Social Media in Government: What Needs to Be Archived?

Topics: Govern Information

Tweets, videos, wikis, blogs—the federal government is hopping on the social media bandwagon. But which content needs to be preserved? The answers are only starting to emerge.

Did you know that:

  • The IRS uses Facebook to track down late taxpayers and offer tips on tax relief? 
  • The State Department broadcasts its daily press briefings on YouTube?
  • NASA tweets updates on missions and urges citizens to “connect and collaborate” with it?

It seems as if every facet of government is reaching out and touching the public via social networks, blogs, email and other so-called Web 2.0 applications. And the public is touching back, making suggestions and submitting information.

But do those formats constitute must-save government records? The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) says that’s quite possible. Content created, delivered or managed by Web applications should be treated as if it “is likely to be agency record material,” said NARA’s recent Web 2.0 usage study. But that doesn’t mean every blog, tweet or post should find its way into the permanent record. Despite NARA’s independent efforts, the federal government has not finalized a Web 2.0 data policy. Until that happens (a process which could take months or even years), agencies must essentially formulate their own plans—with some guidance from NARA and other government groups.

Web 2.0 applications, or, more appropriately in this case, Web 2.0 apps, undoubtedly help federal agencies fulfill President Obama’s Open Government Directive. In a recent study on Web 2.0 use in federal government, NARA archivist David S. Ferriero noted, “Social media and other Web 2.0 tools are key aspects in furthering transparency and open government.” But social media apps have also created a nightmare for those charged with managing records. Deluged with data, agencies struggle to gather, sort, record and classify an ongoing barrage of information, much of it structured differently than data generated by more traditional sources. The landscape has changed so quickly that many agencies just sit on data, afraid to remove it from their sites or archives.

Social Media in Government: It’s Inevitable

“From an efficiency perspective,” Web 2.0 apps “meet government needs without the need for the agency to build any tools, [given how robust] the market is," says David McClure, associate administrator for citizen services and innovative technologies at the General Services Administration, during a 2010 Congressional hearing.

He’s not alone in his enthusiasm for social media adoption. While attending a technology conference in 2010, former United States CIO Vivek Kundra urged federal agencies to adopt Web 2.0 applications to “tap into the vast amounts of knowledge” found outside of government’s hallowed halls. “We’ve got to recognize that we can’t treat the American people as subjects but as a co-creator of ideas. The federal government doesn’t have a monopoly on the best ideas” said Kundra.

All this great thinking leaves government agencies with even more data to manage and protect. And they’re having trouble establishing the mechanisms needed to preserve social media records. A recent GAO study says that “determining the appropriate intervals at which to capture constantly changing Web content” remains a major stumbling block to Web 2.0 records management.

Knowledgeable Guidance

Noting that Internet use has changed quickly and dramatically, transforming it from “a place to post static documents” to a “tool for facilitating collaboration across geographic and institutional boundaries,” NARA has issued a Guidance on Managing Web Records, which it updates regularly to address ever-changing Web content issues. According to the latest update, agencies should treat Web portals, blogs, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds and wikis as fluid repositories or communication tools, as well as customer service windows. And agencies must manage the content generated by each in compliance with NARA’s records management guidance, which specifies Web Management and Transfer Policies.

Incorporating Web 2.0 apps presents other challenges. Chief among them are meeting security and freedom-of-information demands. GAO says that Web 2.0 technologies can also present challenges in appropriately responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests because they pose “significant complexities in determining whether agencies control Web 2.0-generated content, as understood within the context of FOIA,” according to the GAO report.

The Office of Management and Budget recently took steps to resolve similar agency issues regarding the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, clarifying how the act applies to social media and Web-based technologies. The effort also helped address how those groups could better “protect privacy when using third-party websites and applications.”

Those are good first steps toward offering agencies guidance, but ultimately, emerging Web 2.0 applications and other social media-oriented advances will continue to populate and impact government records. Agencies must aggressively set policies that are flexible enough to allow them to benefit from Web 2.0 apps while also retaining and protecting the information they generate.

Web 2.0 Apps: To Record or Not to Record?

Government agencies are still grappling with how to manage Web 2.0-generated information—and each application area brings its own set of parameters. Here’s the lay of the land thus far:

Email. Most agencies have established comprehensive email-handling procedures. NARA chief archivist David S. Ferriero also notes that government workers are “free to use external [email] accounts as long as [the related] emails are captured into records management systems.”

Instant messaging. As with email, agencies can easily capture and track the ongoing dialogues.

Social media. For government agencies, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the like pose particular problems. The leading hot-button concern: Those who generate all of this information really control it—not agency officials.

Blogs. Agencies can easily record blogging by their personnel. However, questions remain regarding the retention of visitors’ posted comments.

Stay tuned.

NARA Weighs In

In an effort to help agencies conquer their Web 2.0-generated confusion, NARA has issued the following recommendations:

  • Clarify the statutory definition of a federal record.
  • Address transfer requirements for incorporating Web 2.0 records into NARA’s holdings.
  • Mitigate public expectations of content longevity.
  • Integrate records management into agency social media policy.

Essential Guidance for Federal Records Managers

When including Web 2.0 as part of their Records and Information Management (RIM) program, records managers should consider these steps: 

  • Develop a cross-functional team with members from Records Management, Legal, Compliance, Information Technology and Social Media Sponsors
  • Define roles and responsibilities for each team member; develop a cadence for communication and collaboration
  • Re-visit RIM programs and determine who is creating records – as defined by your policy – using social media tools
  • Determine how to classify, retain, preserve, and destroy social media records according to your policy
  • Make sure to include social media in your Records Management policy
  • Train all employees­--not just your knowledge workers­­­--in using these Web 2.0 tools

Have more questions about social media and your records management program? Read additional Knowledge Center stories on this subject, or contact Iron Mountain’s consulting services team. You’ll be connected with a knowledgeable product and services specialist who can address your information management challenges.

Related Content:

Managing Records the FOIA Way

Where Is It? Making Government Records More Accessible

Obama Mandate Forcing Systematic Changes in Government Records Management

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