NAPA Shows How the Government is Using Web 2.0

Michelle DeFiore

Back in April, we attended a session at the FOSE conference that highlighted Web 2.0 usage in the public sector. We also found through a survey of government workers that 65% of government IT workers surveyed said that Web 2.0 tools are important to their operations. The overall message was that all IT, government included, have too many projects they could be taking on for the amount of resources they have. For much of the IT topics we covered in the survey, importance was high but actual deployment was lower.

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Dan Munz, project manager of the Collaboration Project commented on the unique work that the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) is doing to bring together government leaders. The Collaboration Project seeks to innovate across government not just down the silos and create a safe place for leaders to have discussions around innovation.

ScienceLogic: What is the National Academy of Public Administration?

Dan Munz: The Academy is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to tackling government’s most complex challenges. We were founded in 1967 by James Webb, the NASA administrator who took us to the moon – he saw that he could consult the National Academy of Sciences for expert technical advice, but had no counterpart in government for expert management advice. That’s been our mission ever since.

ScienceLogic: What is the Collaboration Project? How long has it been around?

Dan Munz: The Collaboration Project is the Academy’s response to two parallel trends we see in government. The first is the government’s need to transform the way it does business. There is a strong demand for change out there driven by a number of challenges that are forcing the government to rethink its mission and structure. Challenges include a public disconnected from government; a multi-sector workforce and increasing reliance on contractors; financial instability; and new types of security threats, just to name a few. More and more, the challenges facing government reach across the traditional boundaries of agency and mission. But government isn’t configured to work that way.

The second trend is the unprecedented opportunity collaborative technology offers to drive transformational change in government. Tools like blogs, wikis, and mashups are changing the way leaders think about problems. They’re focusing not on what they can do just within their offices or agencies, but what voices they need to pull together across government, non-profits, the general citizenry, and other stakeholders to solve these problems. The Collaboration Project’s goal is to encourage this type of thinking and empower leaders committed to use collaborative technology to:

  • strengthen citizen civic engagement;
  • enhance government transparency;
  • improve service delivery and operational efficiency; and
  • facilitate coordination and innovation within and between agencies.

ScienceLogic: Why focus on Web 2.0 in the government?

Dan Munz: The question of how web 2.0 will impact federal IT departments is a critical one. Our view is that “the era of big systems” is basically over. Things like disk space, bandwidth, and computing power are basically shifting from being assets to being commodities.

There’s also a shift in expectations. People both inside and outside government – especially Gen-X and Gen-Y – are incredibly frustrated by being able to use lightning-fast apps like Flickr, YouTube, and Facebook that don’t even live on their hard drives while the government and other large organizations still operate clunky PCs, space-limited e-mail accounts, and sluggish e-mail servers.

So aside from the opportunity for transformative leadership, the idea of web 2.0 at a government level is very appealing in terms of getting the most out of the IT infrastructure we already have, rather than embarking on costly, large-scale projects in an era of diminishing budgets.

ScienceLogic: How do you build a sense of community at the Collaboration Project?

Dan Munz: Some community feel emerges naturally, from a sense that mass collaboration really is a tool for “doing government” in a whole new way.

The more formal community building mechanisms we have include our web page, where we share insights, news, case studies, and other content – The virtual space serves as an anchor for people, whether they’re experts or beginners, to learn about what we do.

Finally, we are conducting an ongoing series of in-person meetings, usually featuring a leader who has harnessed collaborative technology in what we think is a truly revolutionary new way.

ScienceLogic: How do you hear about cool new government Web 2.0 projects?

Dan Munz: That’s a key question, because part of our mission is to inspire action by finding leaders who have succeeded and highlight their accomplishments. We’ve done that with folks like Kip Hawley, TSA, Molly O’Neill, EPA, and Jim Walker, Alabama DHS.

We also feel that the Academy’s position as a “safe space” for leaders means that we’re a place people can turn to when they hear about an emerging trend or project and want some help making sense of it.

ScienceLogic: What are the most innovative uses of Web 2.0 technology you’ve seen in the government?

Dan Munz: It’s important to distinguish between agencies that are simply adjusting to the reality of web 2.0, and those that are “using” it. Getting a YouTube account for your agency, or putting some photos on Flickr, is a great first step, but we want to inspire leaders to really transform their normal ways of doing business. At the moment a few that come to mind are the EPA Puget Sound Mashup, ODNI’s Intellipedia, TSA IdeaFactory, the PTO Peer-to-Patent Project, and Virtual Alabama, to name a few.

The TSA launched the IdeaFactory in February 2008. TSA set up a collaboration platform with commenting, voting, etc. to form communities in a way to bring people to consensus and offer ways to improve the agency’s performance.

ScienceLogic: Do you see a difference between state and local versus federal adoption of Web 2.0?

Dan Munz: That’s a hard generalization to make – at all levels you see leaders who recognize the potential in this technology to bring new voices into the governance process.

ScienceLogic: What are the obstacles to Web 2.0 adoption by government agencies?

Dan Munz: The three main challenges that we see are in the areas of technology, culture, and policy/governance.

The technology issue is probably the simplest to solve – it’s important to choose a technology that fits the problem you’re trying to solve, but these technologies are usually inexpensive and almost never very complex.

The question of culture is harder, particularly given the way that baby boomers, gen-xers, and millenials are beginning to interact in the workforce. How do you gain acceptance and buy-in among groups that have very different comfort levels with collaborative tools and environments?

Finally, the most daunting challenge might be the questions of policy and governance, if only because those are the things that most commonly prevent leaders from even dipping a toe in the waters of collaboration. Most of the policies, regulations, and statutes governing the way government does business don’t anticipate things like wikis, blogs, or instant messaging. One of our most important missions is helping leaders who just want to get to action navigate these obstacles.

ScienceLogic: Is there any advice you can give to government employees getting started with Web 2.0? Or any places you would point them to for more info?

Dan Munz: It’s shameless plug time! I’d of course point them to our web page, collaborationproject.org, where, among other things, we’ve collected a case library of over 40 instances of collaborative technology being used in the government and non-profit sectors. The library is growing every day and is a sort of “database of record” for what is and isn’t working in terms of collaborative government. I think that would be a great place to start for anyone looking to get started but not really knowing the way.

In terms of advice, the best thing to say is that, once you’ve settled on a problem you want to solve and an audience you want to reach out to, just do it! We believe strongly that there are a lot of organizational and leadership issues that still need to be addressed regarding collaboration in government, but our biggest mantra is about getting leaders to action. The most successful projects we’ve seen are ones that try something daring and new, and discover the true power of what they’ve done as it catches on more and more widely.

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