Few people in the Government 2.0 space are focusing on the international aspects of social media, such as what we can learn from other countries that are implementing and how it can be used to bridge geographical and cultural divides. Enter Lovisa Williams, the Senior Technology Advisor at the Department of State who is one of the top Gov 2.0 tribe leaders in the United States and one of the most visible ambassadors for social media beyond our borders. Out of all the leaders related to Gov 2.0, she may be the most interesting one to watch due to the far-reaching implications of her efforts.
1. How did your life journey lead you to the U.S. Department of State?
Growing up in a very multi-cultural household provoked my interest in the State Department. My parents speak about 6 languages fluently between them and always had international visitors staying with us. More often than not, the language spoken at dinner wasn’t going to be English. From a very young age, I had been immersed in different cultures and languages and was interested in developing those relationships further. I found out recently that there is a name for what my parents taught me and my siblings: Citizen Diplomat. Citizen Diplomats are people who are conscious of representing their country and culture when traveling abroad;. They take the time to cultivate relationships with people who aren’t Americans and try to provide people insights into who we really are as Americans.
I have an Art History and Studio Arts background and I did not know how my skills could be applied to technology and especially not technology and government. My first opportunity to work for the Department of State was as a contractor in the information technology office for the Bureau of Consular Affairs. This was the start of discovering that there was much more to technology than I imagined and that the Department of State was the right fit for me. It would take working on many of the Department’s top priority IT projects and some time providing enterprise networking and telecom support for our posts worldwide before I obtained a civil service position with Public Diplomacy.
I have been working in Public Diplomacy for three years on everything from online chats to social networking to mobile technology to virtual worlds and the development of emerging technology policy. I work with project and program managers domestically as well as our posts overseas. By far, this has been the position that best fits me. It has allowed me to explore my creative side, utilize my problem solving skills and feel that I am having a direct impact on the Department of State’s mission. For me, becoming a government manager was the next logical step in my career since I wanted to have a more direct impact on the mission and was looking for more management responsibilities.
2. What have been some of the more interesting projects during your tenure?
I think I have been very lucky. All of my projects have been memorable and, of course, some were more challenging than others. Obviously, there are always aspects of all positions you do not love, but overall I have enjoyed my work. I worked on the Y2K rollover project, where I learned about all of the Department’s various messaging systems (from telegrams to email) and the importance of command and control communications. I then spent some time on an interagency project learning how the interagency process worked. At that point, I determined that I wanted to learn more about is how the government manages its work and budget processes.
I spent two years learning about OMB A-11 and Exhibit 300s. I spent a majority of my time helping project managers accurately showcase their work for OMB. From there, I went on to work on two different deployment and integration projects. One was to provide Internet access to all employees at their desktops and the other was the consolidation of the Public Diplomacy network into the Department’s unclassified network. These were great projects in teaching me how our embassies and posts operated and more about how technology can support the overall mission of the Department. I found I really enjoyed working with the embassies and posts.
Once these projects ended, I was challenged to learn about enterprise networking and to manage the Department’s telecom contracts – my most technical position. It required me to push myself to learn about encryptors, routers, switches and the various communications layers. These are things I never imagined myself doing let alone liking! But I did enjoy the challenge of learning something new and how technology can be the supporting backbone of an organization.
3. I know you’ve been active in Second Life as a Virtual Ambassador. Which came first: your personal interest in Second Life or a professional purpose to explore the virtual world?
I did not know much about virtual worlds before taking my position in Public Diplomacy. I was never much of a gamer even though I’ve always admired the graphics and ability to simulate real life. Second Life, like many virtual worlds, has a steep learning curve. I posted a recounting of my first time in Second Life on GovLoop. Everybody starts off with baby steps and we all do stupid things our first time there, but we learn. In some ways I think it was good I had no real expectations when I started. I was amazed and blown away by how working through an avatar form had me reacting to situations as I would in real life. I did not think that was possible.
Once I learned how to move around and interact with other avatars I found myself addicted to the possibilities. I loved how much wider my world had become and how many interesting people I met. Most of my Second Life friends are as much my friends as those in real life. In fact, I went to visit some Second Life friends on vacation. It was amazing to find the friendship was only better when I met them in real life. There did not seem to be any transition or awkwardness in relating to each other in real life. It was as if real life just became an extension of the friendship in Second Life.
I went into Second Life understanding that I needed to learn how the space operated but more importantly I had to learn the cultural and societal norms of not only Second Life, but in some cases individual sims. This was a great way for me to really understand how each community develops its own culture and ways of interacting with each other. This understanding has proved to be a great foundation for my other work in social media and Public Diplomacy.
The Department of State has been exploring and using virtual world technology to determine: 1) if people really connect and form relationships here and 2) if this is a viable platform for Public Diplomacy work. We have been able to answer both in the affirmative. From personal experiences and extensive research, we can clearly state that people do connect and build sustainable relationships that carry over to real life. It is viable for Public Diplomacy because virtual worlds do not recognize national boundaries and the foundation of Public Diplomacy is building mutual understanding with people outside of the United States. We are continuing to maintain a presence in Second Life and host events there.
4. You have also been one of the key voices behind the advancement of “Gov 2.0.” Can you share a bit more about your ideas or vision for virtual government, especially as it pertains to international diplomacy?
I am not a policy expert, but if we believe that Government 2.0 is about aspiring to the Obama Administration’s ideals of a transparent, collaborative and participatory government using social media tools, then I think it can also transform how we think about how we conduct the mission of international diplomacy. Social media provides an opportunity to:
* engage people and communities we have never had access to in the past.
* maintain and build upon relationships we may have initiated but due to distance might be hard to sustain
* attract younger people to talk about and engage with us about some of the global issues such as corruption, governance, civil rights, the environment, health care and more.
Government is starting to make the move towards becoming more in tune with the everyday life of people all over the world. With this new understanding and perspective, government will begin to have a better understanding of what the citizens want from their government and how we fit into the larger world community.
There are a number of challenges that face government’s acceptance and adoption of social media:
A. We need to learn how to use these new tools. In many cases we will need to change our workflow and start sharing more information across organizations like we never have in the past. Sharing information is still contrary to how government is set up to think and do business, but will be critical to our success.
B. People need to understand the value of using social media and change how they think about their work. In some cases they will need to learn new skills or how to apply existing skills differently. Change is hard for people and most people do not like it. Patience and education here is the key to success. As pioneers we have the responsibility to teach those around us what we have learned and be cognizant about being a good role model.
C. Government also needs to learn how to listen to the communities they build and then find ways of taking that information and incorporating it into what they are doing in a way that clearly shows the community not only are we listening, but we understand what the community is saying and are responding to the discussion. It is important to build this feedback loop and be able to show in a transparent manner how input we received is resulting in changes.
D. And last but not least, be patient with our progress. We are taking baby steps because this is new frontier for us. We are scared of making a mistake and we are bound to make a few as part of the learning process. We also have to find ways to examine and understand the current laws and policies and determine how to comply or request modifications be made in order to work with these new social media tools.
We are held to a higher expectation than any private sector company by the American people and rightly so. It is with respect to this responsibility that we move slowly and with caution to embrace social media and achieve Government 2.0.
5. About a year ago, I wrote two blog posts about State Department’s broad use of socal media and gave the agency an “A” for its leadership in the Federal sphere. How do you foresee State’s role as an ongoing leader in using collaborative and mobile technology to engage in dialogue and enhance diplomatic efforts between the US and our global neighbors?
I think that now that we have a dedicated team to assist our embassies and consulates with integrating social media and using it to build out their local communities we will continue to push the envelope. We will explore new tools, use existing technology no matter how “primitive” and help posts use these tools in new creative ways. I think we will find that diplomacy will become increasingly about the opinion of the average person on the street in addition to our relationships with the host country government. We will be able to reach more people than in the past. We are working on how to not only build these communities and engage these people, but also to provide a feedback loop that is transparent to the people who provide the feedback. We want people to be able to see how their opinions and input have influenced our actions and the development of policy. This is a work in progress, but it is where we hope to end up.
6. At one point, you were working on a social media policy for State. Can you speak to the process that you used to develop the policy? I think other agencies can benefit from your experience and the lessons learned.
From my experiences working with the 52 bureaus and over 260 embassies and consulates worldwide, the one thing I have learned is if you want to achieve anything at the Department you need to be willing to sit down with people face to face. You need to listen to them, be open to their ideas and be willing to help cultivate a sense of ownership with your project. It doesn’t matter if you are asking them to give up a network asset for the greater good of the community or if you are giving them new functionality. The process is always the same. You must be willing to go where your stakeholders are and be willing to work closely with them as a partner to develop a shared solution.
The same rules apply to the development of policy. I started my campaign to develop the social media use policy by identifying who were the stakeholders in the issues surrounding the use of social media. We began cultivating a relationship with the people in our legal office. We found that we were asking them to make decisions on things where they had no background or knowledge in. They understood their legal portfolios, but social media requires you to have knowledge of the business of the organization and how the technology works. They were lacking in some of the finer points of how the Department does business and definitely had no real technical or Internet skills.
The other thing we found is that social media issues cut across multiple portfolios, causing people who normally were not consulted to be pulled into the discussions. We found the best way to address these issues was to start by explaining social media, the thinking behind the use of social media and how we were looking to leverage social media in order to meet our mission.
Once we established a basis of understanding and a common vocabulary we started to make progress. Progress meant spending a lot of time with each stakeholder individually to teach them about social media and also perhaps more importantly listen to them teach us about what they do and how it fits into the larger mission. From there we worked together to come up with an agreed to position.
In the cases where the issues crossed multiple organizations we had one-on-one meetings and then brought all of the parties together to discuss each position. The goal was to come to consensus on how we plan to address these sets of policies or laws. Once consensus was reached we asked each organization to draft up the appropriate language for their respective sections. We came into this process knowing that we are not and can never be the subject matter expert on all of these issues. We need to trust and rely on our people to be professional and competent in their area of expertise. This trust allowed our stakeholders to feel a sense of ownership and pride in the development of the social media use policy.
We have gone through three rounds of reviews by all of the stakeholders. We have stressed that this policy is not supposed to be perfect, but our best thinking for the moment. We view this policy as a living document that will evolve and change as we become more comfortable and knowledgeable with using social media.
We are currently finalizing the draft policy for clearance by the entire Department of State. We are looking for a record breaker here in terms of time since we are stressing the need to have some form of policy in place as soon as possible. It has in some cases taken up to a year or more for policies to be reviewed and fully cleared by the Department. We do not have the luxury of such a timetable. We feel that we operate at risk as long as there is no formal policy in place. We want to mitigate that risk as soon as possible.
One of the ways we are hoping to have a record breaking clearance process is by stressing to our stakeholders that once they submit all final comments and edits to us, they should ensure their entire organization is in agreement with the submission and the larger document so when it comes time for clearance it should be an almost routine exercise. We wanted to address questions and concerns early rather then during the clearance process. The results of all of this up front work will show for themselves soon.
7. You’ve been doing some travel to embassies and other international venues to learn about social media around the world. What projects would you highlight that we could replicate here in the US?
I really enjoy getting out to the field and seeing first hand what our diplomats do and how they are working to achieve the Public Diplomacy mission. The Department of State is unique since it is an international organization with worldwide communities. We have locations all over the world. We have security requirements that are closest only to the banking industry and the level of complexity of our business makes us unique to even large multi national private sector companies.
When I travel I am looking to hear directly from our Public Diplomacy Officers and our locally employed staff. I am interested in what innovative solutions they have implemented, are thinking of implementing and how technology is used in their local communities. I am also looking for how may I help our posts implement social media as part of Public Diplomacy.
I also spend part of my time talking to people in other sectors about how to run a multi-national company, develop content for worldwide communities, and create cohesive strategies. I am looking for best practices and ideas on how to improve the work we are doing locally and from our position in Washington, DC. I try to identify those ideas that may be relevant at other posts and ensure people are aware of these activities. Where possible we try to leverage others efforts to assist those that are just starting out or to help us think about alternative ways of engaging and building a new community.
8. What are your current project(s)?
I recently returned from vacation to find my position has been reorganized into the Department’s first real social media team. The new name for this team is the Office of Innovative Engagement. This is a dedicated team of people who’s focus is on working with the posts to build out their communities using a mixture of traditional technology and social media. We will do this through providing support for Presidential and Secretary of State visits. We will also be providing on the ground training to our personnel at post.
The tasking to have the Office of Innovative Engagement created was a direct result of the White House’s request for assistance in promoting the President’s speech in Cairo and our success in being able to engage and build those communities using SMS. Our first effort under our new organization was the President’s recent speech in Accra, Ghana. The speech went very well and our combination of traditional and social media was successful. Since the speech in Accra, we have provided the structure for the social media campaign for the Secretary of State’s visits to India and now to Africa. We are looking forward to working more with our posts and helping them to leverage these events to build out their local communities.
We also evaluate emerging technologies and work with program officers to pilot the integration of social media into current or new programs. One of the primary focuses of the Office of Innovative Engagement is to establish an innovative environment where creativity and risk taking are rewarded. Everyone in the office was handpicked based upon their experience with social media, but more importantly for their ability to think creatively and provide solid problem solving skills. As part of the ongoing evaluation of social media for Public Diplomacy, we provide executive style and general orientation briefings to the Department on various aspects of social media. We believe education empowers our communities and help us make better more informed decisions. As part of our education and outreach efforts we are responsible for the publication and distribution of the Department’s Social Media Field Guide. The Field Guide is a collection of “How To’s” for using social media at the Department of State. These are closely coordinated with the Internet Steering Committee who is responsible for the development of the social media use policy.
9. What can other agencies learn from your experience with the project(s)?
We have made a commitment to document our lessons learned and best practices. We are also working on developing a social media field guide which would consist of various “How To” modules covering the most commonly used social media tools we use at the Department. We will closely tie these to the draft policy and social media guidelines we have posted. It is my intent to try and share as many of these documents as possible with the Social Media Sub Council. I would like to post them to their wiki for general use and distribution by the USG community.
Social Media as a tool set that does not do well being centrally managed. The tools require flexibility and very flat organizations. They do not do well when hampered by extensive rules and policies. People also use different tools in different ways. We have a saying that whatever we do we need to go where the people are and engage them through their preferred method of communication. It is no longer all about us and what is easy or comfortable for us. Also, due to the large number and various types of communities we have to deal with worldwide, we have to trust our people most familiar with those communities i.e. our staff located at our posts. They advise us on how to engage those communities and we allow the posts to take the lead as we provide a supporting role. We have had it reaffirmed through our discussions with multi-national companies that we need to customize our content for language, for cultural and societal norms of the community. It is impossible for people in Washington to make those decisions and expect to be successful.
One of the key components to our success in implement social media for Public Diplomacy is due to our strong management support. They have trusted us to advise them and supported our need to experiment and try new things. If the Secretary of State had not stated she fully supported the use of social media as a tool for meeting our mission, we would still be trying to convince people to entertain the idea of using social media instead of actually doing something.
Another key to our success was our extensive outreach and education campaigns internal to the Department. People are afraid of the unknown and change. Once you show them it isn’t that scary they are much more willing to help you find a solution to using the tool you are interested in. I also feel the other component that has made my team successful is our mix of policy, technology and mission. I don’t think I can stress to you enough how important it is to have a strong background or at least have people on your team who are strong in all three of these areas. By having this mix, we can better relate to our policy and Public Diplomacy officers while providing a sound technical solution that meets the current interpretations of the law and best practices.
* Representative for the Department of State to the Federal Web Managers Council’s Sub Council for Social Media.
* Member of the Planning Committee for the Government 2.0 Camp – March 2009