While flashy creations like Facebook "virtual town halls" tend to draw the most attention, some of the biggest Web 2.0 benefits for state and local governments may be accruing behind the scenes. One example comes from Oregon, where the state CIO's office uses social networking tools to boost collaboration and cut the time it takes to complete complex technology deployments.
Two years ago, Oregon launched a small test project to give state employees an internal social networking platform -- sort of a private Facebook site -- where they could quickly build online communities around projects, issues or agency business functions. The idea was to promote interaction among state agencies -- and with local governments, contractors and other stakeholders. The state signed a deal for 200 user licenses with Silicon Valley, Calif.-based Jive Software -- a company that bills itself as the world's largest provider of "social business software."
After a six-month trial, the platform was opened to a broader audience and the number of users topped 1,000. Now the service -- dubbed Oregon GovSpace -- has nearly 4,000 registered users from 183 organizations. Although many agencies already have software like Microsoft SharePoint that helps them collaborate internally, those tools don't always span agency lines due to security concerns and other factors. GovSpace, on the other hand, takes the increasingly familiar social networking model and applies it to the business of running government.
"There are any number of things in a government that involve working outside of your own agency," says Oregon CIO Dugan Petty. "We thought this tool would allow a given topical area to be established where people could exchange information, share ideas and jointly develop rules and policies."
For instance, the state's using Oregon GovSpace to coordinate communications for its statewide child welfare information system project, which involves child welfare supervisors located throughout the state. "They have a huge team of external stakeholders, internal stakeholders and contractors rolling out that system," says Wally Rogers, Oregon's e-government program manager. "This isn't a project-management system, but it does have project management-like capabilities."
Oregon's Board of Property Tax Appeals is another user, employing the platform to coordinate policy discussions among tax assessors in the state's 36 counties.
GovSpace users -- which are authenticated by the state -- create profiles that list their areas of expertise and current projects. They also can create shared documents and calendars, blogs, dashboards and polls centered on specific issues, and then invite other users into the discussion. All of it is encrypted and password protected.
The tool reduces the need for in-person meetings, according to Oregon officials, cutting the amount of time spent on getting personnel from multiple agencies into the same conference room at the same time. It also makes the remaining face-to-face meetings more productive because participants tend to be better prepared.
Petty admits the virtual meeting space isn't yet embraced by all state workers, some of whom struggle to give up telephone or e-mail conversations. Still, he thinks a growing amount of government problem-solving and policy development will occur on the platform. Indeed, Oregon GovSpace is the primary communication platform for a transformation effort under way in Petty's agency.
"There's a learning curve, but I think clearly there are huge business implications," he says. "Facing the kind of budget reduction scenarios we have in front of us out over the foreseeable future, we have to start exploiting different tools to make decisions better, faster and more effectively."
Petty isn't the only one thinking that way. Later this year, the General Services Administration plans to launch a similar initiative called FedSpace, which will provide a private Web 2.0 collaboration space for federal employees and contractors. And the national intelligence community created a highly secure social network, known as A-Space, to share information among analysts in late 2008.
It can be difficult to promote collaboration in any organization, public or private. And certainly state and local agencies are guilty of their fair share of parochial decision-making. As issues facing public officials become more complex and demanding of intergovernmental cooperation, government-specific social networks are starting to play an important role in bringing stakeholders to the table.