The increasing use of social media by government agencies has not only altered how governments and the public interact, but the way governments conduct their business.

Agencies are using social media in a variety of ways: to deliver services, communicate information, coordinate resources in emergencies, and engage citizens and stakeholders in consultation processes.

There is no question that social media helps government to govern. Where there is some cause for concern however, is that when using social media applications government decisions are often influenced by or communicated via external web-based platforms or operated by third parties, such as Facebook or Twitter.

Online engagement tools like Delib‘s Citizen Space, Dialogue App and Budget Simulator are designed to be government records-keeping compliant, with all of the content from citizens and agencies readily downloadable in a format that makes record keeping easy.

Often though, government agencies using social media or other online engagement tools find themselves in the unprecedented position where the record of government decisions may not always be held internally, but owned and hosted by others. There is no guarantee these third-party hosts will keep or allow agencies access to these records indefinitely. In fact, you can almost certainly guarantee the opposite.

As a consequence agencies need social media records management policies and systems to capture and store these records themselves, just as they would any business decision made or communicated through other channels.

This sounds simple enough, but is it? The first challenge is in ensuring that staff using social media on behalf of their agencies understand what to record, and how. The second is to ensure that agencies know which tools they can use to capture these records.

A recent social media and record keeping survey conducted by NSW State Records found that 60 per cent of respondents were not capturing records of their social media interactions. The main reasons given where that they didn’t have the tools to do so, and that they didn’t think they needed to.

Each Australian state and territory has legislation requiring government agencies to keep comprehensive records of their activities. This legislation does not define a record by its format, and applies to all public records regardless of the technology used to create or access them. As such, records generated through the use of social media should be managed as part of existing record keeping frameworks.

Under such frameworks the obligation, as set down by the Australian Public Service Commission, is that all government agencies record information that provides evidence of key activities or decisions in a way that accurately preserves their context and significance, and store these records in a way that makes them easily accessible.

The difficulty many agencies face when it comes to social media record keeping is identifying when a social media channel contains information of importance that should be a matter of public record, and what to record.

To help, each state and territory has developed social media policies and guides to help employees navigate social media in regards to existing, legislated records management processes.

The Queensland State Archives’ Public Records Brief provides a useful checklist, stating that social media tools may contain public records if:

  • they contain information applicable to the purpose and works of the public authority that is unique and not available anywhere else (e.g. not duplicated from authority websites)
  • they are a primary source of evidence of a public authority’s policies, business, mission, etc.
  • they are used in relation to the public authority’s work
  • use of social media is authorised by the public authority
  • they provide information that is required as a business need.

A presentation from the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office clarifies this further and says that social media results in state records anytime it is used for government business, offering this helpful rule of thumb:

‘Responses to social media content created by agency staff as a part of their work, such as a comment on a blog post or a reply to a Tweet, are state records.

Any response received by agency staff—particularly where the responses feed into government policy or decision-making is a record. Irrelevant, off-topic responses can be culled under normal administrative practice’.

Context is perhaps the trickiest aspect of social media record keeping. How do you capture the context of a Facebook page? How should a Twitter trend be captured to ensure it is recorded accurately and in full?

The Victorian Government Public Record Office‘s social media record keeping policy makes the point that much of this boils down to risk management, assessing how sensitive and critical the interaction, or business need to which the interaction relates, is.

From there, it is up to the agency to determine if a social media post forms an accurate record on its own or if the context of the communication can only be understood alongside other users’ interactions.

So, once it has been decided to keep a record of a given social media interaction, what should it include? The general consensus from Australian state and territory policies is that the record should contain:

  • the content of any communication sent or received
  • the context of the communication i.e. why, who authorised the message, and the message purpose
  • date and time of the interaction
  • social media channel used
  • the format the content was sent or received in, i.e. video, text, photograph
  • the name of the communication creator/sender
  • the name of the communication recipient
  • any resulting decisions or recommendations made, and
  • the name of the authorising delegate.

Tips to remember

  • Government employees are required to keep full and accurate records of activities undertaken and decisions made in the course of their work.
  • Records management legislation does not define a record by its format.
  • You are not required to keep records of every single social media interaction. Some, such as ‘Likes’ or individual Tweets will be minor and not of any consequence. However, you do need to identify high-risk business operations and assess their level of sensitivity. The higher the sensitivity, the more crucial it is to identify what records will be necessary to act as evidence for your actions and decisions.

If you’d like to learn about different social media record keeping tools, stay tuned for our post: Social media record keeping for government –how to do it well.