Based on a question which identified that, in a single week of measurement last year, staff at the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR), spent 400 hours using social media, The Australian reported that "Liberal senator Cory Bernardi said millions of dollars were being wasted as public servants whiled away the hours on social media sites."
I thought it worth unpacking this article and this number. Government agencies are struggling to decide whether to allow, and how to manage, social media use by staff - whether on official, professional or a personal basis.
How much social media use is appropriate? Should staff have access to the Department's official social media channels? How does a Department respond to claims that use may be excessive?
Firstly the article didn't identify what was meant by 'social media'. Does it include newspaper websites (such as The Australian) which support comments? Does it exclude government mandated platforms such as GovDex and GovSpace?
Is YouTube 'social media', or a video distribution service? How about Wikipedia, encyclopedia or social media?
This makes it harder to characterise how these 400 hours were spent. I'm happy to accept a broad inclusive view and consider social media as including any website which supports multi-way interaction (public publishing of user comments), even if the user doesn't actually interact in this manner. That includes YouTube and Wikipedia, as well as newspaper websites and many government sites.
Secondly, there are many legitimate reasons that public servants may need to use social media channels. There are many forums, social networks and other social media channels discussing topics related to the Department's portfolio areas (Innovation, Industry, Science and Research).
In fact I'd consider it negligent if any Department was not at least monitoring and preferably participating in discussions appropriate to their portfolio interests - this level of ongoing consultation is vital for good policy formation and service delivery.
Certainly some social media use may be incidental personal use and not interfering with agency business (similar to banking online, taking a personal call or going to the toilet), however a substantial proportion of social media use is likely to be legitimate and important business activity.
Finally, it is important to consider the time spent using social media proportionate to the number of employees. While the article indicated that the 400 hours of social media use per week by DIISR was equivalent to ten full-time tweeters, this claim is highly misleading.
DIISR has about 2,112 employees based on DIISR's 2009-2010 annual report.
Spreading 400 hours of weekly social media use across 2,112 staff, led me to an average of 11 minutes and 20 seconds spent using social media per employee per week.
That's less time than it takes to get a single coffee from a nearby coffee shop and shorter than the average smoke break.
On that basis, in my view, 400 hours per week social media use for a 2,000 person agency, should not be considered excessive.
So how much social media use is appropriate for a government Department?
The right answer, I believe, is 'it depends'.
It depends on the activities of the Department. Some agencies have a pressing need to monitor community sentiment, address enquiries and/or respond to incorrect statements to ensure that the correct information is available to the community, including in popular forums, blogs and other frequently used online channels.
It depends on the situation. During a crisis there might be greater need to engage the public online, such as the recent example in Queensland where the Queensland Police made world class use of Twitter and Facebook.
It depends on staff's individual job responsibilities. Following in the footsteps of the corporate sector, we're seeing more social media advisor and community management roles in the public service. These people are required to monitor, advise and respond via social media. It's their job.
Lastly, it depends on how effectively a Department is using social media.
In my view we're still in very early stages of adoption with few staff trained or experienced in effective official use of social media channels (but learning fast).
The Department of Justice in Victoria requires staff to demonstrate capability using social media (via their internal Yammer service) before being allowed to use social media officially for the Department - like conducting media training before placing a senior executive in front of a journalist. However many other Departments still discourage social media use except amongst specific staff tasked with relevant duties.
I wouldn't be surprised if a mature Department, using social media appropriately as a core communications and engagement tool, could rack up ten times the use of social media that DIISR does today - 4,000 hours per week.
This may sound like a lot, but would still represent less than 2 hours per week per staff member, only five per cent of their time. What else do you spend two hours a week on?
The real question to fall out of the consideration above is what activities does and will the time spent using social media replace?
Will it replace some town hall meetings (planning, travelling and running) with online consultations; some stakeholder phone conversation and emails with stakeholder social network groups; internal staff meetings with intranet forums; or writing media releases with blog posts and tweets?
Given the relative productivity of social media over 'old ways' of doing things - maybe politicians and senior managers need to push for MORE social media use in government Departments rather than less.