When Government Agencies Get Social

For government entities, the ability to disseminate important and sometimes critical information is nothing short of essential. Yet coordinating social media streams and managing other tools can prove extraordinarily challenging. Over the years, “It has become apparent that social media is a valuable tool for publishing and sharing information directly with our residents,” said Greg Licamele, director of external communication for Fairfax County Government, Va. “But managing services and accounts is difficult.”

The county, which relies on Twitter and Facebook as well as email and text messaging, must manage the information flow—including press releases and media alerts—for about 1.25 million residents and 40 internal departments, including police, fire and public health. These notifications and alerts might include everything from road closures during a snow storm to requesting feedback about budgeting.

Altogether, it relies on 13 Twitter accounts, 16 official Facebook pages and three Instagram accounts.

“We recognize that people choose to receive information in different ways,” Licamele said. “As we expanded the initiative we recognized that we needed a tool to oversee everything.”

In 2012, Fairfax County turned to social media management firm Hootsuite to scale the social media platform into a single dashboard and allow departments to collaborate strategically across the region. It upgraded to Hootsuite Enterprise in 2014. Among other things, the system lets staff schedule tweets and posts, manage a master library of photos and other content across accounts, view how quickly people reply to critical information, and examine metrics related to the social media accounts.

“With centralized management capabilities, we are better able to keep our finger on the pulse of what is going on,” he said.

For example, staff can send specific messages and content through specific accounts—at the right time.

“We have discreet audiences and specific needs—and they don’t necessarily match our business hours,” Licamele said. In some cases, it’s desirable to retweet messages to hit these groups at the time they actually read the messages.

In fact, prior to the system going live (from January to February 2015), only about 12 percent of the tweets were sent during non-business hours, but the figure spiked to 41 percent by December of the same year. Licamele said that the approach has led to positive feedback from the news media and citizens. In addition, through analytics, he and other members of the communications team now have greater insight into how information is disseminated and consumed.

Licamele said that the county also has far greater control over accounts. With Hootsuite, individual departments do not have control of accounts or administrative passwords. The Office of Public Affairs manages the entire social media platform. The advantage to this approach, he said, is that it significantly reduces security risks.

“We don’t have to worry about someone accessing an account after they have left the county. We have a layer of authentication and protection that protects the integrity of the accounts.”

“This initiative has made information more accessible—and helped citizens understand government better through the use of social media.”

Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology and other topics. His book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press) was released in the spring of 2015.

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