Government in a Wiki World

The following article includes excerpts from a series of posts that J. Davidson Frame, who has studied government program management for 30 years, wrote for's group blog, Tech Insider. We've included some of the online comments the series received. The items, which appeared between May 5 and June 25, can be read in their entirety on here.

The first wiki was created by Ward Cunningham in 1995. Cunningham's goal was to establish a compendium of software design wisdom. The rationale underlying the wiki concept is to post an idea publicly, then let players add to, adjust or take away from the idea iteratively. Over time, with input from many players, what starts as a primitive idea can grow into a well-developed statement.

The power of the wiki was demonstrated with the creation of Wikipedia in 2001. In a very short period of time, with input coming from tens of thousands of contributors, Wikipedia evolved into a first-rate encyclopedia.

Public and private sector entities are trying to harness the forces of wikilike collaboration. Interestingly, some of the greatest enthusiasm for collaborative work in government is coming from the intelligence community. The Sept. 11, 2001, disaster highlighted the price the United States had to pay for the absence of a collaborative spirit among intelligence agencies. We now know that information needed to stop the terrorists was in the hands of those agencies prior to the attack. Because they did not share the information, however, no one in government anticipated the impending calamity.

One attempt to harness the collective wisdom of employees working at various intelligence agencies has been to establish the wiki Intellipedia, set up in 2006. Only employees with proper clearances can access and contribute to Intellipedia. It already has provided them with insights into how to deal with terrorist attacks in Iraq. Intellipedia's strength is it can quickly leverage the knowledge and thoughts of the entire intelligence community. There's no need to set up a task force and wait six months for results.

To make sure managers within the intelligence agencies take the need for cross-agency collaboration seriously, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a directive that requires senior managers at the nation's 16 intelligence agencies to be assessed by a common performance evaluation system. A key criterion focuses on the extent to which senior managers promote collaboration across agency boundaries.

This is a good step. Given the agencies' strong territorial tendencies, a number of important questions arise: Are their employees willing to participate in an effective way? Will they hold back information they feel their agencies "own?" When looking at the conclusions emerging from a wiki exercise, will they ignore the findings based on "not invented here" feelings?

Ultimately, the success of cross-agency collaboration requires that players trust the system and want to work together. If these criteria are not met, then technical wiki fixes won't work.

The Three Levels of Wikis

Federal agencies are mulling over the wiki phenomenon to determine its value in the public sector. That value can be seen at three levels of operation:

  • Project: In building new systems, requirements can be harvested through wiki exercises. A primitive statement of system requirements can be posted publicly. Customers and technical people can build on the statement to create a full-blown set of requirements that reflect both customer and technical sensibilities.
  • Intra-agency: When an agency plans to launch a program that will change how it operates, seeking input from employees and contractors on a wiki can help it formulate the program architecture more quickly and comprehensively than setting up a task force to do the job.
  • Interagency: Agencies tend to operate as stovepipes. This can lead to poor results, as the Sept. 11 catastrophe showed us. Agencies can establish wikis, such as Intellipedia, to span organizational boundaries. Early results are encouraging.

There are two basic advantages to a wiki approach. First, because it is carried out in a virtual environment, it can be implemented quickly. Second, because it solicits input from a wide range of contributors spanning organizational boundaries, it has the potential of generating solutions that are deep and broad.

Government should experiment with cross-boundary collaboration at the project, intra-agency and interagency levels. When exploring the strengths of collaborative action, however, government should avoid marching around with the wiki tool in search of applications. First, it should identify situations in which collaborative input would help it function more effectively. Then government should determine whether a wiki approach is appropriate to engender meaningful collaboration, or whether some other approach is better. Finally, it needs to address the details of implementing a wiki solution. Are we able to establish a wiki platform? Will our organizational culture promote meaningful participation by the intended audience? As wiki solutions to problems emerge, will they be taken seriously by agency managers?

Thinking the Unthinkable

History is filled with examples of self-governing social networks arising to deal with problems of interest to collections of people. The compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary was similar to the construction of Wikipedia. When the dictionary project was launched in the 19th century, thousands of volunteers contributed slips of paper that offered examples of how individual English words were used. In a matter of a few years, some 3.5 million slips of paper had been submitted to editors. This was a volunteer-based social networking, collaborative effort that preceded the Internet by more than a century.

Increasingly, we ask: "Does it make sense to transform government into a self-governing social network?" The first reaction of many people is "Are you crazy? Do you want mob rule?" But a little knowledge of history shows that the idea isn't so far-fetched.

Consider that when democracy arose in Athens in the 6th century B.C., all free men participated in gatherings where they debated policies that should be pursued by the Athenian government.

More recently, town hall meetings in the United States form the basis of policy development in smaller communities. In both cases, governance is based on give-and-take discussion among members of the community; it is not imposed by the impersonal machinations of bureaucracy.

When thinking about introducing social networking concepts into government, perhaps the most interesting question is: How far can we go? Obviously, we face constitutional constraints on how we govern the United States, but this should not stop us from raising thought-provoking or intriguing questions: Can self-regulating social networks replace Congress and the president? In creating regulations, does it make sense to develop them in the same way that Wikipedia entries are created? Should policies be generated by communities of interest composed of people who are most affected by them?

Given the growing force of social networks, it's time to start-in the words of the military and nuclear strategist Herman Kahn-thinking about the unthinkable.

Early Stages

Intellipedia is a success story in the world of government wikis. After Sept. 11, the director of national intelligence recognized that to deal with terrorist threats, the United States' 16 intelligence agencies needed to share information, rather than play things close to the vest, as was their traditional modus operandi. By all accounts, it has been successful in opening interagency communications.

One problem with Intellipedia is it is only open to players with U.S. security clearances, so it is out of the reach of most government employees. I have been asked whether I was aware of other government-oriented social networking experiments that are accessible by ordinary citizens. Following are three examples of such experiments that readers recently have shared with me:

  • The Wiki Home Page is hosted by the General Services Administration's Intergovernmental Solutions Office. It focuses on communities of interest that are concerned with fairly narrow issues. It lists resources that address their concerns.
  • The Government Web Standards site is hosted by the New Zealand government. Its goal is to solicit input from around the world to help strengthen the design of Web pages produced by New Zealand agencies.
  • The Future Melbourne wiki site is hosted by the City of Melbourne, Australia, and its Future Melbourne Reference Group. Its objective is to stimulate insight into the management, development and direction Melbourne can pursue. The site reports that hot topics users discussed include transportation improvements, tax reform and better water quality.
  • Clearly, government's involvement in social networking is in a nascent stage. My sense is that as governments move into social networking, their early efforts will focus on information sharing. They likely will list information resources. Their first steps at establishing wikis will be more like chat rooms than full-fledged wikis. It is probable that within the next five years, however, governments at the national, state (or provincial) and local levels probably will begin developing social networking sites that garner substantive input from the public that ultimately have an impact on how government conducts its business.

    What Britannica Can Teach Government

    The Encyclopedia Britannica has depended on experts to write its entries. This served it well until the arrival of Wikipedia. While the Britannica approach does provide accurate material, the material is almost instantly dated and remains so until updated some time in an undetermined future. Entries in Wikipedia, by contrast, can be updated daily.

    Britannica recently announced it is adopting a number of wiki principles to develop its product. Britannica's new approach focuses on three areas of content. The first constitutes materials written by Britannica experts, as in the past. The second solicits content from the public, similar to Wikipedia.

    This material then is reviewed by Britannica experts to assure accuracy. The third is the encyclopedia itself, which is composed of material from the first two content areas.

    It is too early to say whether Britannica's efforts to deal with Wikipedia will work. My personal view is that for Britannica to survive, it needs to reinvent itself. Adopting wiki principles is not enough. For example, if it expects to generate revenue through subscriptions, then its future is bleak. (Users access Wikipedia for free.) Britannica needs to identify other ways to generate revenue, for example by linking its entries to fee-generating sources. Britannica's attempt to adjust to today's wiki world is instructive to government. Even the most venerable institutions are shaken to the core by the new order. A standard response to competitors is to copy their modus operandi, which is hardly an innovative way to deal with life-threatening challenges. Traditional organizations that are going to survive-and even thrive-in the new order need to reinvent themselves thoroughly. Simply adopting new technologies without reworking the organization to accommodate them in innovative ways is a formula for failure.

    What's Next: Self-Governance?

    What do the following items have in common?

    • Bill Gates retires as chief executive officer of Microsoft in July 2008 to spend time working on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of about $35 billion.
    • Peter Senge, world renowned for his influential book, The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday Business, 2006), dedicates his brainpower to exploring social responsibility. In his recent book, A Necessary Revolution (Doubleday Business, 2008), he points out that businesses are implementing creative solutions to establish a sustainable world.
    • In defiance of the opposition of the oppressive and incompetent national government, locals in Myanmar organized food distribution and relief efforts for victims of the May 2008 tsunami, which killed about 140,000 people.
    • After President Bush blocked funding for most embryonic stem cell research, private companies and state governments moved to fill the funding gap.

    What these items have in common is each reflects the abiding principle of self-governance, which is growing exponentially thanks to social networking. No central authority told Gates to establish and fund a philanthropic organization. As Senge points out in his book, nobody is telling a raft of companies to adopt green policies; they are doing it on their own. Nobody told ordinary citizens in Myanmar to organize efforts to relieve suffering caused by natural disasters- in fact, the volunteers engaged in these activities risk incurring the wrath of their government. Nobody told private companies and state governments to support embryonic stem cell research-on the contrary, the Bush administration is doing whatever it can to repress it.

    The trend toward self-governance is growing exponentially thanks to the technology-based phenomenon of social networking. This trend has a huge potential impact on government.

    There has always been a debate about the boundaries of government. At the time of the founding of the American Republic, Thomas Paine said: "That government is best which governs least." With the onset of the Great Depression, the prevailing philosophy switched to, "That government is best which governs most." During the past few decades, we have experienced a see-saw effect of governments alternatively over-governing and under-governing. The Reagan administration tried to shrink government by outsourcing federal work, asking, "Why should government provide printing services, motor pool services and food services, when these lie properly in the domain of private companies?"

    Rather than debating whether government should offer printing services, we should be focusing instead on the opportunities for self-governance that are emerging, as reflected in Wikipedia, Flickr and LinkedIn.

    Who knows how successful self-governance efforts will be. After 10 years of experimenting, we might conclude that most will flop. Still, success with a number of social networking experiences raises the intriguing possibility that the basic nature of politics will be altered by the rising phenomenon of self-governance. As a consequence, government 10 to 20 years from now could look very different from what it is today.

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