MPs are using social media to engage constituents in new ways

Government agencies are turning to social media to reach out to and interact with their target audiences in innovative ways.

At a Social Media for Government conference yesterday, several federal, state and local agencies described various efforts to engage constituents using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Similar to what's happening in the corporate world, most of these government efforts appear to be growing organically, not as formal social media strategies. And as with private companies, the ones leading the efforts appear to be those in the communications, public relations and human resources fields.

Here's a sampling of some of the social media experiments described at the conference, which was organised by the Advanced Learning Institute:

The Salt Lake Valley Health Department (SLVHD)

When Utah's SLVHD launched its "One Small Change -- For the Health of It" campaign earlier this year, it wanted to spread information about the community health program to as many of its constituents as possible.

So in addition to standard community outreach efforts, the SLVHD's public relations team decided to try social media as a communication channel for the first time.

With no marketing budget to speak of, employees shot and edited a promotional video themselves using a flip camera and Apple's iMovie app, then uploaded the video to YouTube. They also cross-promoted both the video and the campaign via Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

It's too soon to tell how effective the campaign has been. But one thing that's clear is organizations can't afford to ignore social media any longer, said Kate Lilja, public information specialist at SLVHD. Those who do are missing out on a free way to communicate with people who get their information -- sometimes exclusively -- via social media, Lilja said during a conference session.

Established as a sort of Facebook for the Feds, has over attracted more than 17,500 members from the government community in the 18 months or so since its creation. The site is modeled along the lines of Facebook and is designed to give government workers a place to connect and share best practices on government topics, according to founder Steve Ressler.

The site uses Ning social media technology and hosts more than 900 blogs, 250 groups, numerous videos, photos and podcasts. Its members include federal CIOs, CTOs, politicians and academics, Ressler said. Though government can be a "risk-averse bureaucracy," it is possible to get agencies to participate in such networks by showing a compelling need, he said.

MuniGov 2.0

Co-founder Pam Broviak, an engineer with the public works group at the city of Geneva, Ill., describes MuniGov 2.0 as an informal coalition of federal, state, local and municipal governments focused on leveraging social media to improve citizen services. One of the social media tools the group actively uses to communicate with each other is Linden Labs' Second Life. Registered members of MuniGov 2.0 regularly hold meetings, attend virtual conferences and trade shows and communicate with each other on government-related topics.

"You have a problem, you [get] out there and say you have a problem and someone will respond with a way to address it," Broviak said.

Bureau of International Programs, US Department of State

The State Department launched last year a so-called Democracy Challenge as part of an effort to engage and influence foreign audiences on topics important to US interests. The goal was to get young people around the world to share their views on democracy in an online community via video. Participants were required to submit three-minute videos in which they completed the phrase, "Democracy Is...."

As part of the effort, the State Department got YouTube to host the videos on its behalf. More than 900 videos were submitted, more than 800,000 viewers saw the results and more than 10,000 YouTube channel viewers signed up as fans, friends and followers.

The fact that most of the content was user-generated raised some early fears about the content, said Martha Chaconas, director of the office of Web management in the State Department's international information programs group.

"We did not know what people would be submitting for viewing," she said, adding that there was also concern about whether any of the images and music used in the submissions would infringe copyrights.