Despite Wikis and Other Web 2.0 Tools, Government Collaboration Is Still Slow to Catch On

Public CIOs struggle to make government agency collaboration a reality.

by / August 27, 2009

Collaboration is a hot topic with the rise of Web 2.0 tools, like wikis and file sharing sites, and its emphasis in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Though public-sector success stories can be found, they are rare. Collaboration among government agencies remains difficult at best.

Why Can't We Be Friends?

The reasons it doesn't work are many. When government officials discuss collaboration's benefits, seldom does the "everyone hold hands and sing Kumbaya" approach work. Historically collaboration has been stymied by one-size-fits-all approaches that fail to recognize each organization's needs and perspectives. Elected and appointed officials' egos and agendas can get in the way.

Finally the proliferation of control freaks prevent collaboration from occurring.

Sometimes it's the elected or appointed officials, and other times it's the technology staff who believe they must personally manage every component of the solution.

So how do we get government agencies to collaborate and share technology systems? One approach that seems to work is the "800-pound gorilla" model, i.e., when a larger agency rolls out a solution and offers to be a service provider for smaller jurisdictions. This model has succeeded in Palo Alto, Calif., and King County, Wash.

Another approach is the "third-party facilitator" model, where a neutral third party facilitates collaboration. This model has been successful in California where Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network nonprofit consortium helped Bay Area public-sector organizations collaborate with each other and industry partners on many projects.

Another good approach is a loose coupling among government agencies, where each agency puts its spin on the solution while sharing common data or resources. This approach is enabled by Web services, service-oriented architecture and Web 2.0 tools that provide hosted or multitenancy solutions.

What's the Bottom Line?

The bottom line for successful collaboration is for each stakeholder to answer: "What's in it for me?" Benefits are varied, including economies of scale and lower costs for initial investment and total cost of ownership. It also lets organizations share lessons learned and best practices.

Since today's mobile and connected citizenry won't accept government's false boundaries, collaboration is necessary to meet their needs, which span traditional jurisdictional boundaries, and to increase their participation in government. Finally collaboration can lead to funding as ARRA grants favor group submissions.

Third Try a Charm?

Perhaps collaboration will increase now that technology has caught up with government's needs to share data and resources, while maintaining control over and accountability for them and meeting their unique needs and priorities. Newer technologies like software as a service, shared workspace tools like Central Desktop and Groove, and Salesforce's government-to-government application exchange make collaborating and sharing easier than ever before.

Today's conversation about collaboration takes working together one step further by incorporating direct citizen interaction and input. Web 2.0 tools are being used to facilitate public, private and citizen collaboration. One example is the Library of Congress pilot project -- The Commons -- which uses Flickr to share its photos and give the public direct involvement through social tagging and community input, which makes the collection easier for everyone to use.

Recession Boosts Collaboration

While collaboration among government entities is a noble goal, internal collaboration is often problematic even when it's between the technology department and its internal customers. How can government entities collaborate with external entities if they can't get their own departments to work well together?

Perhaps the real stimulus, at least regarding collaboration, is the current economic crisis itself, which appears to be driving internal collaboration as a means of survival. Handholding and singing are optional.


Liza Lowery Massey
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas