Four Hours after UCS Report Release, United States Geological Survey Takes a Step Forward

March 15, 2013 | 4:23 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

UPDATE Monday March 18 3:00PM (see below):

Who ever said the federal government can’t work fast?

This morning, UCS released a report analyzing how federal government agencies and departments allow their scientists to communicate with the public. We found that while many agencies have better policies since 2008, there are still improvements to be made.

For the first time this year, we graded federal agency social media policies.

So I tweeted out our report this morning:


And we emailed the results to each agency that we reviewed, including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The agency received a “B+” on its social media policy. And just a little over four hours later, the General Services Administration posted this:

That’s, um, fast. Sometimes it takes me longer to decide where I want to go for dinner.

So what did they do? The USGS has both a social media policy and guidelines for how that policy should be interpreted. The agency updated its guidelines document to make it clear that the policy allows a scientist to express his or her personal views in her or his capacity as a private citizen:

“Personal Use Disclaimer: If you’re using social media for personal reasons (e.g., Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc) you should add a phrase that clarifies that you are posting your own opinions. Even though you’re acting in your own personal capacity, you’re still an employee of the Federal Government. Some examples are “Tweets are my own” or “Posts are my own opinions”, “What I share is my own opinion and not endorsed by any organization.” We understand that it’s not possible to add a phrase like this in every single post. However, all social media services do provide profile options where you can add such language.”

The agency also added references to other policies that might be relevant, such as the use of government computers for personal business.

Finally, the agency added language for “correcting a scientific inaccuracy,” but to a section of the policy that deals with actions taken during a scientist’s personal time. This does not address what can sometimes be a problem: when agencies put out scientifically inaccurate information and there is no process to make a correction. We still believe that the USGS should create a procedure to correct errors in technical information released through official USGS social media outlets.

We also think that the agency should educate employees about the inherent risks involved in using social media.

But for now, here’s what I have to say:

UPDATE, Monday March 18 3:00pm EDT: Took them almost an entire day this time, but the USGS again just updated its policy to include the right of employees to correction of errors that are made via social media. As the policy now points out, their “social media presences are managed by humans and, by nature, humans are not infalliable. In the event that an official USGS account posts/tweets an error or inaccuracy that goes unnoticed, our employees can contact the USGS account through that account service directly, or by email, and provide the corrected information. All suggestions will be confirmed and, if an error was made, a correction will be made through that service.”

The policy also now mentions employee training and encourages employees to get in touch with social media staff if they have questions about social media use at the agency.

It’s great to see an agency engaging in an iterative improvement process like this, especially with regard to a medium that lends itself to open communication. Kudos again to the social media staff at USGS for starting off this week in an even stronger position than they were last week.