Public communities vs. private communities

Wednesday was K-TOC’s one-month anniversary. Community activity increases a little bit every day. An engineer wants to kick off a discussion group for practicing engineers. One of our environmental science people is starting a blog. The Traffic Safety people opened a group. (That Traffic Safety wasn’t one of our launch groups was a foolish error on my part. Sheesh.)

I expect that today’s passage of the stimulus bill will drive membership and traffic. The KDOT press release announcing Kansas funding levels closes with:

“As more details become available about the stimulus spending, please visit the Kansas Transportation Online Community at www.ktoc.net, or the KDOT Web site at www.ksdot.org.”

I like that a lot.

We’re at 500 members, more than twice as many as we expected at this point.

By the time I came onboard, KDOT had already made several key decisions that every other large agency will face as they contemplate deploying social media. The first and most consequential was the decision to make K-TOC open to the public. K-TOC was envisioned from the beginning as a vehicle of public outreach, a way for KDOT to interact with citizens and transportation stakeholders across the state in something like real time.

A conventional enterprise online community aims to increase the productivity and efficiency of the enterprise by connecting together as many employees as possible, thereby generating a network effect that benefits the enterprise. This is as true of government as it is of commerce.

Imagine we connected all the employees of the Interior Department, put them in a network where they can freely discuss Department business, cross-fertilize one another’s projects and share similar experiences and problem-solving techniques: It’s reasonable to believe that the Interior Department would derive great advantage from such a network. As I look around GovLoop, this sort of social media application seems to be what most members are looking for–a platform or application that increases the internal connectivity of their agency.

K-TOC isn’t that platform, because K-TOC is open to the public, and a public community faces limitations not imposd upon private communities. From the standpoint of the agency, a public community raises questions touching upon proprietary information, intellectual property rights, message control and so forth, all of which understandably inhibit the free exchange of agency-specific information on the boards. KDOT thus sacrificed some of the intra-organizational efficiencies typically associated with social media–we sacrificed, at least in the short term, part of our internal network effect.

But a public community yields immediate advantages. It brings government closer to constituents and increases agency transparency. K-TOC’s first victory came in its first 48 hours, when an exasperated public works director contacted the agency via the community to discuss a question about a proposed turn lane on a US highway and received an answer almost immediately. (And he’s returned to the community a couple of times since. Halfway to converted, I’m thinking.)

The sacrificed opportunities are real. Now that a public community is up and running and I (more or less) have some idea what I’m doing, it’s obvious to me that an internal community would be a great boon to KDOT. I’ve even suggested an in-house community to my superiors. (“OK, this is great, but we really need another one!”) It is nonetheless apparent to me that within a decade every government agency of any size, federal-state-local, will be operating a public community something like K-TOC. Build a private internal community, by all means–but don’t forget a public-participation piece, even if it’s wholly separate. Citizens live in a wired world. They expect a wired government. Government network initiatives that ignore that expectation, that concentrate exclusively on increasing internal agency connectivity while ignoring the public, will only widen the gap between government and governed.

I’ve seen some discussion on the GovLoop boards about social media experts. I recommend reading Rachel Happe’s post about the subject at The Social Organization. (And check out her blogroll. Wow.)

I don’t know what constitutes an expert in this business, but I know that some people in the biz offer useful information for someone in my position, and some do not. Happe is always useful.

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Good post – I’ll check her out. And strong work in Kansas. Checked out the site and it’s pretty cool. I’ll be interested to see how it evolves.

Melanie Surviks

I’m following KTOC’s development with great interest. I have been reading Rachel Happe lately. Thanks for the informative posts.