By Cornerstone

27 Oct 2014

Is Social Media Right for the Public Sector? Cornerstone take a closer look.

Social media in the workplace is often viewed with suspicion. For every organisation which is known for its quirky personality and social media presence, there is another – usually personal – example of where it has been misused. However, with social media now a firmly embedded part of 21st century personal and business life, organisations which have yet to consider its potential positive scope would do well to begin making this a priority. After all, many public sector organisations are wise to this, with central government, many local and health authorities, police services, education authorities and others using social media for outward-facing activities to great effect.

But social tools don’t just have benefits for outward-facing functions. The private sector is conscious of the benefits that social tools can have for internal functions such as staff management, recruitment, training and other aspects falling within the HR remit. Here public sector organisations tend to be more hesitant, and in doing so they lose out on some very flexible tools which can offer advantages that can’t be found by other means.

Social media in public sector HR

Many HR departments in public sector organisations shy away from social media, for a number of reasons. For example, HR teams may believe that social media tools are only used by younger people, for relatively frivolous pursuits; HR teams can feel they lack the skills to engage with social media; and many may simply be scared by the possibility of something going wrong, a perception which often stems from a few high profile examples.

For example, the #McDStories hashtag, which McDonald’s paid to promote, resulted in the company share price dropping 3% as hundreds of consumers shared their worst experiences of eating in the restaurant chain. A stray tweet containing an obscenity resulted in the media agency responsible losing the Chrysler contract – and the perpetrator losing their job. Domino’s Pizza experienced a 10% drop in stock value after the now-infamous video was leaked of employees contaminating food. With risks such as these, it is no surprise that some organisations have developed an aversion to social media. However, there are occasions when it can be very beneficial, specifically in the contexts of recruitment, onboarding and learning and development.

Social media in recruitment

If the talent you seek is scarce, then it is logical to cast your net both widely and deeply. Social media can help, allowing you to target particular communities for diversity purposes or to reach a skills base, or to broadcast information to a large general pool.

In the private sector, LinkedIn is widely used by agencies and companies directly to recruit a broad range of talent. In fact, even in 2010, 78% of companies used LinkedIn to find candidates; a statistic which rose to 87% the following year. However, LinkedIn is not the only way of recruiting socially. Specialists, such as developers with distinct programming language experience or copywriters with particular sector experience, can be tough to find through conventional means, but forums and twitter can often be goldmines where these staff gather independently. Finally, Facebook remains a reliable source for graduates and interns who may not have registered on LinkedIn yet – indeed, both Facebook and LinkedIn use this strategy to recruit promising staff from the age of 16 onwards.

Many public sector employers are also realising the strength of social media as recruitment tools. For example, NHS Employers is the voice of employers in the NHS. Its briefing “Using social media in your recruitment process: The essential guide for HR directors and mangers” provides detailed guidance for NHS organisations, much of which is transferrable to other public sector organisations.

As an example, the report cites the NHS Graduate Training Scheme which has augmented traditional university campus presence with social media such as live Q&A sessions on Facebook. Allowing job candidates and new hires to interact with existing NHS staff gives them a fuller understanding of roles and what it is like to work within the NHS, also helping to answer common questions that new starters may have.

In the local government sector, Monmouthshire County Council has a policy of providing open access to social media for all staff. It has an impressive range of social media presences and uses social media to advertise jobs. A report by ACAS  on the use of social media in recruitment notes that the council uses Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube selectively on a job by job basis depending on particular needs. In one example, YouTube was used as part of the recruitment process for a senior position. All the shortlisted candidates reported seeing that the videos had affected their decision to apply for the job and the subsequent experience of the new recruits who worked at the organisation.

Facebook might not be the first port of call when recruiting and communicating with staff and the public, but it can reach a wide and varied audience. The Highland and Islands Division of the Scottish Police has a strong Facebook presence, and as well as using its site for public information, it advertises open days and other recruitment-based activities, and hosts recruitment-based Facebook chats.

In addition to those mentioned above, organisations should also consider using a long term and carefully managed Twitter account to announce new vacancies, new starters or maintain a blog on which key staff can write about their work. There are lots of ways to use social media in recruitment and in the subsequent onboarding process to make the experience smoother and more engaging for new recruits.

Social Onboarding

Once organisations have hired staff, social media can also be effective in supporting the onboarding process. Although few public sector bodies will be able to match Google’s futuristic 3D mapping software, which offers an interactive plan of the office complex, allowing staff to view the location of key facilities and future co-workers, there are a number of options open to them. For example, lively discussion on the office intranet about social activities can help to make new hires feel welcome. Similarly, having an IM tool embedded in online collaboration systems can allow staff to ask minor – but important – questions to mentors or nearby colleagues, such as the location of the kitchen or details of contracts, without having to cross the office and interrupt them. This can greatly smooth the onboarding process.

Social tools can also be helpful in bringing employees up to speed professionally. Collaboration tools such as internal social portals with searchable discussion forums can help staff to avoid reinventing the wheel and search for the answers to questions first rather than asking colleagues. This can include best practice during client liaison, organisational ways of working, or planning 101.  However, it’s always wise to include guidance for staff. For example, the Leeds and York partnership NHS foundation has social media firmly embedded in its agenda, but still runs monthly ‘social media surgeries’ for worried or nervous staff.

Social media in learning

Long, formal learning sessions are increasingly impractical. Staff may not have the time to spend out of the office, and whole day sessions in particular can be difficult to accommodate. Shorter time periods, on the job learning and very practically focussed skills acquisition are the 21st Century’s learning framework. Social learning, implemented correctly, can help to extend these shorter learning sessions by allowing discussions to take place after a course, deepening and developing knowledge and understanding. Employees can discuss parts of the course that they found particularly useful or gain clarity on parts that they did not understand, through informal, peer discussions.

A good example of this is Knowledge Hub, which is run by the Local Government Association and is a professional social network for the local government sector with tens of thousands of members.  Discussion groups cover all manner of topics from planning through food hygiene and public health. Members can start discussion groups, send direct messages and more.  It is ideal for anyone interested in self-directed, outcome focussed, task specific shared learning.

Local authorities can run similar types of service focussed on their own staff and taking advantage of both formal and informal approaches. Buying in the services of external providers can be coupled with a mix of internally managed interest based discussion groups, blog posts, video and so on.

More than icing on the cake

A survey by AT&T found that 65% of workers believed that social networking contributed to overall working efficiency, through better communication. With social media a fact of everyday life for many of us and the normal way of communicating on a whole range of topics, stepping into organisations which are not using social media can feel alien and remote.

Integrating social media into the public sector should be seen as complementary to existing HR functions. Fully open access to social sites for all staff such as is the policy at Monmouthshire County Council, along with an encouragement to use services like Knowledge Hub, could be a good first step towards using social media in learning. Meanwhile, identifying a small number of posts for which social media might boost breadth or depth of candidates could be a good way to test the use of social media in recruitment.

Overall, taking a gentle approach to start with would mean HR staff can build on their successes and learn how best to make use of the range of social tools that are available. Social media can definitely empower and assist the public sector, but it needs delicate and sensitive handling if it is to be successful. However, in the long run, the issue public sector organisations need to consider is not whether to embrace social media in recruitment and training, but whether they can afford not to.


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