In which we are introduced to online community software

A public online community can’t be hosted on KDOT’s servers, which operate behind a dense firewall. Thus we found ourselves in the world of software-as-a-service. We had to partner up with a community provider. Finding one took longer than we anticipated.

Software-as-a-service is a bit like an automobile lease. The customer leases community software and server space from the community provider. The provider also supplies design services, system training, troubleshooting and a whole lot of coaching. The buyer sacrifices ownership of the platform software in return for a design-build-operate-maintain turnkey community platform.

Fees are generally a function of the estimated size of the community, which determines how much server space the provider must make available to the client. The least-expensive plans we heard about were for communities of fewer than 1,000 members. Communities of more than 5,000 members were the most expensive. Annual fees drop 25 percent to 30 percent after the first year of operation.

We knew in a general way what features we wanted to offer on the community, and they required a lot of user-configurable webspace. After looking at several vendors we realized that none of the existing social media platforms are especially well-suited to our ends. We held unsatisfactory discussions with a couple of vendors before finding Leverage Software. The Leverage platform as it comes out of the box wasn’t much more suited to our application than the other platforms we looked at, but Leverage gets the Government 2.0 model and was willing to adapt their software for our purposes.

Our target launch date was December 31. We didn’t find Leverage until early November, and even given expedited purchase authority we couldn’t get an agreement in place before the middle of the month. It was necessary for Leverage to design and build K-TOC (incorporating significant design modifications of their standard platform), de-bug it and teach us how to operate it in six weeks.

Leverage hit all their marks. Early on, the company provided us a sandbox site that mimicked the operation of the production site. The first iteration of the sandbox site went up even before the custom production coding was finished, which allowed us to learn the basics of community operation while Leverage tweaked our special requests.

We’d written a set of House Rules and an FAQ, but once we were in the sandbox we realized both required substantial changes. We also learned that we needed modifications to the registration process and the basic page design, which in turn imposed new requirements on Leverage. (The Second Irregular Axiom of Social Media in Government: Get Legal involved early.) It was those client-mandated changes that pushed the community launch to mid-January.

Steering the ship throughout this process was (is) our Leverage Client Services rep, Tom Paolucci. My relationship with Tom is thoroughly modern; I’ve never met the man, but for weeks we exchanged a half-dozen emails a day. The subject line of my emails to him were often “HELP!” or “MAYDAY!” We ran into the Apocalypse about twice a week, and without fail Tom saved the day. I leaned heavily on Tom and his team throughout the launch phase, and not once did they let me down. I don’t think you can put a price on that kind of support, especially given the (in retrospect) ridiculous deadlines we were facing.

I’m still not convinced that the conventional architecture of online community software is ideally suited to government application. Yesterday, during a case study interview with Mike Walsh, the Leverage CEO, I argued that someone needs to either tweak the conventional platform for government use or purpose-build a new platform. Some of my objections are minor issues of functionality: I don’t understand why new discussion group posts append at the bottom of the page and not the top. I prefer nested forums to sequential posts. I want more user-configurable space.

A bigger general objection is price: K-TOC cost us about $50,000 for the first year. That’s a reasonable public-affairs expense for an agency of 3,000 people with statewide responsibilities, but probably out of reach for smaller municipalities or counties–and smaller municipalities and counties need this capability as much as big agencies. If we’re really going to tear down the wall between government and citizens, we need to make the wrecking ball affordable for everyone.

That said, KDOT is certainly getting our money’s worth out of K-TOC, and there would be no K-TOC at all if it weren’t for Tom Paolucci and the people at Leverage Software. The partnership with Leverage has been critical to our early success.

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Dennis McDonald

What makes government requirements so different from private sector requirements? Are these unique enough to justify the price difference between semi-custom communities and cookie-cutter communities?

Patrick Quinn

hey Dennis-who-turned-me-on-to-GovLoop!

In my opinion, the principal shortcoming of conventional community software from a government standpoint is the limited amount of user-configurable space. No community worth its bandwidth relies exclusively (or even primarily) on push content, but no government agency of any size is going to jump into this mediaverse unless they know they have the ability to feature specific content and reinforce the agency’s message.

For K-TOC, Leverage modified their standard landing page to create a headline billboard, a space for featured news stories and a space for an “official” agency blog. Had they not been able to do that, the community would’ve been a much tougher sell to agency leadership. But my objections to conventional platform architecture go beyond that–I want user-configurable space throughout the community. I want members to be able to post images and HTML in discussion group posts. A key operational requirement for K-TOC is the ability to centralize all comments on a given topic in one thread; conventional community architecture impedes that, because discussion group conversations can’t feature other media in the body of the post.

Furthermore–to spin 180 degrees–this kind of platform is too expensive for small government entities. A stripped-down community platform (i.e. forums, internal messaging, blogs) at half the expense would be much more attractive to small towns and cash-strapped counties than a long-term committment at five figures per annum. One obvious solution for such potential users is to sign up for service at Ning, but then one loses the tech support an coaching that I think are critical to success.

So, I want more for less. (I also want a helicopter.)

Dennis McDonald

Great response, Patrick.

What I hear you saying here is that you want to have both community features and more traditional web site features – sort of a “web 1.0 plus web 2.0” kind of thing. I wonder if in practice, it makes sense to have the same system support both?

One challenge is not technical but political. If my goal as a user is to “community” with other folks in government I’ll be less interested in whether or not I can access the official message through the same system. I’ll need to be assured I can always get the official scoop about government policies and programs but, when it comes to chatting it up with others around the state, I’ll probably prefer a system that focuses on facilitating communication, rather than on promulgating an official message.

I guess I see an advantage to being able to easily differentiate between a web site that serves as an official portal, and a web service that facilitates a mix of formal and informal communication. The question is, how realistic is it to combine the two? Technically, of course, anything is possible, but when I view this situation from my perspective of having managed software product development, I have to admit there’s going to be a challenge to offering a low priced service that does everything.


ps – this might interest you:

Patrick Quinn

Terrific METROPOLIS review! (I’m a bit nutty about Lang’s German work.)

You’ve caught me out wearing two hats. I think in five years community fxnality will be a commonplace on government websites–citizens will demand it. That presupposes five years of social-media self-education on the part of government and the public. Once everyone is up to speed, the push-content features of K-TOC might well be unnecessary. (Or maybe today’s conventional govt websites will be unnecessary, because the new generation of govt sites will look something like K-TOC.)

But right now, today, social media is terra incognito for most govt agencies. If we walk into the room talking about Reed’s Law, everyone’s eyes will glaze over. Communities need to be pitched to agency managers and decision-makers in terms w/ which they’re familiar–they need to look at the site and see something comprehensible. This is especially true (imo) for public sites. Most large agencies have spent small fortunes making sure the public stays out of the network. To reverse that thinking, the agency needs the reassurance of at least some control over messaging.

So yes, I’m having it both ways. ( I am large, I contain multitudes…) In truth I’m much less interested in the “media” term than in the “social” term. Let’s just hook everyone together and let the chips fall where they may.