Meet the evangelists of interacting in gov 2.0 style

In the quest to find new ways for industry and government to interact in a positive, productive manner, two leaders at the General Services Administration have created a platform called, appropriately enough, Interact.

GSA’s Luis Medina, digital marketing manager, and Charley Schollaert, digital outreach manager, created the online community to give government and industry officials a place to share information and ideas in a 2.0 kind of way. They launched the site in 2010, and it now has 6,500 registered participants.

Interact offers a wealth of resources, including information on particular contracts, a calendar of upcoming GSA events and the chance to join groups dedicated to specific topics, such as small-business contracting, green acquisition and multiple-award schedules.

Medina and Schollaert met recently with Matthew Weigelt, senior writer at Federal Computer Week, to talk about why they created Interact and how it’s already reshaping the government/industry dialogue.

FCW: Why did you create Interact?

Schollaert:

GSA’s main website is basically a 1.0 platform, and there are limitations to how much you can do in the 2.0 realm in terms of fostering the interaction and dialogue and the connection that can happen on the Interact GSA.gov platform.

And there are other commercial applications, such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Some GSA offices have a presence on those platforms. Those applications do provide a lot of what Interact provides. But Interact is a government-owned, -designed and -managed platform, so basically there’s much more trust. It conforms to all the security and privacy terms.

For those interested in acquisition topics, they can feel much more assured that the environment is protecting their identity [and] their information when they engage in these types of discussions.

FCW: What does Interact offer?

Medina:

Interact simplifies things. We think that it really sheds some light on what is often a daunting world of federal acquisition. We’re combining things onto one platform. We have had a fractured conversation on all these different channels. We were possibly not making it simple for the customer.

We wanted it to be scalable, open and, where it made business sense, make use of and cross-promote YouTube and others, like Apps.gov. We provide native and cross-promoted options.

Schollaert: You can easily build in links to external social media within the platform.

FCW: What was the genesis of the site?

Schollaert:

It’s a response to the Obama administration’s open and transparent government initiative. It’s all about making government more accessible and understandable, instead of [using] legalese and jargony technocratic dialogue. It’s basically writing in a more casual, social media style — not casual in the sense of being inaccurate, but just less...

Medina: ...bureaucratese.

Schollaert: That’s the overriding philosophy.

FCW: How do you make sure the site stays up-to-date?

Schollaert:

What we’ve asked of any group that wants to get started on Interact is [to] draft up a business case where they lay out their goals. We have to make sure they have something to say over several months or years.

Some communities went to Facebook or somewhere, where you could tell they were thinking, “Let’s just create something.” Then everything got stale. Nobody kept up the site.

We want to make sure all the groups, before they’ve started, are going to stay active and engaged.

Medina: You need dedicated resources. You can’t treat this as “another duty as assigned” or something you’ll get to whenever you get to it. It should be part of an integrated customer engagement strategy.

Interact is also about developing a living and breathing knowledge center that’s fed by our GSA experts.

FCW: What obstacles did you face?

Medina:

Whenever you’re a trailblazer, you’ve got to understand there’s going to be a bumpy path ahead of you. I think that’s what we expected to encounter. It took some convincing. It took some security and privacy discussions. Charley was very instrumental in working with our privacy officer.

Schollaert: I love that stuff. I eat, sleep and breathe privacy.

Medina: And I happen to love security.

FCW: How have people responded to Interact?

Schollaert:

There was and is a lot of risk aversion. It’s amazing when you go out and present it to industry — and we got this same stuff internally within [the Federal Acquisition Service]. There’s the fact that people don’t want to put themselves out there if they don’t have to.

Even if they created an honest personal account — say, on Yahoo — and they posted something on Interact, they were concerned their legal department could track down their IP address and trace the comment back to them.

So there are those concerns of people exposing themselves in an environment like this with their name and connecting themselves to a comment. Some of that is irrational.

Medina: In the realm of risk aversion though, we’re looking to spur conversations. How do you make federal acquisition sexy in a way in which it will be — I call it POP — the point of passion? How do we get points of passion out there?

FCW: How have you attempted to address that aversion to risk?

Medina:

We had to put in place some guidelines and recommendations that would ultimately allow managers to just let go and trust the boots on the ground, trust their employees, empower their employees to go forward and do what we’re hopefully expecting them to do on a day-to-day basis.

And that is, of course, always a challenge that goes beyond technology. It’s a culture change. The concern is: Am I going to get in trouble? Is my employee going to say something that would then come back to haunt me and land me on the Washington Post home page?

FCW: Do you sense a change in those attitudes?

Medina:

Some of our biggest successes have been with our acquisition management folks, who are reaching out and answering questions [on Interact].

Recognizing that it’s hard then allowing ourselves the flexibility to say, “Hey, we can discuss this in an open way that might not always be 100 percent accurate or would be subject to interpretation.” But that’s what this is all about. It’s about us trying to flesh out some areas that need further clarity.

FCW: Which audience is the most active on the site?

Medina:

Probably the most interaction comes from within the small-business community. There will be these threads of 60 or 70 replies among small-business representatives. Some often try to get advice on how to win government contracts, how to get in the door.

FCW: What advice do you have for other agencies?

Medina:

I think one of the most important things is to clarify your mission. You [need to] make sure there’s a real need for the application.

It wasn’t easy. It’s something that wouldn’t have come to pass if we would have waited for someone [else] to build it.

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