicates with any veteran is one of the most important things we do,” Friedman said.
Friedman and Horton have drawn interest from and given presentations on their social media initiatives to the Department of Defense, the Justice Department, USAID and the State Department.
They offer the following key tips on how agencies can embrace social media:
- Agencies must look at what they want to accomplish and what kind of relationship they want with their clients
- Make a commitment to transparency and an open culture
- Define your audience, who you are talking to, what information they need and don’t need.
- Give them easily understood information, not weighted down with bureaucratic language
- Make a commitment to hire good people who are comfortable dealing with the public
- Pick the right platform to reach your audience. YouTube may not be perfect for your organization, but Facebook could be. You don’t want to use a tool that is not cool for your organization
- Establish a Web Governance Board and a Social Media Committee to help lead the way
They’ve also been successful at maintaining cybersecurity within its social media efforts just as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last month criticized agencies for failing to put in place safeguards against malicious attacks.
The new social media policy provides workplace boundaries and establishes the Department’s philosophy for communication: VA is open and transparent, and VA is willing and able to engage and collaborate with its many stakeholders online.
“This isn’t about using social media because it’s cool or because it’s a fad,” said Friedman. “It’s about getting the right information to the right veteran at the right time. This policy sets us on a path toward changing how we talk-and listen-to vets.”
Agencies trying to build social media efforts might find help from the Social Media Subcouncil, a group of government web managers at the federal, state, and local levels bringing together social media best practices and other resources for the benefit of government agencies. It
operates under the Federal Web Managers Council, which produced a report on online services to the public.
Also, the General Services Administration’s citizen engagement platform strives to make it easier for agencies to use social media tools that are compatible with federal laws and policies,
including tools that are accessible to persons with disabilities.
In a secure government space, GSA’s Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement is building a fully functioning software as a service storefront. The software will allow government agencies to easily deploy tools such as blogs, wikis, and forums, and a URL shortener to help engage with the public in a simple, cost-effective way. The URL shortener was launched in April
All tools for the Citizen Engagement Platform are based on open source code.
As GSA modifies add-ons, plug-ins and widgets to meet accessibility
requirements the code will be available to the open source community
for reuse and improvement.