Government taps the power of us

Officials turn to blogs and wikis to share information and achieve goals

Politicopia wiki

Utah state lawmaker Stephen Urquhart was flummoxed. His bill to provide school vouchers to parents had failed, and he felt his message about the benefits of a voucher system wasn’t getting out to the people of his state. Moreover, Urquhart thought that much of the discussion was being filtered through lobbyists, bureaucrats and the media, and constituents were getting an incomplete picture.

Urquhart, a Republican member of the Utah House of Representatives, staged a few town meetings, but they were poorly attended. He wasn’t ready to blame apathy. “I go the grocery store or a ballgame, and people want to talk about issues,” he said. Urquhart concluded that people were too busy to spend time going to meetings. He wanted to somehow open the discussion about vouchers and other issues. But he didn’t want to have a few experts pontificate about those issues.

So during the past couple of years Urquhart has turned to social-networking tools on the Internet. First, he joined the blogosphere, creating a Web site that encouraged constituents to comment on issues, no matter which side they were on. And then last year, he started an issues-based wiki, a Web site where everyone can read, edit and post views. The site,, became a virtual town hall for a discussion about vouchers.

Earlier this year, the Utah House and Senate approved the measure on vouchers, and the governor signed the bill into law.

“Politicopia helped move the debate on vouchers,” Urquhart said in a speech at the recent Government CIO Summit, sponsored by 1105 Government Information Group. The summit’s theme was “Government by Wiki: New Tools for Collaboration, Information-Sharing and Decisionmaking.”

Urquhart’s venture into the realm of blogs and wikis demonstrates that Web 2.0 tools are steadily making their way into government. Other government officials are discovering the utility of what Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, authors of the book “Wikinomics,” termed weapons of mass collaboration.

For example, at the General Services Administration, the Office of Citizen Services and Communications’ Intergovernmental Solutions Division has created an open, collaborative work environment. It includes a wiki to enhance interaction among its stakeholders at various levels of government. The collaborative site doesn’t eliminate stovepipes and silos in government, but it helps turn them into wind chimes that talk to one another across agencies, said Susan Turnbull, the office’s senior program adviser.

“Our mission is to improve the communications, trust and information sharing at all levels of government,” Turnbull said. But “we’re not in a position to change the dynamics, borders and missions at any of these agencies.”
Instead, she said, “a large part of [our activity] has to do with spending constructive time with one another in a way that we can understand each other.” Indeed, she added, one of the office’s performance metrics is the quality of the discussion.

The office piloted its collaborative workspace two years ago when the Office of Management and Budget and the architecture and infrastructure committee of the CIO Council commissioned GSA to support the development of the Federal Enterprise Architecture Data Reference Model Version 2.0. About 130 members of the data reference model working group used the space to share, deliberate and document the entire work process, Turnbull said.

“The quality of the tool allowed people to hold together and get over barriers,” she told an audience at the CIO Summit. “This very affordable tool made for a very easy, quality environment.” The group completed its work in 180 days.

Turnbull cautioned that a wiki isn’t an end-all, be-all tool. “The wiki isn’t the starting place and the technology isn’t the starting place, but where you can use some lightweight, appropriate tools to augment the collective intelligence — that’s really what we’re about,” she said.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is also taking a gradual approach to a social-networking pilot program that will open the patent-examination process to the scientific community. The Peer to Patent Project, scheduled to begin next month, will test the use of a collaborative site to improve the quality of patents by giving patent examiners access to better information.

“We’re going to start slow by adding a small number of applications initially,” said Eric Hestenes, chief technology officer of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School, which is leading  the project for USPTO. The project eventually will include 250 applications.

The project is designed to channel the correct information to patent examiners and make that information manageable for the examiners, Hestenes said. It also will help patent examiners, who are working under a backlog of about 700,000 patent applications, accelerate the examination process.

The political and technological moment is right to apply a social-collaboration technology to the patent-examination process, Hestenes said. “What we’re trying to do is tap into the collective intelligence of the [scientific] community. Rather than have patent examiners be the primary agent in researching patent applications, we’re hoping that the community will participate in that process. It’s a huge, huge change. It gives the group an opportunity to contribute.”

The Peer to Patent Project will allow    contributors to rate the quality of information so that only the most important data is provided to the examiners. Because of that filtering process, the site is technically not a wiki, Hestenes said.

Unlike the patent project, the intelligence community’s social-collaboration project has a freewheeling flavor. Intellipedia, a wiki that lets any intelligence employee with classified clearance read, post and edit information, takes a “publish first and edit afterward” approach, said Chris Rasmussen, knowledge management officer at the Defense Department’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

In the paper world, the process of editing all the work before publication makes sense, Rasmussen said. But “now we’re getting to the point in the paperless world where you just publish it and edit afterward,” he said. “This scares a lot of people, but it shouldn’t, particularly in the intelligence business.”

The collaborative data posted and edited on the wiki may not be perfect, but it quickly gets useful collective intelligence to the community, Rasmussen said.  “In the intelligence business, something that is 80 percent on time, accurate and sharable is much more valuable than a perfectly formatted report that’s overclassified, has perfect fonts and comes too late.”

Nevertheless, Intellipedia has a long way to go before it reaches critical mass in the intelligence community, Rasmussen said. “It’s in the Model-T stage.”
Selling skeptics on wikis’ valueHow do you sell people at your agency on wikis and other Web 2.0 collaboration tools?

Training, training and more training, said Chris Rasmussen, knowledge management officer at the Defense Department’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, “What you do is turn the [wiki] evangelists into trainers,” he said.

Rasmussen offered additional suggestions.
  • Try low-tech graphic approaches, such as putting up posters and circulating handbills. “Put them in the elevators and other choke points where people come to work,” he said. “I do this. It’s pretty effective.”
  • Try other gimmicks. Backers of wikis have handed out small shovels, signifying the act of weeding a wiki communal garden, at conferences, Rasmussen said. The shovel handles are imprinted with “I dig Intellipedia! It’s wiki wiki, baby.”
  • Bring top management onboard. “Top-down stuff kind of does work,” he said. “Management encouragement works.”
  • Make it part of job performance. “Write social-software contributions into an employee’s performance plan,” he said.
-- Richard W. Walker


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