Koskinen and council put the Net to the test

For the past two years, Larry Koskinen has preached the virtues of the Internet and how it will redefine the way government works. Now he has the chance to prove it.

Formerly a staff member of Vice President Gore's National Performance Review, Koskinen begins a new job this week as vice president of project development for the Council for Excellence in Government, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group of 750 former public managers interested in improving the way government works.

"Where we think government is headed is toward a more community-based approach with greater citizen interaction and front-line government employees working across agency boundaries and more cooperatively with each other to improve service delivery," Koskinen said. "It's clear that the Internet is going to be the most important enabling technology to come along in a long time to make this happen."

Koskinen's primary responsibility on the council will be to help develop the Collaboratory, a virtual laboratory housed on the Internet that will bring together government officials, policy analysts and private-sector executives.

Created by the NPR, the council and the Institute for Electronic Government, the Collaboratory (from collaborate and laboratory) will encourage individuals with common interests to form communities to solve problems, Koskinen said.

"Folks will be empowered to act on the behalf of the good of this particular community," Koskinen said. "Whether it's the community of folks who manage personnel actions in the government or the community who are concerned about the environmental health of the Great Lakes—not just the state of Michigan or the Province of Ontario, but the folks who are really concerned about the broader systemic issue.

"The Collaboratory is the hot house in which we test these theories."

Specifically, Collaboratory participants will use the Internet to discuss issues such as government procurement and regulatory reforms. The council and the NPR, along with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, are developing special document-sharing software that includes high-level security to be used by participants.

Like many technology experts in the federal government, Koskinen did not start his career in computer technology. He received an undergraduate degree in photography in 1978 from the Rochester Institute of Technology. He would later use lessons learned in courses on visual psychology and color theory to develop Web sites.

After graduation Koskinen went to work for the Peace Corps in the Philippines. He later earned a law degree and then returned to work for the Peace Corps.

Traveling with a laptop, modem and a digital scanner, Koskinen set up assistance programs in Eastern and Central Europe and in the former Soviet Union. Koskinen worked with legislative drafting committees, which taught him much about organizing intra- and intergovernmental groups, laying the foundation for similar work with the NPR.

After returning to the United States in 1992, Koskinen landed a position with the NPR and began working on its foreign policy team. But in 1993, an NPR staff member brought in a beta version of Mosaic. After working with the software, Koskinen said everyone agreed that "if you deny the importance of this, it would be like trying to hold back the ocean. This has incredible potential."

The NetResults Team was then formed to work on technological issues. As part of the five-member team, Koskinen helped create a number of Web sites, including the Acquisition Reform Network, a forum to exchange innovative approaches to improve the way the government buys goods and services.

But with the Collaboratory, Koskinen sees a chance to further test the theories about how the Internet will change the way government works.

"We want to bring it down to Earth; to understand it, to quantify it, to show the quality aspects, to find out what works and what doesn't," he said. "We want to create a test track where we can take on real problems and measure real outcomes. That's what we're going to do."

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