Social networking: Agency silos 2.0?

The community debates: Are social media sites a next-generation communication tool or an information silo?

Up for Debate

The expert view: 5 tips for achieving social network awesomeness

The community view: Selected comments from readers

Original discussions on FCW and Govloop

Twitter me this: Governnment 2.0 in 140 characters

Cowboy in a cubicle Gov 2.0 caption contest winners and entries

We put six Gov 2.0 issues up for debate in the FCW Challenge:  Open government plans, social networking, acquisition 2.0, the IT agendaworkplace and cybersecurity.  We got a great sampling of ideas and opinions and present them here along with perspectives of community thought leaders.

Social networking sites are designed to break down the silos of work and social groups and enable people to cross-pollinate ideas. This is the promise of Web 2.0, wherein online tools such as blogs, wikis, fan pages, bookmarking tools, photo platforms and chat forums make people more accessible to each other the way Web 1.0 made documents accessible.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and the many variations thereof have made it possible for millions of people to share ideas, feelings and information — from the sublime to the ridiculous, to be sure, but with a measure of speed, efficiency and scale never before contemplated.

Prodded in no small part by the Obama administration, government agencies are now working hard to replicate this private-sector paradigm into Government 2.0. But as agencies increasingly turn to building their own internal social networking platforms, such as Spacebook and Statebook, aren’t they just building bigger, better silos?

That’s the question we put to Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop, a social network for federal employees that now boasts more than 30,000 members after two years in existence. The FCW Challenge was jointly launched on and

Click through the following pages to see the expert view and comments from the community.

5 tips for achieving social network awesomeness

By Steve Ressler

I actually don’t agree with the debate resolution idea at all. It’s really just the opposite: Social networks are revolutionizing the capacity for government employees to quickly connect and collaborate in ways that they never could in the past.

So I’ve been writing a series of “Top 5” blog posts on GovLoop, and they seem to be popular — pretty surprising how many people are interested in the “Top 5 Worst and Best Places to Have a Government Job.” Because people seem to like them so much and I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from GovLoop with agencies building social networks, here are my “5 Tips for Leveraging Social Networks for Government Awesomeness.”

1. Enlist. Where is your target audience? If you’re setting up an internal social network, you likely have an obvious group of stakeholders where you can promote participation. But you may also have people outside of your agency — colleagues in other federal agencies or counterparts on the state and local levels — who could contribute to the conversation. Or maybe your mission requires a multisector approach and you should include contractors or nonprofit organizations. Great things happen when you have the right people at the table.

2. Engage. I’m a Kevin Costner fan, but I have to disagree with his “Field of Dreams” assessment — you can’t just “build it" and "they will come.” Social networks are 90 percent psychology and 10 percent technology. You can build your platform on the best software, but that doesn’t mean the crowd will gather to admire your hard work. Ask the community managers at Army Knowledge Online or NASA’s Spacebook. As we do at GovLoop, they work hard every day to invite thought leaders to post content and proactively share information with key stakeholders. My dream for agencies: “Build it with them, and you won’t need to coax them to come.”

3. Empower. Who are your super users? These people are the real catalysts for your community’s growth. Most social networks operate according to a 90-9-1 principle. Nine out of 10 members are relatively passive users. Nine percent are regular contributors. And then there’s an extraordinary 1 percent who are 100 percent sold out for your success. Identify them. Deputize them. Give them clear roles and make them feel sincerely valued. At GovLoop, I feel an awesome sense of appreciation for the Community Leaders who have stepped forward to greet new members, post Members and Projects of the Week and generally ensure that GovLoop is fresh and vibrant. Who are your rock stars? Give them a microphone and let them sing. They’ll draw a crowd, too.

4. Enforce. For many of my peers in the Gov 2.0 space, policy is the most important word in their vocabulary. Why? It sets the parameters for engagement and gives people permission to participate within the context of the mission. Agencies should take the time to set up policies for proper use of social networking — behind and beyond the firewall. On GovLoop, agencies have amassed more than 40 examples of both internal and external social media policies, so you don’t need to start from scratch. Copy, paste and build upon the blood, sweat and tears of your peers at other agencies. Oh, and if people engage in behavior that bends or breaks the rules, you have a baseline for shepherding them — gently — back into the circle of trust.

5. Enthuse. We all want to get big things done in government. But part of what entices people to participate in social networks, I think, is for fun. I am not necessarily encouraging people to use their social network as a Web-based water cooler — though they could!. What I am suggesting is that you incentivize participation. Manor, Texas, has established “Innobucks” for their Manor Labs crowdsourcing Web portal — a virtual currency that people collect as they contribute innovative ideas. Can you tie participation in social networks to a point system…or even make it part of someone’s performance elements? If you can create a culture in which sharing information is rewarded, people will likely enjoy the interactions and build organizational trust in the process.

So I don’t think social networks are Towers of Babel doomed to topple. Instead, they just may topple age-old, need-to-know structures that have historically led to a bogged-down bureaucracy.

Reader comments

[Editor's note: Comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.]

Freedom of Choice

Silos and breaking down barriers are not new. However, take a look at the number and variety of innovators and change agents that were spent after attempting to move the chess game and pieces to a new board — or just introducing some new moves. This is especially trying and challenging in large, well-established, mature machines — like the federal government, Fortune 50 companies and even in some academic institutions that pride themselves as being progressive.

I’m a firm believer in defining standards of practice, implementing proper security measures and the like. However, this all gets down to the personal user level, especially with all the choices and alternatives out there. All of the vehicles mentioned, whether they are spawned in the commercial domain or by the federal government, are nothing more than different facilities that are available to the personal user. Give them access to them all because their personal freedom and choice are more powerful than mandates and hard-and-fast rules.

I tend to feel that the vehicles/platforms taking shape with the federal government will have their place and purpose — for business and inter/intra-agency use. However, don't expect an employee to respond and stick out like they would if it is a public-domain site.… It is still a stunner how much energy, effort and brainpower are expended just coping with the element of change.

— Edmond Hennessy

Yada Yada

At the General Services Administration, we have Yammer, which provides a place to share thoughts, ideas and concepts. Unfortunately, most of the postings appear to be people logging in to say what they had for breakfast, when they are going to take their coffee break or what they will be doing for the rest of the day. A few people will post articles and ask for comments but there never appears to be much discussion of those articles.

— Anonymous

Better Mousetraps

The government should certainly feel free to build its own social network sites, but it should also understand that these sites will not be highly utilized if the private sector makes available better sites that are easier to use and more open for sharing ideas.

— Anonymous

Building and hosting an application that is already available and free is the epitome of old school and is only done because of the federal government's need for control. In the long run, the cost of competing with free services and the cost of [operations and maintenance] will result in a bad application and shrinking user base that has access to something better — without the mandatory limits that will be imposed by the government. Think Outlook mailboxes with maximum sizes in the government vs. Gmail's unlimited mailboxes! Really, we shouldn’t even allow the government to do things that are already being done better in the private sector.

— Dave

Andrea DiMaio would agree with you, I think. In reference to FedSpace he says: "This is yet another example of how governments try to bend Government 2.0 to fit within their comfort zone. Unfortunately, the train has already left the station a long time ago. I’m sure that FedSpace will be moderately useful to improve interagency communication and knowledge sharing. But I’m also sure that it will be less valuable and more expensive than just focusing on making sure that employees use wisely and productively consumer platforms that they — as well as their constituents and partners — already use anyhow." See his full post here:

— Susan

Follow the Leader

Cannot put people in straitjacket. Social networking will prove to be the way to go and will soon be the norm in business. Inherently promoting a network effect will promote pluralism, although some silos formation cannot be avoided.

— Srinidhi Boray

Drop in the Bucket

I would argue it is more likely they will become online cliques with small numbers of active participants largely ignored by the off-line world, which is barely aware of their existence. Even GovLoop has, what, 25,000 to 30,000 members? That’s out of more than 4 million government workers and contractors in North America and Europe.

— Peter Sperry

Express Route

Yes, they are Towers of Babel, but I suspect that they are not doomed to failure. In my opinion, we are in the early stages of this evolution, and after some significant shakeups, something close to a normal social network will emerge, and those who don't get on train will be subject to being run over.

— Henry Brown

Room for Both

Steve made a good point the other week — the difference between informal and formal groups also applies to informal and formal government social networking sites.

GovLoop is a great example of an informal government social networking site. FedSpace will be a good example of a formal government social networking site.

Each has its advantages and disadvantages over the other, so each has its place, meaning government social networking sites are not doomed to fail.

— Sterling Whitehead

Siege Mentality

Yeah, I didn't get this one either. Social media is about breaking out, not walling in. If AOL, all the wireless carriers and Twitter could not succeed as walled gardens, I sure don't think government agencies will. Not exactly apples to apples, but you get the drift.

— Christopher Parente

Tipping the Scales

Anything to get organizations to communicate better is good. This will help, as the advent of e-mail helped 15 years ago.

There seems to be social network proliferation with FedSpace, GovLoop, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Eventually an interface will need to be developed to combine some of this stuff.

That will cause issues, but the overall positives from the collaboration that is/will be happening far outweigh the negative side effects.

— Tom Suder

Greener Grass

The concept of a silo can be useful when sitting in a circle talking about how to organize a Web site. But the metaphor starts to crumble as our cookies get cached in through the average working day. The public has a very positive role to play in pulling us out of our silos whenever the phone rings, a twitterer tweets, a ___ ____ . The social networking platforms to which you refer simply reflect the eternal quest to both achieve and to escape order within any organization, depending upon the people involved and the mood of the day. (I saw the word cliques mentioned :)) But hey, it's all about the chase. And even though I am sitting down and shall remain so…I gotta run!

— Steve Williams

OMG Canada!

For what it's worth, I attended a conference in Ottawa last week, Public Sector Social Media, at which Nick Charney spoke about his experience in the government of Canada. The government of Canada has enterprisewide social media tools, such as GCpedia and GC-Connex, as well as departmental ones.

Nick said he had been quite down on the departmental tools in the past, with the opinion that people should be spending their time and effort contributing to the enterprisewide spaces rather than the siloed departmental ones. But then he looked at the actual metrics. And he found that the people in departments with the siloed departmental social media tools contribute more to the enterprise tools than the people in departments where the enterprise tools were all that they had.

Nick surmised that the departmental spaces provide a safe learning ground for employees that allow them to develop skills and confidence that help them to contribute to the broader enterprise spaces.

It'd be interesting to see if similar analyses can be conducted in other jurisdictions. If it holds in other organizations, it speaks against the proposition of the debate.

— David Tallan

Open and Shut

I see this social networking within organizations, especially large governmental organizations such as the Veterans Affairs Department, of great use in communication across agencies, which will assist in more efficient operations. Organizations such as IBM are using these internal social networking constructs to exchange ideas and drive innovations. Social networking in the internal sphere definitely has its place.

That being said, there should also be opportunities for the public to interact with government utilizing the social networking concept and technology.

I'm looking to identify open-source social networking software that can be implemented behind a firewall. Any ideas are welcome!

— Lori Winterfeldt

Looking Ahead

Doomed To Fail? How can something free fail? Everyone quits and walks away?

Historically, every new technology is cast upon as a wild-eyed, crazy notion that will sooner or later creep back into the woods with its tail between its legs. We're still waiting for television to fail. Social media will one day lose its name but gain wider, richer features that will make it unrecognizable to what we use today. Can you imagine downloading the Presidential Election app and voting? Or the demise of money as a way to buy things? Think about all the things you do online today that were not available 10 years ago. Open your mind to what it will look like 10 years from now.

-—- Gary Honi


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