Building a Wiki Community

A couple days ago, I was speaking to the infamous founder of govloop, Steve Ressler. We were discussing ways businesses and government agencies use govloop. During this brainstorm, it occurred to Steve that a blog about Whorunsgov’s attempts to build a community for its moderated wiki could benefit many govloop members.

While I had heard that some government agencies were using wikis, it seemed much more of a widespread movement than I originally thought. As we at Whorunsgov try to convince people to contribute to profiles of noteworthy government officials, the Army is trying to persuade its organization to aid in writing new procedural manuals. At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security plans to use a wiki for cyber-security discussions while the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) created Intellipedia back in 2006 to encourage discussions among intelligence agencies.

All of these are fantastic uses for a wiki, but when it comes to public or employee interaction with a wiki, one needs much more than a good idea. The organization needs to convince contributors that they will get something out of building the wiki. And to celebrate a wiki’s community building premise, let’s discuss how to do this as a community!

Using examples from my experience at Whorunsgov, I’ll discuss what strategies work and what fails as Whorunsgov tries to engage and build a trustworthy community. I hope that as I explore strategies that Whorunsgov implemented, fellow govloop members will give ideas and examples from their past. Let us know why you decided to contribute to certain wikis. If you’ve created a wiki before, please let us know what worked for you. All of these types of discussions will not only give me some insight into why people decide to contribute to a wiki, but it should also help the government agencies that are implementing a similar platform.

And for the first – and probably best – tactic to engage contributors; beg! PLEASE CONTRIBUTE!


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Jim Sullivan

Three lessons learned from our use of wikis:
1) If you are a manager, do not call it “my wiki”. One manager set up a wiki for policy development and was then disappointed when no one would add content or alter his content. Seems no one felt right about adding to “his wiki”.
2) Have a wiki overseer. One wiki we set up, then ignored, was so difficult to follow, had exterraneous information, had duplicate and conflicting information, etc. If someone is not watching the wiki it can become a real mess. Consider Wikipedia, which is well ordered thanks to thousands of volunteers who oversee its content. Nothing is free and that includes using wikis.
3) If you want employees to add to a wiki and no one is doing that then order your employees to use the wiki. Make using the wiki part of their annual review. Sounds harsh but one wiki we have for documentation was ignored for months until this approach was put in place. Now it is not only an invaluable resource but people now know what others are doing and how they do it for the first time.

Larry Till

I’m with the Ministry of Finance in Ontario, Canada. We’re planning to create a wiki later this fall around our demographic and population trends projections. The idea is that we’ll have outside experts – celebrity demographers as I like to call them – create provocative policy think pieces that will get posted on an external site ( and opened for editing, commenting, voting, etc. It’s the first time our government has done anything like this. I’m curious to hear from others who have gone down this road.

Dan Oneufer

I’m in the technology world and I’m still a little intimidated about developing or updating content on wiki-based sites. I really liked the idea of the video and text-based instructions for contributing that I found on The alternative I’ve seen in one of the government wikis that we’re reviewing is several pages of ‘what is’, ‘why is’,’etc.

Ryan Derousseau

Hey Larry, it looks like you all have an interesting idea for an outside source of information to aid people. One suggestion I could say is make sure people know that others are contributing. If someone goes to the site and sees that others have contributed, they’re more likely to contribute themselves. It’s a tricky balance, and something that we also are experimenting with.

It’ll be interesting to see how it works out for you, please keep us updated…

Dan, great to hear you watched the video. If you still have any questions after watching the video and/or reading the instructions, please feel free to contact me at [email protected] or at [email protected]. We want it to be as easy as possible, any troubles let us know.

Ryan Derousseau

Jim, did you have any successes before ordering the staff to contribute? What did you do to encourage contributions before the mandate?

Steve Radick

Ryan – there are literally TONS of good examples of how to do this on Intellipedia, behind the Intelink firewall. They’ve established gardening policies, virtual rewards and badges, data spill procedures, the core principles of the community (e.g., Be Bold, Don’t Bite the Newcomer, etc.), measures of success, and a whole host of other, what I call, wiki infrastructure, pages. As Steve said, wikis are the probably the most difficult (IMO) social networking communities to build and maintain. I’m actually going through this right now with our own internal wiki ( – click here for some best practices from what we’ve done.

You might also want to reach to Andrea Baker, one of the best wiki evangelists that I know of. Let me know if you have any other questions – hope this helps!

Jim Sullivan


Before the mandate no one bothered to use the wiki. Encouragement was verbal but these are people who have been working in the same position for years and knew their jobs very well. It wasn’t necessarily the wiki that was the problem, though learning wikitext and how to create pages was part of it, the problem was simply change, compounded with a new technology, new learning, etc, for no obvious reason or improvement in their daily jobs. Now that the wiki is full of content after mandating its use its need is obvious to all.

On the other hand another wiki we had was immediately accepted. We were facing the new daylight savings time that Congress mandated and in a few months some computer equipment, network equipment and applications would be off an hour. So there was a deadline and no reasonable way for all the affected equipment to be identified, fixes identified, and all that information funneled to a single site for people to view without a wiki. So in that case the wiki’s need was obvious and widely accepted. It filled up in just a week. No prodding, just getting the information out to people on where the wiki was and putting info on the wiki’s Main Page on how to use it. It was a stellar success. The documentation wiki was too, but only after prodding. I don’t think its the wiki that is the problem. I’m old enough to remember mandating using word processors and spreadsheets and when typewriters were removed from a sobbing secretaries. At that time computers and printers were the issues, learning them, dealing with their many bugs, etc. Not all advancement and improvement is happily accepted. Sometimes management must step in to push people through the pain to achieve success. Training can help a lot in this situation and for a wiki, especially if wikitext must be learned, is a requirement.

Tim Constantine

Pick wiki software that is attractive, easy to use, and supports your needs.

Create a hierarchy/structure.

Seed the wiki with information.

Allow people to give their content to someone who knows “wikitext”, how to create new pages, etc.

Explain why it’s important:
– Explain benefits and how those benefits relate to your organization’s mission.
– Explain the limitations of the existing (no wiki) state of affairs.

Provide training.

Make it mandatory.

Ryan Derousseau

Steve and Tim, thanks for the info. As someone outside the government workforce, I wonder if making contributions mandatory provide the best results? Sure I could see it providing contributions, but do they necessarily provide the best contributions? Have you noticed any issues like that?

Jim, it seems the time-sensitivity is a great way to get people using the wiki. It’s not often explored because most wikis we think of are ever-lasting and on-going. Interesting observation though. Definitely something to think about…

Francois Gouahinga

I agree with Jim Sullivan that a manager claiming “this is my thing” ruins the whole thing, particularly because that kind of posture runs contrary to the collaborative spirit of a wiki. What my unit did to encourage contributions was first get buy-in from senior officers, materialized by a note to all explaining the purpose and business rationale for the tool. Then the wiki overseer posts basic content on key issues, sends the link out to those who are known to be most knowledgeable about the topic, soliciting their expert opinion on how it should be expanded. (Sometimes colleagues aren’t comfortable starting new posts from scratch, so the intro text can give you a boost). I found Steve Radick’s suggestion to use “virtual rewards” very interesting. Glad to note that GovLoop is already implementing this idea. (Yep, I’m hoping to graduate from ‘Rookie’ status soon)

Tim Constantine

I think maybe we use wikis in a way that mandatory usage makes more sense then it might in other circumstances. We use a wiki as our internal knowledge management. Our wiki (which we call KiM) houses our forms, policies & procedures, and other like information. Before our wiki we had these things scattered in file cabinets & file folders, personal drives & shared drives. We had 2 or 3 different versions of the same form, hundreds of blank copies lying around, procedure manuals that varied when you walked from one office to the next, etc.

I think we did a lot of the right things when we implemented our software including all of the things I outlined in my previous comment. The wiki was initially very well received by most staff and making it mandatory provided that extra boost that we needed to fully implement, so we could move everyone from that existing state to our ideal state, because everyone having the right forms, and everyone following the same procedures is important to our mission.

Mary Duncan

I obviously use a wiki now :-).. but also used in past jobs. Before I had really used one, I was very hesitant and wasn’t convinced of the true value. However, I was quickly converted. At least in a collaborative, project setting, wikis can be extremely valuable in keeping everyone on the same page (documenting requirements, meeting notes, etc) and provide team members easy access to the latest versions of documents and the latest project information. I agree with Jim that it’s very important to have a wiki overseer(s).

Wayne Eddy

I’ve been involved with setting up two government related wikis. One an internal one for a Local Council & and an open one for sharing information between Councils – the Local Government & Municipal Knowledge Base. It is hard to encourage participation, especially when it is not possible to mandate their use. I agree seeding the wiki with content is very important, and begging or at least asking people nicely to contribute helps a lot. The big trick to make people believe/understand that they actually get more out of contributing to the wiki than just viewing it. A few people will contribute for altruistic reasons, but most need to see something in it for them. I try to get people to think of it as a good place to store information they might need again at a later date, and stress that it is much easier to find information they have stored in a wiki, than in a directory somewhere.

Rewards, are OK, but I think ideally I think creating a fantastic wiki should be its own reward. Making the contributors feel there are part of a team working on a worthwhile project is also a good thing to do.

I have tried to do this with a contributors list and a user map, showing where the contributers to the wiki live.

Darron Passlow

I have worked with Wayne (to a lesser extent) on this LGMA Wiki and made some contributions. Wayne has been diligent in adding new content, keeping the content up to date and adding new features to the Wiki on a regular basis, to keep the wiki dynamic and interesting. The recently included map showing where contributors are located (primarily covering Australia and New Zealand) is an exciting addition to the site which will hopefully attract more contributors. This site, having just reached its 1st birthday is doing really well and the stats are improving continually (# of pages, no of visits etc). The secret is obviously it meets a need, but more importantly its content and development have been the focus of one, dedicated individual (with some part time support) and a few supportive individuals.

Ryan Derousseau

I mentioned this earlier, but I also find showing people that others are contributing is very important to convince others to contribute. I really like the idea of the map showing where everyone is contributing from. Is there any maps within organizations that show what departments are contributing? Has anyone tried making it a competition among the departments?

Melissa Perdue

Can anyone share their thoughts on “how to” build a wiki on Tumblr? We leverage Tumblr for our internal newspage and would love to incorporate a wiki. Thanks in advance for the ideas.