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Government in a Wiki World, Part 1

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By J. Davidson Frame May 5, 2008

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The first wiki was created by Ward Cunningham in 1995. Cunningham’s goal was to use his wiki to establish a compendium of software design wisdom.

The rationale underlying the wiki concept is to post an idea publicly, then to let players add to, adjust, or take away from the idea iteratively. Over time, with input from many players, what starts as a primitive idea can grow into a well-developed statement.

The power of the wiki was demonstrated with the creation of Wikipedia in 2001. In a very short period of time, with input coming from tens of thousands of contributors, Wikipedia evolved into a first-rate encyclopedia. What is interesting is that the encyclopedia emerged without any central organizing force. It has been created by amateurs who organize their efforts independently. No one tells them what to do. They work on what they find interesting. Furthermore, Wikipedia is a work in progress â€" entries are continually changed to reflect prevailing thinking and actions. It will never be a finished document.

Both public and private sector entities are trying to harness the forces of wiki-like collaboration. The traditional way of getting things done has been to put a job into the hands of experts. For example, in developing a new product, technical people work on technical things, editors work on documentation, marketers develop a market strategy, and so on. The wiki-way is very different. Different players contribute their insights to develop a new product, regardless of their expertise. Technical people can contribute thoughts on marketing strategy, while marketers can suggest technical enhancements.

Interestingly, some of the greatest enthusiasm for collaborative work efforts in government is coming from the intelligence community. The 9/11 disaster highlighted the price the USA had to pay for the absence of a collaborative spirit among intelligence agencies. We now know that all the information needed to stop the 9/11 terrorists was in the hands of American intelligence agencies prior to the attack. However, because the agencies did not share the information they had, no one in the US government was able to anticipate and head off the impending calamity.

One attempt to harness the collective wisdom of employees working at different intelligence agencies has been to establish the wiki Intellipedia, which was set up in 2006. Link Only employees with proper clearances are able to access and contribute to Intellipedia (comprised of three wikis). Already, it has provided the intelligence community with insights into how to deal with terrorist attacks in Iraq. Its strength is that it can quickly leverage the knowledge and thoughts of the entire intelligence community. There is no need to set up a task force and wait six months for results.

In order to make sure that managers within the intelligence agencies take the need for cross-agency collaboration seriously, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has issued a new directive that will require senior managers at the nation’s sixteen intelligence agencies to be assessed according to a common performance evaluation system Link. A key criterion for evaluation focuses on the extent to which senior managers promote collaboration across agency boundaries. This is a good step.

Intellipedia offers a technical fix to the challenge of cross-agency collaboration. However, given the strong territorial tendencies of the agencies, a number of important questions arise: Are their employees willing to participate in the effort in an effective way? Will they hold back information that they feel their agencies “own”? When looking at the conclusions emerging from a wiki exercise, will they ignore the findings based on not-invented-here feelings?

Ultimately, the success of cross-agency collaboration requires that the players trust the system and want to work together. If these criteria are not met, then technical wiki fixes won’t work.

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