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DHS and the (Not Yet Created) TechSolutions Wiki

Originally posted at the GenerationShift blog:

A couple weeks ago, while attending the National League of Cities conference in Orlando, FL, I connected with representatives from the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security. Our conversation began by them highlighting a new website called TechSolutions. According to the website:

The TechSolutions Program was established by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate to provide information, resources and technology solutions that address mission capability gaps identified by the emergency response community.

Currently, “only first responders are eligible to submit capability gaps.” TechSolutions vets all capability gap submissions through a group of first responder subject matter experts. If TechSolutions identifies a technology solution as a high priority, and if no such product exists or no research is ongoing, it moves into another phase of potential development with a more in-depth process of examination before becoming a full scale project.
I thought the concept sounded great: encourage the end user community – in this case first responders – to contribute and critique their needs and ideas. In fact, it represents a Web 2.0 mindset of seeking a collaborative path rather than operating independently. So far, so good.

But then the conversation continued.

I learned that the process for collecting these submissions was done via email. TechSolutions recognized that this process was somewhat inefficient, so they have devised an automated process, where responders will fill out an online form that will populate the database…versus someone receiving the email submissions and entering them manually. So they’ve taken one step out of the process.

But what if they went one step further? How about a Tech Solutions Wiki? Envision TechSolutions setting up a wiki and designating several pre-determined categories and links to spark submissions. These categories would not represent a comprehensive list, but attempt to capture the major themes or target areas for feedback. These themes could also be based on S&T’s 6 divisions: Borders and Maritime Security; Chemical and Biological; Command, Control, and Interoperability; Explosives; Human Factors; and Infrastructure and Geophysical Division.

When visitors access the wiki, the individual that was previously capturing and compiling data from emails now serves as a monitor and moderator. Ultimately, however, the wiki participants will take ownership for the ongoing creation, organization, review and analysis of their data. The real asset of a wiki solution is that each of the contributors will be able to see in real-time what one another are saying. They will be able to comments on each other’s respective contributions, brainstorming toward solutions that enable DHS to more rapidly produce the products and procedures that keep Americans safe. If security is a concern, then potential users could gain permission to access, as with the OMB Max Federal Community. Only users that register are given permission would be allowed to participate. DHS may even wish to grant varying levels of access based on the stage in the submission process.

In the book Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, the authors claim that “the new Web is helping to transform the realm of science into an increasingly open and collaborative endeavor characterized by:

• the rapid diffusion of best-practice techniques and standards;
• the stimulation of new technological hybrids and recombinations;
• the availability of “just in time” expertise and increasingly powerful tools for conducting research;
• faster positive feedback cycles from public knowledge to private enterprise; and
• increasingly horizontal and distributed models of research and innovation, including greater openness of scientific knowledge, tools and networks.”

While DHS is to be applauded for seeking input from their constituents, affordable tools and technology exist that make the process even more powerful. Why not use an even more efficient and potentially effective method of collecting and sharing information such as a wiki platform?

Perhaps the key point here is that every agency should take a careful look at every attempt to acquire or share information and consider if there is a more robust solution than more traditional methods – when “traditional” now means practices that were common just 4-5 years ago (such as email and online forms).

If DHS (or other agencies) are looking for examples of other public sector organizations that have deployed successful models, here are a few websites to examine for best practice information:

USA.gov – this is a page dedicated to wikis, including examples of wikis used by other government agencies.

Collaboration Project – reveals best practices in using social media/Web 2.0 tools at all levels of government.

Intellipedia – although closed to the public, the intelligence community has been running three wikis where thousands of personnel with appropriate clearances from 16 agencies are contributing important information that helps in the protection of American interests. I’ll even bet DHS has a couple people involved in it…

Do you have other examples or ideas to share that would assist our public sector servants at DHS?

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