Even Sean Dennehy, whose title is evangelist for the intelligence community's widely lauded collaboration Web site Intellipedia, was initially skeptical.
"Cal Andrus spoke to a technology advisory group that I was a part of about wikis and blogs, and we all said, 'This guy is crazy,' " Dennehy recalls. Andrus, who worked in the application services office at the CIA, had won the intelligence community's Galileo Award in 2004 for his white paper on using the Internet to boost information sharing.
Despite a preconceived notion that Web 2.0 technologies had little place in the intelligence community, Dennehy fiddled online with the build-as-you-go encyclopedia, Wikipedia, to see where Andrus was coming from. Sifting through the discussion and history tabs for each entry, he quickly saw similarities in the online community's style of collaboration and the way he and his colleagues at the CIA worked as intelligence analysts. Both approaches involved a lot of dialogue and building on the ideas of others. The big difference, though, was information sharing on the Web required only a few mouse clicks.
"Everyone has a light bulb moment," Dennehy says. "That was mine." He went back to Andrus to ask how the intelligence community could get this sort of wiki up and running. In 2006, Intellipedia officially launched. Three years later, the application boasts about 5,000 contributions and 15,000 edits per day.
But getting there hasn't been easy.
"It's bloody hard, because every inclination in government is to close these types of things down," says Don Burke, officially known as the Intellipedia doyen, who spearheaded the initiative with Dennehy. "People want some magical formula to innovation, but it's not that predictable. They just need to fight like hell."
Caught in the Middle
The Obama campaign built an election platform on Web 2.0 technologies using social media sites, streaming video and blogs to gain support from the country's digitally savvy populace. Building upon that success, President Obama now is driving those initiatives into the federal government. The White House has launched a number of collaborative tools and Web sites to better serve citizens, including Recovery.gov, which tracks how economic stimulus funds are allocated and spent. The president also leveraged the popularity of the video-sharing service YouTube to provide live online access to his speeches.
At the same time, the administration encourages agencies to use these types of tools internally for more efficient, transparent operations. But little guidance has been provided on how to drive adoption.
"There is a lot of ground between Obama and someone doing the actual work, who's focus is all about making the trains run on time," Burke says. "That often keeps them so busy they can't even poke their head up to look around."
Skepticism about Web 2.0 technologies varies, depending on people's roles. For those in leadership positions, collaborative services that allow staff or citizens to comment on agency policies, operations or performance in an open forum means a loss of control.
"There's this interesting tension between the value of having contributed information versus a clear loss of control over the process," says Eric Kansa, executive director of the information and service design program at the University of California, Berkeley. But if people can see the unfolding of problem- solving then agencies become much less of what Kansa calls "black boxes making arbitrary decisions."
"The challenge is moving from 'batten down the hatches, and put on a happy face,' to 'let's share our issues, warts and all, and work through them together,' " he says. "In a risk-averse world like the federal government, that might be a harder pill to swallow."
Middle managers fear collaborative software tools ultimately will flatten the organizational structure - which they often do, Kansa says, by expanding the lines of communication - and render their positions obsolete. Managers also might view such an initiative as an added burden; one more directive "from on high" that they'll have to oversee, he says. As a result, they often put the kibosh on innovative ideas before they're even fully devised.
Consider the response Dennehy received after posting a blog entry that emphasized top-level support for Intellipedia soon after the initiative launched. The hope was to ease apprehension from potential participants who expected a lack of endorsement from agency heads.
"A key comment I got back was, 'I don't need top cover, I need middle cover. I need someone to convince my manager this is something we need to do,' " Dennehy says. "There's a reason this is called disruptive technology. These are counter-cultural concepts, which can be very daunting."
For agency staff the fear is failure, he adds. If a pie-in-the-sky idea doesn't pan out, will they be fired? Many are reluctant to take that chance.
Try, Try Again
In Crossing the Chasm (HarperBusiness, 1999), Geoffrey A. Moore theorized that gaps exist between early adopters and those in the mainstream. For Web 2.0 services, early adopters typically reside in the rank and file. Often they're less shackled by existing bureaucratic processes, and unlike elected officials, they're at agencies long enough to see lengthy initiatives through, according to Dennehy, Burke and Kansa. The challenge is ensuring these lower level employees feel em-powered to give the adequate push to get these efforts off the ground.
"There needs to be some signal from leadership that says innovation is not only tolerated, but valued; you're not going to lose your shirt or endanger your career," Kansa says. "There needs to be some space for experimentation, getting it wrong and then trying again."
Like the intelligence community, the State Department launched a wiki in 2006 to enable employees located all over the globe to exchange information. Called Diplopedia, the Web site now counts nearly 9,000 articles and 2,000 contributors. The department also developed virtual locations in smaller international towns and cities that do not have a U.S. embassy presence.
"It's better to launch and learn and be a bit more entrepreneurial, without worrying that the stakes are too high," says Richard Boly, State's director of eDiplomacy. His office was formed in October 2003 to improve the department's ability to communicate and share information among embassies and offices around the world. "Agencies can't be afraid of small failures. If we had tried to think in advance of all the challenges that could have been, we might never have launched" these services, he adds.
Burke likens the strategy to throwing spaghetti against the wall until something sticks.
Agencies need to give individuals the clearance to fail, he says, knowing it might actually lead to some big successes instead.
So a particular Web 2.0 initiative is formulated from the ground up and gains support from leadership. Then what? The efforts' own evangelists must coax their colleagues to participate, emphasizing how the tool or service can make their jobs easier. Rather than "paving the cow path" by simply moving existing processes online, Boly says, initiatives should offer employees a more productive way of doing things.
"The changes need to be driven by making the organizations perform more effectively, ideally through happier, better informed, more empowered and more creative participants," Kansa says. "What would fail is if leadership had some idea of what the organization needs and developed a plan without any buy-in or participation by the people that are supposed to actually use the tool. That's where things go badly wrong."
Agencies also should recruit those minds that can recognize the potential of Web 2.0 initiatives, contribute to the innovation already happening in the field, and guide purchasing decisions, observers say. Procurement officers often don't have the technical expertise needed to evaluate one product over another or to determine which functions are essential and which are not, says Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for greater government transparency. He recommends hiring young, fresh programmers to sit beside procurement officers and act as filters for determining what is considered a reasonable price.
"It's one thing to blindly suck in social media and not understand how you plan to use the tools versus learning what's out there, how they're being used and what the potential advantages are for the agency," says David McClure, associate administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Communications at the General Services Administration. The office runs USA.gov. As the federal government's official Web site, USA.gov relies on an array of new media and Web 2.0 technologies to connect government with citizens, including blogs, online chats, YouTube, and the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter.
"Internally, figure out the demand," McClure says. "Different mission areas will have different needs - some will have commonalities, but some will also have different sensitivities."
The Defense Department, for instance, must balance security concerns against the morale of deployed troops who want to use social media sites to communicate with their families, he says. In July, the Pentagon launched a blog called the Web 2.0 Guidance Forum to provide Defense Secretary Robert Gates a range of input from employees, service members and the contracting community as he develops new policy for use of social media sites and applications.
Slow and Steady
Across government, policies would have to change to support widespread adoption of Web 2.0 technologies. As Burke notes, "Government tends to create a project, and then build a lot of walls to control those who can get in. Every agency has over 200 years of governance that tells us what we can't do."
Leadership support, grass-roots efforts, and even rallied employees will go only so far. "Every agency has to have a social media policy in place that provides a set of guidelines for how employees are expected to manage these opportunities and communication channels," McClure says.
The State Department, for one, is considering a policy that not only defines appropriate use of Web 2.0 technologies, but also encourages adoption with guidance for getting initiatives off the ground, Boly says.
To support agency efforts, GSA pre-negotiated service agreements in March with four video-sharing and social networking sites: Flickr, Vimeo, blip.tv and YouTube. One month later, GSA officials signed agreements with Facebook and MySpace.
"That should make a huge difference, though the agencies themselves will still have to look at these terms and determine whether they want to alter them for their particular use," McClure says. "It's not a blank check: 'Follow this and you'll be fine.' There are different situations that agencies need to be aware of within their own domain."
Even with policies in place, Web 2.0 technologies can take time to catch on, and long-term success often comes with a more gradual approach to adoption.
For both Intellipedia and Diplopedia, the CIA and State Department started with an alphabet soup listing of acronyms. That lowered the barrier to adoption, Dennehy says, because employees could offer their harmless contributions to test the waters and gain a comfort level that was essential for the wiki's growth.
"A bottom-up approach is slow and arduous, because you remain under the radar," Burke says.
"But the hope is that we're affecting a groundswell of change that outlives one person or one tool."
Success breeds success, which makes measurement of results essential, McClure adds. GSA plans to work with agencies to define how Web 2.0 technologies have improved operations and collaboration with citizens so the government has a comprehensive list of which initiatives have worked and which have not, along with some analysis as to why.
"We're fixated on tools and opportunities, but that has to be followed up with a dialogue about whether this is actually making a difference," McClure says.
The good news is this will get easier, at least according to Boly. As Web 2.0 becomes more commonplace, each consecutive generation will count more of what he describes as digital natives, completely familiar with the potential benefits of social media services and comfortable with driving initiatives on behalf of organizations. "My hope is that social media becomes a term like artificial intelligence - so ubiquitous that everyone stops using it," Boly says. "It will just be how we do business."
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