Social media is approaching main stream adoption in the federal government, with 41% of federal workforce respondents polled in a new survey having begun using social media in the past year. That’s in addition to 51% who had begun using social media more than a year ago, leaving only 8% of federal employees who say they do not use social media.

Perhaps more significantly, the distinction of where federal employees use social media–once clearly confined to home or controlled office use–has begun to dissolve. While 92% of federal respondents said they use social media at home, 74% use it at work, and 70% use it via mobile devices, the study suggested federal agencies are demonstrating a new level of comfort in using social media.

Part of that trend stems from the fact that government agencies are still primarily using social media to deliver information to the public.

The top five uses of social media within the federal government, according to respondents, include:

  • To inform decision making – 100%
  • To communicate externally with citizens and other agencies and organizations – 81%
  • To communicate internally between colleagues – 78%
  • For research purposes/gather information – 64%
  • For promotion/marketing – 61%

At the same time, the number of major sites banned by agencies for use by federal employees-and the number of people restricted from using social media on behalf of their agency–dropped dramatically over the past year.

A year ago, 55% of federal respondents in the survey said they were banned from using such sites as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace and LinkedIn. That percentage dropped to 19% this year, the study found, with a significant increase in LinkedIn and Twitter over last year.

Among the four most popular social media sites, federal users reported the following increases from 2010 to 2011:

  • Facebook use increased from 72% to 86%
  • YouTube use increased from 61% to 80%
  • LinkedIn use increased from 32% to 70%
  • Twitter use increased from 30% to 55%

“You can’t look at these tools as individual channels.” – Lisa Dezzutti

Federal employees are also using a variety of government-specific social sites with greater frequency, led by GovLoop, used by 35% of federal respondents, and social media and discussion groups such as GSAinteract, govtwit and govWin, and TFCN, each used by about a third of federal respondents.

“You can’t look at these tools as individual channels,” said Lisa Dezzutti, CEO of Market Connections, which conducted the study. “It’s no different than traditional media. It requires an integrated plan.”

Perhaps as significantly, the percentage of federal respondents permitted to represent their agency with some or no social media restrictions jumped from 34% a year ago to 70%, according to the study, which was conducted in collaboration with Strategic Communications Group.

Market Connections Chart: Most widely used mobile devices used to access social media — by federal government employees and government contractors.

The survey made clear that federal agencies continue to see the primary benefits of social media as a cost effective way for sharing information. Three out four federal respondents cited increased education of the public, access to information, and agency promotion as the top ranking benefits of social media. Seven out of 10 respondents also said collaboration and cost savings were also primary benefits.

How agencies measure return on their investment was also explored. The primary measures, federal respondents said, included:

  • Changes in traffic and clicks to their sites – 64%
  • Changes in awareness of blogs and websites – 64%
  • Number of connections cultivated – 45%
  • Recognition as a thought leader – 44%
  • Number of leads generated – 43%

The study, which surveyed 228 federal civilian employees and 124 defense department employees, as well state and local government employees, also explored the social media use of government contractors. In general, the results showed that general contractors had started using social media a year or two earlier than their government counterparts; are more active on social media sites, such as LinkedIn and Twitter; and are more focused on promotion, marketing and lead generation.

Looking to the coming 12-18 months, a quarter of federal government respondents and 40% of contractors said they expect their use of social media to “increase significantly.”