- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thousands of the nation’s bureaucrats are spending their free time on Twitter, YouTube and other social networking sites trying to make government better.

Really.

Employees of city, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, have come together with the help of a new Web site called GovLoop.com to share their experiences and “best practices.”

The site was founded a year ago by Steve Ressler, 28, an information-technology specialist at the Department of Homeland Security. Already, more than 14,000 people have joined, creating nearly 500 subcommunities and more than 1,000 discussion forums. Brainstorming sessions online have produced ideas on everything from government transparency to interoffice communication.

Even the White House has taken note.

“Online brainstorming sessions are one of the many useful tools to help government be more transparent, participatory and collaborative,” said Macon Phillips, director of new media at the White House and a member of GovLoop.

Mr. Ressler came up with the idea after attending conferences in Washington while participating in a group called Young Government Leaders and being frustrated that attendance at the events was so limited.

“You’d have to get invited, and you have to have the time to be in that place on, say, a Tuesday night, and you’d have to be in D.C.,” Mr. Ressler said. “So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to break across all those silos of government?’”

Mr. Ressler began with the basic notion that government could be more efficient if its employees learned from each other’s experiences. GovLoop gave them a place to meet.

Improving government is not a new idea. In the 1990s, Vice President Al Gore promoted “reinventing government” through an interagency task force focused on cutting costs and improving efficiency. President Reagan also attacked government waste and inefficiency with the creation of the Grace Commission in 1982.

However, with the Internet and social networking Web sites such as GovLoop, barriers are broken more easily and discussions happen a lot faster, Mr. Ressler said.

“Everyone [understands] that the Internet can be used to deliver public service, but the next step is to do something about it,” said Craig Newmark, creator of the Web site craigslist.org and a fan and user of GovLoop, to The Washington Times.

“I chat with people in a lot of different agencies, Web managers, San Francisco IT departments, New York state [chief information officers] and people across the country,” he said. “It’s a movement, a mundane, bottom-up, grass-roots movement.”

Already, GovLoop.com users have compiled a resource of information for communication strategies, government acquisitions and for people creating social media policies for their offices.

Subcommunities on particular government jobs enable users to connect with other people doing the same thing. Members post invitations to upcoming events, and at least one community has held an in-person conference to build on discussions from the Web, with nonlocals dialing in on Skype. The site also has become a resource for recent graduates seeking government jobs, with users connecting one another to job openings and contacts.

Enthusiasts have created a weekly radio show podcast, made hundreds of YouTube videos, produced more than 2,000 blog posts, shared more than 5,000 pictures and even taken turns profiling a GovLoop member of the week and project of the week. Members recently recognized a nonprofit organization providing technology resources and Web forums for local government officials, a program for private interoffice Twittering and a Web-compiled encyclopedia for the government of Canada, GCPedia.

Adriel Hampton, an investigator for the San Francisco attorney general’s office, said advice and lessons shared on GovLoop helped him in creating a practical Twitter site for his office.

“We now have a much larger following in the Twitter community because of lessons learned from GovLoop. There’s been a lot of writing about people tailing off,” Mr. Hampton said.

He said on GovLoop he learned from others’ experiences, in particular the importance of looking at the Web site from a strategic point of view rather than as just a fad.

“I could say to my boss, ‘Here are serious people doing serious things with it,’” Mr. Hampton said. “GovLoop has allowed a lot of people to break out of the box that government work puts you in. Now you can go to your boss and say, ‘Here’s how the State Department is doing it, here’s how the state of Massachusetts is doing it.’”

The White House recently reached out to Mr. Ressler to promote a discussion on WhiteHouse.gov on how to improve President Obama’s Open Government Initiative.

More than 100 members of GovLoop participated in the White House discussion, the largest of any of the groups represented, Mr. Ressler said. Users continued the discussion informally on GovLoop, and blogs related to the initiative were among the 10 most popular on the site during May and June.

“New technologies and social networks such as GovLoop are great for cross-agency collaboration and public-private partnerships,” said Beverly Godwin, director of online resources and interagency development at the White House Office of New Media.

GovLoop allows anyone who works for government, consults for the government or works with government in the nonprofit and media sectors to join.

Mr. Ressler does not make a profit from the site; to avoid potential conflicts of interest with his job at the Department of Homeland Security, he accepts no ads.

He said he does not expect everyone in government to embrace the Web site or the idea of social media.

“I think that’s been the case with every tool, that’s how e-mail was at work. People were like, ‘Everyone doesn’t need their own e-mail. Why would you do that? You can just call them,’” he said.

However, with more people moving to Washington in search of jobs and Mr. Obama urging Americans to enter public service, Mr. Ressler said the time is right to break down barriers and push for innovation.

“Change is in the air, right? Everyone knows it’s coming and it’s kind of demanded. It’s a time to experiment,” he said. “Government doesn’t have to be behind. It can be a new innovator.”

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