June 08, 2008
In trying to better share information with the public, industry, the media and its own employees, the Environmental Protection Agency took an unusual tack: It set up a Web site and asked for ideas from those who rely on EPA’s data in their work and lives.
“A lot of issues we deal with are global in nature and require collaboration,” EPA’s chief information officer, Molly O’Neill, said in an interview. “We need to figure out how to use these [Web] tools to be more transparent and collaborative.”
O’Neill and others like her are breaking down cultural barriers that have long made government a transaction rather than a conversation for citizens, said Frank DiGiammarino, vice president for strategic initiatives at the National Academy of Public Administration.
“Somewhere along the line we, as a government, … took on all the problems and almost pushed people away from government and said ‘we got it,’ ” said DiGiammarino, who leads NAPA’s Collaboration Project, which is helping government embrace Web 2.0.
With the public demanding more and faster access to government information, “we need to change that model a little bit and get back to rebooting the public square,” said DiGiammarino, who spoke at a Web 2.0 conference June 3. This is a challenge for leaders because “when you think of government, you don’t necessarily think of speed, agility, reach and efficiency,” which is what the Web 2.0 world demands, he said.
Using discussion boards and e-mails, EPA’s new social Web site, called National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information, has pulled comments from across government and the country to help O’Neill as she fashions a new information-sharing policy.
Since O’Neill came on board last year, EPA has embarked on four such projects that integrate blogs, wikis, discussion boards and other social networking Web tools, which are collectively referred to as Web 2.0, into EPA’s business.
“The technology is not complicated, it’s just a different way of doing business. And getting people to do business in a different way is culture change and that’s a challenge,” O’Neill said.
Even with the successes at EPA, the entire agency isn’t necessarily sold on using Web 2.0 and the technologies can’t be used everywhere, O’Neill said. “You don’t want to just launch these things for the purpose of launching new technology,” she said. “It’s finding the right business applications. Where are we going to get value? When you show value, that’s how culture changes.”
The most successful Web 2.0 initiatives are going to be those tied to the agency’s mission, said Michael Wertheimer, assistant deputy director and chief technology officer for analysis at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. ODNI’s Intellipedia is among the first in government to break down the internal barriers between management and workers to share ideas and information without the risk of penalty.
Intellipedia is breaking all the cultural rules of the intelligence community, Wertheimer said at the June 3 conference sponsored by NAPA and Deloitte.
A few years ago, if someone from the CIA called the National Security Agency asking for information, the phone would have been passed to a supervisor for approval, he said. “Now we have an age where we have wikis up and we’re building communities-of-interest sites and connecting people everywhere,” Wertheimer said.
“It breaks down every notion of security and counterintelligence and every conceivable bias you have that the information is more valuable not being shared than shared because of sources and methods,” he said.
But while biases are falling in some areas, particularly among the younger intelligence employees who expect such social technologies to be a part of their work, older employees are resistant to change because of the inbred distrust pervasive in the intelligence community culture, he said.
Some analysts are also afraid the technology is growing so fast they’ll never get the training they need to use it, Wertheimer said. But even early adopters of technology pose barriers to Web 2.0 success because they, in the rush to get technologies adopted, lose sight of the mission, Wertheimer said.
“I worry that Intellipedia, which has grown tremendously in users, is more about getting more users and more content than better content focused on mission,” he said. “If that chasm grows too much, we’ll have failed.”
Other nations are already using Web 2.0 technologies widely and successfully. For example, Australia’s Tax Office has a program called “listening to the community” that uses Web 2.0 tools to test and get feedback on major tax policies, said Bill Eggers, global director of public-sector industry for Deloitte. Similarly, neighboring New Zealand used Web 2.0 as part of efforts to test policies for seniors, he said.
“It lets you apply networked solutions to problems by getting people involved from all walks of life,” said Eggers, who wrote a book on the use of Web 2.0. “If you have a problem with service delivery, you can find out about it right away.”
Finding out about service delivery was one of the goals for the Transportation Security Administration when it set up its blog, Evolution of Security, in January.
TSA Administrator Kip Hawley launched the blog as a way to create a frank and direct dialogue with the public, said Christopher White, a TSA spokesman and frequent Evolution of Security blogger.
“We’re trying to get passengers back on our side, and to do that they want to know why you do what you do, that you care about them and that you will take action based on their concerns,” White said.
Hawley’s willingness to implement new tactics based on the public’s feedback has helped the blog and the agency become successful, White said.
For example, the popular black diamond security lanes popping up in airports across the country grew out of reader comments on the blog, White said. The No. 1 complaint from business travelers and families alike was they wanted to be able to move through the security lines at their own pace without pressure from others. Many posters expressed a desire to have separate lanes for families, casual travelers and frequent fliers to speed the process along for some, while letting others take their time, White said.
In another case, bloggers let TSA know about airport screeners who required all electronic devices and wires to be taken out of cases, creating confusion among fliers because it’s inconsistent with TSA’s normal procedures that only require laptops to be taken out of the cases. “It was something we wanted to stop because one of the main things is consistency,” White said.
The blog is a bold move for TSA because it fully embraces public comments on what the agency is doing wrong, said Stephen Goldsmith, director of Harvard University’s Innovations in American Government program.
“They’re going to insult you whether you have a blog or not,” Goldsmith said. “You might as well learn from what they’re saying.”
The success of TSA’s public blog has spurred a flurry of internal blogs that’s changing how the agency talks, White said. The internal blog, IdeaFactory, is a forum for workers to discuss what the public is telling them and how they can change to serve the public better, White said.
“I’m not sure there is another group with a dispersed work force and senior-level officials all blogging together,” White said.