VA tells its own to interact with public via blogs, Facebook, Twitter

By Tom Sullivan
05:19 PM

The VA just might be the hippest government agency around.

First, it said it will allow employees to use the iPad and iPhone come October 1. And now, the agency has instituted a policy that favors workers using an array of social media tools – not just internally, either.

That’s right: The VA “endorses secure use of Web-based collaboration and social media tools to enhance communication, stakeholder outreach collaboration, and information exchange; streamline processes; and foster productivity improvements,” according to the new policy, which also explains that “VA employees are encouraged to interact with the public online as long as that interaction does not interfere with the employee’s performance of his or her official duties.”

The social media tools VA’s policy permits include wikis, blogs, mash-ups, 'folksonomies,' RSS feeds, collaborative tools such as SharePoint, as well as chat rooms and forums in places like Facebook.

“Use of these tools supports VA’s goal of achieving an interoperable, net-centric environment by improving employee effectiveness through seamless access to information,” the policy known as Directive 6515 says. “Web-based collaboration tools enable widely dispersed facilities and VA personnel to more effectively collaborate and share information, which can result in better productivity, higher efficiency, and innovation.”

While many a public organization continues to think about – or more likely overthink – a social media strategy, the VA has made a rather bold statement by embracing the technologies that the citizenry uses on a daily basis.

All this is not to say that the VA is permitting a social media free-for-all void of rules and regulations. That is precisely where the Directive comes in.

“Such activity comes with responsibility,” the policy states. “When interacting with the public online, VA employees must draw a clear distinction between their personal views and their professional duties.”

Granted, it's pretty tough to compete against what Todd Park has going at HHS with its developer contests, but the VA is sculpting itself into a technology-hip agency. Contributing to this, the agency earlier this summer built out its portfolio of smartphone apps, with offerings such as PTSD Coach, and said it is building a prototype mobile PHR.