Adventures in Web 2.0

D.C.’s Procurement 2.0

Brainstorming and public outreach and education are not the only government activities that can benefit from Web 2.0 technologies. Even something as seemingly cut and dried as government acquisition processes can be improved by incorporating interactive tools.

Since December, Washington, D.C., officials have completed several multimillion-dollar procurements online by using a combination of wikis and embedded video. In addition, information technology projects funded by the chief technology officer’s office are assigned to portfolio managers who oversee the projects and make funding determinations by grading the projects on whether they meet performance metrics.

Vendors, city officials and the public can use the wiki to view pre-solicitation videos, requests for proposals, questions and answers, and award videos.

“It completely transforms the way procurement is run,” said Vivek Kundra, the city’s chief technology officer and author of both programs.

— Ben Bain

Is Web 2.0 worth the risk?

Even as some government leaders find value in using Web 2.0 collaborative and social media tools in their day-to-day functions, others remain wary of the potential management and security risks posed by the new applications.

At an April 3 meeting of the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, Ed Meagher, deputy chief information officer at the Interior Department, questioned the value of allowing low-ranking government employees to submit and edit articles on a wiki.

Whatever level of participants wiki managers choose to allow, they can ensure the quality of a wiki’s information by requiring posters to use their real names to contribute, said Chris Rasmussen, knowledge management officer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, also speaking at the AFFIRM meeting. Rasmussen said that kind of contributor validation process works on the intelligence community’s secure Intellipedia knowledge base, to which he is a regular contributor.

On May 28, a contractor at NASA Johnson Space Flight Center was suspended for soliciting campaign donations through e-mail messages and blog postings while at work. A reader of a Federal Computer Week Web story on the violations complained that the word “blogging” might convince some leaders to shy away from adopting blogs at their agencies.

And at a June 3 forum on collaborative government hosted by Deloitte and the National Academy of Public Administration, a State Department employee expressed concern over potentially false reports of threats posted on social media sites. She said intelligence agencies could waste resources by following false tips from employees who might be insider threats.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

Even some of the most change-minded technologists in government have a hard time appreciating how significantly Web 2.0 collaborative technologies can upend the ways their agencies operate — if they are willing to let them.

Federal executives in particular face the task of charting the course for traditionally rigid bureaucracies steeped in rank and protocol in an environment that increasingly values openness, sharing and flexibility.

But how much information is too much information to share? Who should control the organization’s message? Can collaboration and security coexist?

In agencies across the government, information technology executives are facing similar questions as they work to harness technology to manage and enable a workforce that is increasingly wired and always connected.

Earlier this month, leaders from government, the private sector and academia gathered at the Government Leadership Summit, sponsored by Federal Computer Week’s parent company, to discuss how to make so-called disruptive technologies into productive tools for government. Here are some of the lessons they’ve learned.

Don’t expect easy answers
One of the top concerns for many executives — and the trickiest to resolve — is how to embrace Web 2.0’s collaboration culture while maintaining necessary privacy and security safeguards.

Federal IT managers participating in a panel discussion called “Collaborating with Security” agreed that security and increased collaboration can coexist, but they also explained the difficulties of finding the right balance.

Much of the challenge comes from a long history in government in which security has functioned as a curb on information sharing. More of one means less of the other.

“We have [a tradition] of security not helping information sharing,” said Bobbie Stempfly, deputy chief information officer at the Defense Information Systems Agency. “I think we have to consciously choose that they actually are the same problem and can support each other instead of looking at them as always being competitive.”

For officials at NASA, Web 2.0 is not their first exposure to the collaboration/ security trade-off. They have confronted the issue before while working with foreign partners on joint projects — experience that has helped them find their way as they adopt Web 2.0 technology.
“How you balance that is really kind of an art form, but it can be done,” said Jerry Davis, NASA’s deputy CIO for IT security.  “It takes a mix of policy, technology and just common sense.”

Collaboration means talking — and listening
Meanwhile, federal officials have been bracing themselves for what many have termed a retirement tsunami. In the next decade, many vacant jobs will be filled by people who grew up using collaborative and social-networking tools as part of their everyday lives. This gives them a perspective that can present security challenges for agencies, the panelists agreed.

Because younger workers are accustomed to environments in which extreme openness is accepted and even encouraged, it is important to explain to the next generation of government workers the rationale behind certain security policies, said Simon Szykman, CIO at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“I think the best thing you can do is actually remember that there are people on the opposite end of these policies…and sit down and talk with them,” Szykman said. “Don’t just say, ‘You can’t do this,’ but say, ‘You can’t do this and here’s why’ and have a conversation.”

Also remember that getting different perspectives can be a good thing. Davis sa id that although he can try to shape the younger generation’s thoughts, they are really driving the agency to the next level.
“I have to throw out my beliefs and kind of be open-minded about what they are saying,” he said.

Listen to the people
Beyond internal or interagency coordination, government officials are also wrestling with how new collaborative tools can change their relationship with the public. Agency-hosted blogs have great potential to initiate policy conversations with citizens, but to do so the technology must support a minimum level of interactivity.

For example, some agency blogs do not allow readers to post comments, which makes them little more than new mechanisms for disseminating press releases.

The State Department’s DipNote blog, which went live in September, has garnered a lot of attention both for its interesting content and its policy of freely allowing posted comments — except personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech.

Heath Kern Gibson, editor-in-chief of DipNote, said department officials wanted to use the blog to engage the public and create a foreign policy community. That goal made it imperative to accept reader comments. It was also important to give the blog a sense of transparency and credibility by including voices from people at all levels of the department. 

Although opening the door with such unfettered access to government policy-makers might seem unusual now, it is just a matter of time before it becomes the norm, Kern Gibson said. 


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