Federal 100 winner

Ressler: Virtual community organizer

Working with a dedicated team of volunteers and a little technology know-how, Ressler has developed a vibrant and growing online community

As told to John Zyskowski

Steve Ressler showed he had a knack for developing new ideas when he and some colleagues created a career development group for federal employees called Young Government Leaders. His latest creation is a social-networking site called GovLoop that serves as an online meeting place for government employees worldwide. People come to GovLoop, which is like a Facebook for government, to discuss their careers, ask questions, get help and exchange ideas about improving government.

GovLoop is strictly an after-hours gig for Ressler, who holds down a day job as an information technology specialist at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. So how does he do it? The secret lies in GovLoop’s passionate members, the long reach of the Internet, and the viral nature of social networks and other Web 2.0 tools.

I think there’s a great thirst among people in the government community to share ideas and best practices and to want to make change. I wanted a place where I could ask questions about working with certain technology and [where] people who have done it could post responses.

There are people who are passionate enough about public service that they would be doing this 24 hours a day. But in the past, there was no way for this kind of conversation to happen. There are conferences and associations, but those are self-selected in a sense because often you have to be invited. Or sometimes you don’t have the money or the permission from your boss to go to the event.

I launched GovLoop on Memorial Day in 2008 to about 20 friends. As we built up the site, those friends reached out to other friends, I contacted some associations I know, and the word just continued to spread. It took about four or five months to get to the first 1,000 members. Then it really took off. It now has 7,500 members.

In the beginning, it was very federal-oriented, but because of the viral nature, it grew much wider than I thought. We have a lot of state and local members now. There is also a pretty strong international contingent, with a huge group from Australia, the U.K. and New Zealand. With the Internet, word spreads around quickly.

The main source of most of our new traffic is from Twitter. People will write on Twitter about what they posted on GovLoop, or say that they just joined GovLoop so check out their profile. There are Twitter messages about the conversations that are going on in GovLoop. I and a lot of the other GovLoop members are in these gov 2.0 conversations online that often end up back in GovLoop.

A team of leaders

As the site began to grow, I thought I could do it myself, but at a certain point, it became too tough on my own. So to manage the site I depend on a group of about 20 people whom I call the GovLoop community leaders.

I saw that people were really passionate about the site and wanted to do more. That’s really the key to any community like GovLoop.

I recruited some of the community leaders, and others approached me. I used to personally welcome every new member when [he or she] joined GovLoop. Then I noticed that some people came behind me and would welcome the new members as well, without me asking. I tapped into those people to help as community leaders. I also made a call for volunteers.

Like me, the community leaders also do their GovLoop stuff after work. They do things like write the member-of-the-week and project-of-the-week articles. They welcome new members. They also monitor the site in case there’s inappropriate behavior.

The GovLoop community leaders have a special group on the site where we meet. We go over the schedule of who’s responsible for doing the welcomes on certain days and other regular tasks.

More to come

The community you create is a really cool thing. I know only one of the GovLoop community leaders from the outside. All the others are people I’ve never met in person.

I get a lot of great feedback from members about adding new features. For example, there is so much content on the site now, how do we help members find the top stuff? So I created a feature that highlights top blog posts and groups based on traffic and referrals from people.

I recently added the embedded Twitter posts on the home page. It finds them by searching for the term “GovLoop” on Twitter.

I spend a lot of evenings working on GovLoop in coffee shops in Tampa where I live. This is an exciting time to be involved with technologies that are changing our world. I can spend those two hours a night watching TV or I could be doing this, which is just a ton of fun.

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