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Connecting social networks


Charlene Li’s presentation at this years SXSW festival focused on the topic “The Future of Social Networks”. The thesis of the talk was that social networks will be like air. Indeed, the pervasiveness of networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin means they are fast becoming the ‘new email’. More of our communication and collaboration with friends and work colleagues will take place within the confines of social networks – either within or outside traditional enterprise boundaries. Open networks will be the new norm. Such an orthodoxy will, however, profoundly change how communication occurs, and will challenge organisations to open their people and processes to a more network centric working environment.

Online social networking is not merely a method of communication. Rather it’s an instrument of change; a by-product of a changing society. This changing paradigm – from internal closed networks to external open communities – is already evident throughout the social web. Networks of government employees, contractors and advocacy groups are already active on many different platforms. They’re engaging with stakeholders of all varieties to develop and share ideas to benefit and help their business within government. Diverse groups have formed on collaboration platforms such as Linkedin, Ning, PBwiki and Twitter in order to gain from the experience of others, and debate how government can rise to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

The business impacts of Social Networking were recently outlined in an interesting paper from AT&T. Their predictions for how Social Networking will impact on the Corporate world include:

  1. Corporations will change the way they communicate
  2. Corporations will change their vision
  3. Corporations will change their Organization
  4. Collective intelligence and Customer experience will lead innovation
  5. Networking will be key to employee excellence
  6. Employee mobility will increase
  7. Corporations will adapt their motivation and career path systems
  8. IT/Telecoms applications will Mutate
  9. Corporate adoption will happen at different speeds
  10. Social networking may allow increased revenue

The predictions above are all relevant (except for number 10) for the federal government and agencies. Social networking will be the key to employee excellence within government, as it provides a platform with which to learn and engage with others to help solve key issues. It also provides employees with new opportunities to highlight and share their knowledge among a wider audience. This will increase mobility and as such government may need to adapt their motivation and career path systems.

Examples of government social networks

There are many examples of government social networks, but I’d like to focus on two communities utilizing the power of social networking to share ideas and improve the work of government.

1) The Federal Web Managers Council outlined the current state of government online communications in a white paper for the Presidential transition team last November. There were many examples of agencies using online technology to achieve their goals. However, the Council also identified many barriers to the full utilization of these new tools within government.

In order to address some of these issues, and especially those created “when communications takes a backseat to technology” they built their own social network. It consisted of 1,500 federal, state, and local web professionals across the country and its aim was to share best practices around agency websites. Various web managers groups are outlined on webcontent.gov, which also serves as the platform for tips and best practices to help manage the estimated 24,000 government websites. The forum allows for members to network and ‘stay up-to-date with news, find out about upcoming events, visit your group homepages, submit notes and photos, maintain your personal profile page, and much more!’.

2) The Govloop network was launched in June 2008 by Steve Ressler. It was created as a response to the many siloed communities that already existed to share ideas and best practices. It provides a social network in which members of the government community (currently numbering 7,4000) can meet new people and discuss ways of making government more effective. Steve outlined the primary rational for the network as a place in which ideas can live, and be communicated and acted upon by a wider and more diverse audience.

He highlighted how the crowdsourcing of experience can enable fresh ideas and solutions to government problems:

In solving government problems, we should leverage the wisdom of the millions of government employees and their past experiences

Currently the largest groups on Govloop, however, are concerned with technology and its application, rather than topics such as education or healthcare. Considering technology savvy early adopters are likely to be the first to engage in such networks this is no surprise. Groups such as Government 2.0 and E-government are the most active with different experiences and innovations being shared and debated.

How about connect.gov?

There is, as of yet, however, no space that identifies and categorizes different online networking groups for government employees. Indeed, the use of social networking sites is blocked for many government employees. This was highlighted in a recent memo from the Federal Web Managers Council. The solution to this issue was the recommendation that the:

new Administration should require agencies to provide access to social media sites unless the agency head justifies blocking certain employees or certain sites.

USA.gov attempts to gather a list of such platforms and organisations, categorizing between federal and state/local employees. These networks and groups provide a platform for collaboration on a range of subjects, but seem primarily concerned with technology and communications. Conspicuous by its absence, however, are social networks relating to healthcare, teaching or other professionals. For example, communities such as Firefighternation could be listed on connect.gov as a place for firefighters to share stories and tips. Connect.state.gov could be categorized under Cultures, and Patientslikeme under Healthcare.

Another aspect of connect.gov could be to reach out to other government communities around the world, and include these in any listings. While legislative issues would be different there are probably many best practices and tips that could be shared between international audiences. The communities outlined at idea.gov.uk could be listed alongside their corresponding American equivalents in order to create a more joined up government community.

Also, the various government barcamps, whether in the US, UK or Canada could be listed as they provide valuable thoughts and ideas on how to apply technology help solve government problems. The issues of government are global and it’s likely that they have been at least partially solved in some government jurisdiction around the world.

Rethinking interaction

Vivek Kundra described one of his Federal CIO tasks as: ‘rethinking how the federal government interacts with the public in an information economy’. Analogous to this is rethinking how the federal government interacts with itself, and its diverse range of stakeholders including states, agencies and contractors. Employees should be empowered to harness the value and potential of social networking tools to improve the service they deliver. Whether it’s through educating themselves or sharing advice, it’s imperative the culture of government becomes more open to the ideas and suggestions contained within such networks.

It’s not the government’s role, however, to create social networking sites. Rather it should keep track of them and provide information to employees on what’s available, and how to use them. Thomas Lord makes an interesting point in commenting on Rep. Mike Honda’s recent blog post:

The critical thing is to keep the rough and tumble “community stuff” off of the government’s plate. Let the private sector (“.org” and “.com”, so to speak) take on the impossible-to-get-right community governance problem. Let them compete about the best ways to consume and analyze government data and generate feedback.

The most appropriate place for discussions regarding best practices in government is the open web. While there are undoubtedly many agencies and departments with internal social networks, these exclude the external voices and opinions which are necessary for diverse debate. Many best practices can be shared openly as they are primarily concepts and ideas, rather than sensitive information on implementations.

The suggestion of government wide social network is not something I’m advocating, as I think it we should harness readily available communities already in operation. Ensuring the millions of government employees are aware of these social networks is important though, as they provide free and open advice to help with the challenges of government. Awareness, is not enough however. Rather external networks should be promoted as conduit the government can use for independent advice and direction.

The National Academy’s Collaboration Project describes this concisely in their Enabling Collaboration paper:

Today’s most effective public leaders embrace the vision of informal networks innovating across organizational boundaries, and of acting not only in service to citizens, but in partnership with them. The challenge for President Obama will be to implement the policies and infrastructure that support this kind of forward-looking leadership. Doing so is a prerequisite to realizing his bold vision of making America not just a great nation, but an open and transparent democracy.

In this vein, it would be interesting to see Vivek Kundra blogging on Govloop, or even soliciting the community for help in achieving the administration’s goal of a more open, transparency and participatory government. An endorsement of external social networks by the Federal CIO would send a powerful message to the federal government community; Social networks will be like air so it’s time to live and breath them.

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