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Gov 2.0 and The Rise of Informal Networks

Recently I wrote this post that was featured on the Wikinomics blog. I thought I would share it and cross post it here as well.

It’s official – Gov 2.0 is here to stay. From nGenera’s Gov 2.0: Wikinomics, Government and Democracy, project, NAPA’s Collaboration Project, and Mashable’s recent Gov 2.0 column, a lot has been written on the potential power of web 2.0 technologies in government. Government agencies across numerous jurisdictions have begun focusing on how Web 2.0 technologies can help foster workplace collaboration and innovation. Organizations such as the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Transportation Security Agency, and National Resources Canada have implemented organizational wikis to provide a central point for ideas and discussion.

But while government organizations have begun to focus on fostering workplace collaboration from the inside, a new type of collaboration is developing outside the formal reach of government agencies. As part of the Gov 2.0: Wikinomics, Government, and Democracy research series, I recently completed a paper entitled “Net-Gen Networks: How Agencies Can Leverage Outside Innovation Internally.” In this analysis, I document the rise of informal networks in the government sector built around Web 2.0 applications as a means of facilitating collaboration, idea sharing and innovation both within and across agency lines. Whether via social networks like Facebook, wikis, or blogs, these networks have created new authoritative resources for employees without the input or control of their superiors.

For example, Young Government Leaders, a professional organization for young federal employees in the U.S., started as two new government workers wanted to connect with peers. What started as a small happy hour has turned into a powerful informal network with over 2,000 members featuring a weekly leadership blog, professional development activities, community service, and bi-weekly newsletter. Young Government Leaders is not housed in a specific government agency but rather is run independently by volunteers on their own time and provides a sense of community to Net-Gen federal employees going through the same experiences in their career.

Another great example is Firefighternation.com, a social networking site for U.S. firefighters and emergency medical services, and rescue workers. Founded in July 2007 by a Columbia, MD firefighter, this online resource connects members through online profiles, message boards, blogs, news feeds, user-posted photos and videos. With over 22,000 registered members, members use the site to share advice on just about everything, including equipment, training tools, and safety, creating a rich repository of media that the community uses to demonstrate new techniques and lessons learned.

So why are these informal networks being created? Interviews with network leaders and participants reveal that these informal networks are being developed for four key reasons: they fill gaps in the information provided by their employers, they provide instantaneous access to resources and expertise, they’re viewed as authentic communities of peers and venues for candid dialogue, and, ultimately, they serve as innovation incubators in organizations where employees may not be empowered to pursue their ideas. Additionally, they are used as a way to create community, to share best practices, and to find out about additional career opportunities across the public sector.

While these informal networks are primarily being used by entry and mid-level staff, recent talks with senior government officials have shown that these informal environments are even more beneficial to them. These senior officials stated that they want to use collaborative technologies but can’t always openly collaborate using enterprise 2.0 tools because their opinions would be viewed based on their position and considered differently by all employees. For example, the CIO cannot propose in an idea bank for the radical streamlining of the acquisition process without offending his/her counterpart.

Recently, I launched an informal network – GovLoop.com. GovLoop is a social network that connects the government community including federal, state, and local government workers, professors and students interested in public policy, and government consultants. In only a couple months, it’s grown to over 800 members and the use of the site has been very interesting. I see government employees connecting with people they would never have met and asking questions such as how to use social media and still meet government reporting requirements or how to recruit the Net-Gen to government. In another case, I saw a master’s student in Iowa connecting with the government program manager in D.C. on the topic related to his thesis. Members have started to blog on their own sharing their wisdom on everything from how to survive meeting to climbing the career ladder and finding the best training classes.

I think these are all clear examples of the power of informal networks and web 2.0 technologies. In solving government problems, we should leverage the wisdom of the millions of government employees and their past experiences. While the problem may be new to one person, it has probably been critically researched and solved by somewhere in the government sector.

I believe there will be plenty of room for both formal and informal networks to play a role in improving government in the 21st century. Some people are extremely cautious and only want to collaborate in a formal setting where they know who they are dealing with and trust everyone. Other people are more flexible and enjoy collaborating with a broader set of stakeholders. The role of companies and agencies is to learn to operate and leverage both formal and informal networks so they gain maximum value.

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