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Business - Written by on Wednesday, September 3, 2008 9:12 - 11 Comments

Guest Blogger Steve Ressler on Government 2.0 & The Rise of Informal Networks

This guest blog is by Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop.com, a social network connecting the government community. Mr. Ressler is also a contributor to the nGenera Gov 2.0: Wikinomics, Government, and Democracy project and the co-founder of Young Government Leaders, a professional organization of more than 2,000 government employees. Ressler has published articles on generational issues and Web 2.0 in various publications including The Public Manager and presented on these topics at a range of venues including Harvard’s Kennedy School and Brookings Institute.
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It’s official – Gov 2.0 is here to stay. From nGenera’s Gov 2.0: Wikinomics, Government, and Democracy project, NAPA’s Collaboration Project, and Mashable’s recent Gov 2.0 column, a lot has been written on the potential power of web 2.0 technologies in government. Government agencies across numerous jurisdictions have begun focusing on how Web 2.0 technologies can help foster workplace collaboration and innovation. Organizations such as the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Transportation Security Agency, and National Resources Canada have implemented organizational wikis to provide a central point for ideas and discussion.

But while government organizations have begun to focus on fostering workplace collaboration from the inside, a new type of collaboration is developing outside the formal reach of government agencies. As part of the Gov 2.0: Wikinomics, Government, and Democracy research series, I recently completed a paper entitled “Net-Gen Networks: How Agencies Can Leverage Outside Innovation Internally.” In this analysis, I document the rise of informal networks in the government sector built around Web 2.0 applications as a means of facilitating collaboration, idea sharing and innovation both within and across agency lines. Whether via social networks like Facebook, wikis, or blogs, these networks have created new authoritative resources for employees without the input or control of their superiors.

For example, Young Government Leaders, a professional organization for young federal employees in the U.S., started as two new government workers wanted to connect with peers. What started as a small happy hour has turned into a powerful informal network with over 2,000 members featuring a weekly leadership blog, professional development activities, community service, and bi-weekly newsletter. Young Government Leaders is not housed in a specific government agency but rather is run independently by volunteers on their own time and provides a sense of community to Net-Gen federal employees going through the same experiences in their career.

Another great example is Firefighternation.com, a social networking site for U.S. firefighters and emergency medical services, and rescue workers. Founded in July 2007 by a Columbia, MD firefighter, this online resource connects members through online profiles, message boards, blogs, news feeds, user-posted photos and videos. With over 22,000 registered members, members use the site to share advice on just about everything, including equipment, training tools, and safety, creating a rich repository of media that the community uses to demonstrate new techniques and lessons learned.

So why are these informal networks being created? Interviews with network leaders and participants reveal that these informal networks are being developed for four key reasons: they fill gaps in the information provided by their employers, they provide instantaneous access to resources and expertise, they’re viewed as authentic communities of peers and venues for candid dialogue, and, ultimately, they serve as innovation incubators in organizations where employees may not be empowered to pursue their ideas. Additionally, they are used as a way to create community, to share best practices, and to find out about additional career opportunities across the public sector.

While these informal networks are primarily being used by entry and mid-level staff, recent talks with senior government officials have shown that these informal environments are even more beneficial to them. These senior officials stated that they want to use collaborative technologies but can’t always openly collaborate using enterprise 2.0 tools because their opinions would be viewed based on their position and considered differently by all employees. For example, the CIO cannot propose in an idea bank for the radical streamlining of the acquisition process without offending his/her counterpart.

Recently, I launched my own informal network – GovLoop.com. GovLoop is a social network that connects the government community including federal, state, and local government workers, professors and students interested in public policy, and government consultants. In only a couple months, it’s grown to over 800 members and the use of the site has been very interesting. I see government employees connecting with people they would never have met and asking questions such as how to use social media and still meet government reporting requirements or how to recruit the Net-Gen to government. In another case, I saw a master’s student in Iowa connecting with the government program manager in D.C. on the topic related to his thesis. Members have started to blog on their own sharing their wisdom on everything from how to survive meeting to climbing the career ladder and finding the best training classes.

I think these are all clear examples of the power of informal networks and web 2.0 technologies. In solving government problems, we should leverage the wisdom of the millions of government employees and their past experiences. While the problem may be new to one person, it has probably been critically researched and solved by somewhere in the government sector.

I believe there will be plenty of room for both formal and informal networks to play a role in improving government in the 21st century. Some people are extremely cautious and only want to collaborate in a formal setting where they know who they are dealing with and trust everyone. Other people are more flexible and enjoy collaborating with a broader set of stakeholders. The role of companies and agencies is to learn to operate and leverage both formal and informal networks so they gain maximum value.



11 Comments

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Brennan
Sep 3, 2008 17:38

“…they fill gaps in the information provided by their employers, they provide instantaneous access to resources and expertise, they’re viewed as authentic communities of peers and venues for candid dialogue, and, ultimately, they serve as innovation incubators in organizations where employees may not be empowered to pursue their ideas”

I absolutely agree. However, I think the formation of these groups is the result of a much simpler idea.

I’ve found that web 2.0 technologies have the ability to reduce the transaction costs of forming and coordinating large groups of people. I think the reduction in these costs (i.e. time & effort) is what’s leading more people to organize in the first place.

Explaining it the opposite way gives the impression that people all of a sudden wanted to, “…fill gaps in the information provided by their employers, [have] …instantaneous access to resources and expertise…” They probably wanted to do this all along, but thought it was impossible.

Steve Ressler
Sep 3, 2008 20:53

Thanks Brennan. In my larger research paper, I do spend time talking about the impact of the new technologies on informal networks. It’s so easy to get an informal network going whether it is a Yahoo/Google group, a blog, a Ning network, or just a simple website. The trick is they need to identify a real need or they die just as quickly as they start.

Hugh Davidson
Sep 4, 2008 0:32

I started an informal social site within the design area of the tax department in New Zealand recently based in a wiki.

Absolutely agree with you Steve and love what your doing.

We are getting good feedback around our efforts even with only 42 people involved and will be sharing your post with anyone who wants to know why we did it. I fumbled my way through explanations along these lines in order to get ours some formal clearance which essentially we didn’t need but we did it anyway.

Brennan sounds like you’ve just finished reading Clay Shirky? Cosean floor anyone?

DorobekInsider.com: An amazing Rising Star’s view of Government 2.0… and GovLoop « DorobekInsider.com
Sep 4, 2008 0:57

[...] you somehow cannot make time to meet Ressler, he is a guest blogger on the Wikinomics blog, which is related to the Wikinomics book, of course. Guest Blogger Steve [...]

Lind Cureton
Sep 4, 2008 8:47

I agree with the comment about the benefits of informal environments to senior officials. I am blogging, twittering, and facebook-ing. A colleague asked about the value and what I get out of it. I thought it was going to be a waste of time at first, and just viewed it as sort of a science project.

What I found was that blogging helps me focus; twitter allows you to say “how was your day? to “friends” virtually; facebook keeps you in touch as is an efficient collabotation tool.

Steve Ressler
Sep 4, 2008 22:22

Hugh – sounds like your doing some interesting work over there in New Zealand. Would love to hear more.

Linda – I’m glad your science experience has been successful. I think the tools are a great way to share and learn from others. I don’t think in government we try out enough experiments so it’s always good to see some experimentation…

olympia shredders
Nov 27, 2008 4:34

This blog Is very informative , I am really pleased to post my comment on this blog . It helped me with ocean of knowledge so I really belive you will do much better in the future . Good job web master .

The Promise and Myth of Barack Obama’s Government 2.0 | Gauravonomics Blog
Jan 10, 2009 22:45

[...] Level 1 of governance 2.0 would have been inevitable with or without Obama, because social media tools will soon become as ubiquitous (and boring, and, therefore, truly powerful) as email and not using them will be downright silly. See Mark Drapeau in MediaShift on government social ambassadors, Colleen Graffy in The Washington Post on Twitter Diplomacy, Aaron Brazell on the congressional online video controversy and the Let Our Congress Tweet petition by Sunlight Foundation. There is even a social network for the US government community: GovLoop. See Steve Ressler from GovLoop on informal government networks. [...]

Fun career sites and posts I’ve found lately #2 « Heather Krasna’s Job, Internship & Public Service Career Blog
May 26, 2009 9:57

[...] My favorite new social networking site for government, http://www.govloop.com, is explained in more detail here: http://www.wikinomics.com/blog/index.php/2008/09/03/guest-blogger-steve-ressler-on-government-20-the… [...]

Barb
Jun 22, 2009 19:46

Web 2.0/Gov 2.0 is here to stay. We are just seeing the beginning of it’s potential. It will prove to be an invaluable tool

Обещания и мифы Government 2.0 Барака Обамы | Алена Попова
Jul 6, 2010 12:11

[...] [...]

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