Time to break down the last barrier to social media access in government

Foreign Secretary William Hague answering questions on the situation in Libya and also on the Arab Spring on 9 June 2011 via Twitter

We’re not short of social media strategies in the government, neither are we short of social media guidelines for staff. But we are short of ICT access and on more than one occasion these social media projects have hit this same frustrating [fire]wall.

Organisations restrict access to social media for a number of reasons. The most common are concerns about creating security vulnerabilities, incurring spiralling technology costs, opening up reputational risks, losing sensitive data and suffering dips in staff performance (as they log on to watch the latest hilarious random video lulz).

It’s obvious that governments are particularly sensitive to these concerns and that this has caused them to be slower than other organisations to take advantage of social media. These days this lethargy is a problem for more than just digital teams; increasingly its policy and service delivery teams that are feeling frustrated by the blocks on their access.

Currently it is more common for access to be restricted than open. But there are a number of ways that the innovative people of the Civil Service have found ways to get the access they need –  be they in media, marketing, research, policy making, consultation, engagement, service delivery or even ministerial roles. These workarounds include:

  • Allowing staff to use their own devices – they would have it on them anyway but it does mean that they have to pay for it out their own pocket
  • Whitelisting domains – sometimes it is the stripped back mobile versions rather than the ‘full fat’ versions that get the OK
  • Permitting access through gateways, portals or virtualisation – it’s overcomplicating but it’s something
  • Monitoring and throttling usage – to encourage respectful use and keep costs down but breeds resentment
  • Requiring a business case – perhaps a bit over the top just to get real time information
  • Providing standalone machines – not terribly green or cost effective
  • Installing secondary browsers – to enable use of social web channels that couldn’t be accessed on the old browsers used as standard in depts

Providing IT access is a balancing act that the UK government is looking to address decisively and consistently across its departments by implementing action 19 in the Government ICT strategy. And soon the Home Office and GDS will issuing instruction and advice to departments on how they can overcome the infrastructure challenges and provide greater  to the open web, if if not the total free access which has to be the ultimate aspiration based on presumed competence and trust.

Providing all government bodies take this seriously – and who would want to be left behind – this could be one of the most significant developments in government’s use of digital.

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