Last week we discussed the ways government agencies can improve usability of the Federal Web. This week in our series, we take a look at how social collaboration has become an integral component within the federal government. The results may surprise you.

There's More than Meets the Eye

When it comes to the US government, many of its citizens take “what you see is what you get” approach. However, there’s more than meets the eye, as it turns out. We spoke with Colleen Hope, who works as an Information Architect at ARRAY Information Technology, and consults with numerous agencies on social media and digital communications strategy. She is also a former Director of Electronic Information at the Bureau of Public Affairs with in the US State Department.

As an original member of the State Department’s Internet Steering Committee, as well as the interagency Federal Web Managers Council, Ms. Hope was able to shed some perspective about the history of the strategic elements upon which today’s Federal social network is built.

First, the US Government has many of the same issues that others within the private enterprise face. They want to be open and collaborative, but convincing IT to let them share information across a secure platform is not always easy. They want to provide resources from which other can learn, but know that each department will instead choose to “re-invent the wheel”. However, where federal agencies seem to differ, is by documenting, archiving and sharing their strategies with anyone who wants it. 

The Rules of Engagement

Not only are there entire councils dedicated to setting guidelines for how agencies can implement and facilitate social collaboration, there are entire websites that offer up case studies, initiatives and best practices about how social tools can be used to deliver a better customer experience.

Case in point -- Howto.gov maintained by the Federal Web Managers Council exists as an information hub that aims to (1) help the public quickly and easily accomplish their most critical tasks online; (2) improve U.S. Government online content so it's on par with the best content in the world; and (3) support and expand our dynamic community of government web managers from across the country.

It doesn't stop there. To support these goals, the Council has created a DigitalGov University through which trainings and conferences for government web managers are organized; as well as an online forum for Web Content Managers in which more than 3,000 federal, state, local and tribal U.S. government web managers who are responsible for the content of our agencies' websites can collaborate. Additionally, the Council also manages a Web and New Media Community collaboration and wiki space on MAX.gov. 

Not only is Howto.gov a great resource center, it’s also strategically organized, designed to provide relevant trainings associated with specific topics, enable social sharing and facilitate feedback. Of course, it's one thing to set up these platforms -- it's another if they are actually put to good use. According to Hope, they are. Of course, engagement can vary from agency to agency, but overall as administrations change, a commitment to transparency and a successful customer experience remains. 

What's in the Fed's Social Tool Box?

The words social collaboration can mean different things to different people. At is very basic definition, social collaboration refers to processes that help multiple people interact, share information to achieve any common goal. Within the enterprise, however, what we want to know about the different platforms upon which the Federal government is collaborating. 

Recently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that it has selected Socialtext to provide more than 8,000 HUD employees with a secure arena for internal social collaboration and communication, with the goal of enabling a social layer that has and will continue to break down knowledge silos throughout the entire agency.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) renewed its commitment to Microsoft Corp., with the aim of using Microsoft Office and Microsoft SharePoint to drive improved productivity and better collaboration both internally and externally.

Just last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced plans to create a database of 100,000 food borne germs in an effort to speed up the government’s response to outbreaks of salmonella, E. coli and other food-related diseases. Open access to the database will allow researchers to develop tests that can identify the type of bacteria present in a sample within a matter of days or hours, significantly faster than the approximately one week it now takes between diagnosis and genetic analysis. Support for the project will be provided by Agilent Technologies.

While these are just three examples of the types of social collaboration projects vendors are helping to facilitate within the Federal government, the point is that being able to work together across agencies is a priority.

A Renewed Commitment to Be Productive

Why now? Well, to be clear the Federal government has been working for some time to be a collaborative leader for its employees and citizens, but without any real ability to enforce mandates and directives, progress isn’t always steady. However, it seems that the US government’s focus on providing the technical support needed to spearhead innovative solutions is helping to reinforce its commitment.

In January, the US Department of Commerce released a report which analyzed The Competitiveness and Innovative Capacity of the United States. Among its findings, the agency stated that the United States is slipping when it comes to innovation and makes a case for aggressive federal government investments in Open Innovation Strategies, like improved access to government data and increased capacity for innovation and collaboration.

In order to support a big picture initiative in which a solid infrastructure is built to support a national science, technology and engineering growth the smaller elements that make it happen rely on collaborative platforms that make sharing information easy as well as accessible and manageable. Just as within the corporate enterprise, organizations seek to become more competitive by embracing social business, the US Federal government works to do the same. 

NEXT WEEK: Ways mobile solutions are improving operations and efficiencies within the Federal Government