One of the things that I have consistently noticed in my five years as a government communications consultant is that our new hires who come from the corporate world go through an adjustment period upon first supporting a government client. That’s to be expected as there are a multitude of differences between public sector and private sector clients – from the mundane (different ways of hiring contractors) to the fundamental (no shareholders to worry about). These differences extend into the world of social media too, specifically into social media behind the firewall, known in the private sector as Enterprise 2.0.
What makes implementing social media on the intranet of a government agency like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) different than say, General Motors (GM)? I’ve worked with clients from across the government who are all seeing social media succeed in helping organizations communicate, collaborate, and share information better than they ever have. From wikis in the Intelligence Community to internal blogs at IBM, many of my clients see these articles and want to use social media to realize these same benefits, but don’t know how to do it. The first thing that I have to tell them is that just because another organization, company, or agency implemented blogs or wikis or whatever else, they won’t necessarily see the same results, especially if they compare themselves to case studies in the private sector. There are several fundamental differences between implementing social media behind the firewall in the government as opposed to a Fortune 500 company. Let’s look at my top six:
- Risks – From Mark Drapeau’s excellent Government 2.0 series on Mashable – “When Coke’s recipe or Google’s search algorithm get out, there are certainly serious consequences, but ultimately, people don’t die. The government has a higher standard.” On Intellipedia, the Intelligence Community’s wiki, 16 agencies are sharing classified information related to some of our nation’s most protected data – you think that the leadership there might have some pretty justifiable concerns about information security? Accidentally exposing proprietary information is one thing – accidentally disclosing Top Secret military movements or taxpayer data is another.
- Administration Changes – Every November, and especially every fourth November, every government agency has to prepare for the chance that tomorrow, they may have a new boss with a new vision for how things should work. Organization charts are always out of date, no one ever knows what their corporate strategy is, and people are always getting shuffled from position to position. The comments to one of my prior posts alluded to this as well – sometimes leaders who know they will be leaving their position want to leave behind a legacy. These leaders are more apt to take risks, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Getting and maintaining the top cover for an implementation of social media is virtually impossible in these cases – what happens after that leader leaves?
- Intra-agency collaboration – Most government agencies do not operate in a vacuum – they have to not only collaborate amongst themselves, but must also collaborate with various partner agencies. How big of a net should you cast when implementing a wiki or blogs behind your firewall? For example, let’s say that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wanted to implement a wiki – should that wiki be open to just TSA employees? Or, should it also be open to other agencies like the FAA or other members of the Intel Community? Wouldn’t you think that NSA and TSA might benefit from being able to collaborate with one another? Where you draw the line?
- Bureaucracy – One thing that can’t be discounted in the bureaucracy involved. Getting ANYTHING done often takes months of reviews, approvals, control gate presentations, etc. I know of some government organizations still using Netscape as their Internet Browser because IE and/or Firefox haven’t yet been approved for their IT system. Imagine the hurdles that have to be crossed to get blogs installed! Combined with the various regulations and policies that have to be consulted and the administration issues mentioned above, there is often just not enough time available in the year to get these things done.
- Demographics – I don’t have any hard numbers on this (if you do, please pass them along), but in my experience, government employees fit into a very different demographic than those found in the private sector. They tend to be older (have to learn these tools as opposed to having grown up with them), have longer tenure (are more set in their ways and resistant to change), and are motivated by different things (innovation is rarely on their performance assessments). The cultural change that social media necessitates is thus inherently more difficult.
- Available Resources – If you’ve ever worked in a government environment, you know that there’s a constant battle for funding. Every department is short-staffed and there’s never enough resources to accomplish everything, and as a result, innovative initiatives like social media tend to get dropped as the focus moves toward accomplishing the day-to-day work that makes up their organizational mission. There just aren’t too many people who have the leadership support to take on the tasks necessary to make social media behind the firewall successful, like gardening a wiki or developing blog training courses.
Now, I put these six points out there not to discourage the exploration of social media behind government firewall – quite the contrary. I want to identify the differences so that we can consider them and ultimately address them. In one of my future posts, I’ll look at some ways in which these differences can be tackled, as well as what happens when these differences aren’t taken into account.
What other differences do you see?