GSA’s missed opportunity to be a collaboration leader

Wednesday - 3/18/2009, 2:53pm EDT

Collaboration is difficult because, in most cases, it involves changing the way we have done business. That is particularly true in government, which can often be stymied by the ‘that’s not the way we do business’ mantra. But that can be further undermined by when executives don’t make collaboration and information sharing a real priority.

I want to be clear — I don’t like “got ya journalism.” There is enough of that out there these days. And in this case, I am not trying to get anybody. But the General Services Administration really missed an opportunity to show the rest of government how to deal with collaboration issues — and I think they have failed, so far.

This case specifically involves the GSA Federal Acquisition Service’s Office of Assisted Services.

Here is the case as it has been relayed to me by multiple sources: Mary Davie, assistant commissioner for GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service’s Office of Assisted Acquisition Services and somebody who has been trying out many of these collaborative tools, noticed that several employees of assisted services were onFacebook. Furthermore, those people were collaborating on Facebook . They weren’t sharing government contract information, but they were sharing lessons learned and best practices, ideas that had worked… and those that hadn’t — and why. Davie decided to try to enable and encourage the collaboration by carving out a private area onFacebook. (Facebook allows its users to create certain areas that are member only — where an administrator has to let people into the conversation.) Davie then sent an e-mail to her staff inviting them to participate in this collaborative framework.

Unfortunately, an employee sent that e-mail to their union representative — and it then made its way through the GSA heiarchy. The net result was that the member-only area has been shut down.

GSA insiders tell me that leadership has said they are going to create a way for employees to share information.

I should note that Davie would not say anything for this post and I originally heard about it from several employees — including one who was opposed to the plan because of security and privacy concerns.

This case just seems to be sad on so many levels. As I mentioned, it is difficult to spur collaboration, information sharing and innovation in government. When there are pockets of innovation, it needs to be fostered and nurtured. But it seems to me that GSA did the worst thing — it quashed it.GSA’s misguided decision to dissolve the Facebook assisted services discussion speaks volumes — to employees who were sharing information… to people who take chances to try new things in new ways… and to the ‘this isn’t the way we do business here’ crowd — it empowered them.

The concerns, as I understand them, were about privacy and security. Again, as I understand it — and I don’t have a copy of the e-mail that Davie sent to staff, but, as I understand it, there was no mandate to participate. Rather, it invited people to participate — people who were already collaborating anyway.

Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, speaking at FOSE earlier this week, said that government needs to reach people where they are. That is true internally as well — agencies need to tap into what is already going on. After all — and this may come as a shock to some government executives — they are going to do it anyway whether you sanction it or not. They are going to do it on GovLoop … or they are going to do it on their own on Facebook… It is one of the powerful — almost subversive — elements of these tools — and it is why I often call them disruptive. Anderson also mentioned that in most cases, people often have access to more technology at home then they do on their work desktop. So, if you don’t build it… they’ll do it on their own.

But perhaps just as troubling to me is how GSA seems to be a non-leader on government 2.0 issues. It seems to me that GSA’s Office of Governmentwide Policy simply isn’t the power player that it should be on the government 2.0 issues. Instead, at the fore has been the Federal Webmaster Forum — which has been doing a remarkable job… the National Academy of Public Administration’s Collaboration Project

And to be fair, there are many pockets of collaboration and government 2.0 expertise within GSA.

But the agency, specifically through the Office of Governmentwide Policy, is not a significant player in helping other agencies deal with — and resolve — the issues out there.

There are real opportunities here — and GSA can be a significant player… or it will be left out.

I welcome additional thoughts and voices. These issues are difficult to fully flesh out because people are reluctant to talk. I had been holding off posting this because I don’t want to kick anybody, so… as we say, this is still developing.