OTTAWA - The federal government has hit the like button on social media.


It is unveiling a formal set of guidelines for how departments should use sites like Twitter and Facebook as well as technologies that allow users to create content online like Google Docs.


“For many Canadians, Web 2.0 is increasingly becoming a primary channel for sending, receiving and generating information,” say the guidelines, which are to be formally published today.


“Because of the participatory nature of Web 2.0, it can help facilitate interactive and rapid communication and engagement between government departments, their partners and their clients...”


But the guidelines also note that the public servants need to be aware of the risks of operating in social media circles, including the potential of creating “negative perceptions” if users are posting abusive comments or attempting to engage non-partisan public servants in political discourse.


The rules cover everything from official language requirements online and how to use government symbols, while recognizing that online tools don't always provide the same space or format of standard communication tools.

They also suggest how to pick online names for departmental accounts.

“Account names or 'handles' should be clearly based on principal elements from a department's official title or acronym where possible and use functional and service-based words or terms otherwise. When establishing a Web 2.0 presence, consideration of official languages must be given to account names or handles.”

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who is an avid user of social media, told public servants at a conference in Ottawa today that online tools have an important role in government.

“They are the modern-day equivalents of 'town halls' and are being used for various purposes including recruitment, emergency communications, service delivery, stakeholder outreach and as tools for collaboration and consultation,” he said, according to a prepared text of his remarks.

The government has had guidelines in place since 2008 governing how public servants should use social media within government, where there are internal blogs, a Wikipedia-like program and even an internal social network.

But external guidelines have been slow to develop, leading to some departments striking out on their own to be active online while others were holding back.