Wiki Good Government

The best way for government managers to engage the public via technology is to use the tools themselves. Officials must be seen as both engaged and engaging.
by , | June 2, 2011 AT 9:00 AM

If you’ve ever used Wikipedia, you probably know that wikis are websites with content produced and edited by large numbers of users. The ability to create content collaboratively and engage large numbers of volunteers make wikis attractive tools for public managers.

But how can public officials best tap into this technique?

A new IBM Center report, Using Wikis in Government: A Guide for Public Managers, by Ines Mergel of Syracuse University, takes a deep dive on some of the tactics for engaging citizens through wikis.

In Dr. Mergel’s report, she not only highlights the advantages and challenges of wikis as an approach to engaging employees and the public, but also shares hands-on experiences and lessons learned by pioneers in different government agencies.  Dr. Mergel describes nine cases where wikis were used either internally within agencies or with the public as a way of engaging on a topic.  For example, the State Department’s Diplopedia is used by foreign service officers internally to connect diplomats on topics that reach across the globe, sharing insights from previous assignments as well as analyses of current information.

We recently noted a study that examined some of the legal challenges associated with engaging the public through online media. Dr. Mergel looks at the legal questions wikis  pose for public managers regarding public engagement, privacy, and security.  She describes how the General Services Administration, via its efforts to negotiate a series of Terms of Service agreements with various social media companies, has put to rest some of the legal concerns some agencies have faced, such as access by the disabled or those with limited English proficiency.

Wikis aren’t magic. Dr. Mergel notes that “Without an off-line collaboration culture, it is difficult to introduce online collaboration.”

She points to the evolution of GSA’s “BetterBuy” wiki effort to harvest ideas for improving government contracting processes.  This effort started in a social media forum and then migrated into a government-based forum given the high level of interest between government and industry in coming up with better contracting practices.  Interestingly, she notes, the success of this specific effort led to similar initiatives in other agencies.

Mergel says that the best way for government managers to engage the public via technology is to use the tools themselves – officials must be seen as both engaged and engaging!  As Mergel notes, public managers have to “create energy and vibrancy so that others start finding value in it." One manager featured in the report puts it this way: "Create the party everyone wants to join.” That’s a wiki good idea.

For more on this topic, read: Using Wikis in Government:  A Guide for Public Managers, by Ines Mergel, Syracuse University.