Steve Ressler, co-founder of a professional organization known as Young Government Leaders, has taken the lead in helping move government squarely into the age of Web 2.0. Ressler recently launched a social networking site designed and built exclusively for public-sector employees. Ressler hopes the site, GovLoop, will grow into a hub for the public-sector community -- a place where government workers can exchange ideas and explore new opportunities. Government Technology spoke with Ressler about GovLoop's origins and where he hopes the site will go from here.
GT: Steve, can you tell me a little about yourself?
SR: I came into government in 2004. A few friends and I got together around happy hours to discuss dealing with the government and eventually, we created a group called Young Government Leaders. Fast-forward about five years later and the group is now a 2,000-person organization for federal employees with chapters across the U.S. We do a lot of professional development activities -- speak a lot at various conferences, community services, a newsletter, etc.
As part of that group I was co-founder, vice president, CIO, all at different times, and I saw a real need to have a place online where we could talk, connect and share ideas. So I started going to more conferences, meeting a lot of really interesting people. Age didn't matter -- they were across all ages, across all levels of government, state and local, some in academia and some were contractors. That's how I got the idea for GovLoop. Wouldn't it be cool to have a place where we could share ideas on various topics? [For example] I'm a new employee, how do I dress at work? What are the protocols? Or I'm a local CIO in rural Kansas and I want to start a blog. Have any other government agencies done this?
You can share best practices back and forth. That's the whole idea.
GT: When did GovLoop launch?
SR: On Memorial Day this year, I launched it to about 20 friends. This is something I did on my side time for fun. It's not a corporation. I'm not trying to make a million bucks. I have my day job and I just think there's a need for this. So I just sent it out grassroots to people I knew. I sent it to 20 people who sent it to their friends. I contacted a couple organizations I knew on the state and local level, I talked to ICMA [International City/County Management Association] and it grew and spiraled from that. On Memorial Day we had five people sign up, and now we're more than 1,000.
GT: Looking at your membership numbers, it definitely seems like GovLoop is catching on.
SR: It's doing pretty well. I think the most important thing is there are a lot of good conversations and people are connecting. There are already a decent number of stories about how this has actually helped people. What's more interesting than [the number of members] is who is on the site. There are a lot of thought leaders in government. I believe the CTO of California is on there [Indeed, P.K. Agarwal is a member]. One of Gartner's big thought leaders for government IT is on there. It also includes the really good, mid-level people.
GT: Did you build the site yourself?
SR: Yeah, it's based on a Ning [a customizable social network software] platform, and I did the rest of the coding myself.
GT: We've talked to many government folks who are trying to figure out how best to use Web 2.0 to better connect with
constituents. Is GovLoop filling a niche by helping government use Web 2.0 to better connect within itself?
SR: That's basically why I created it. I saw there was a hole. People were not able to connect. Sometimes that occurs within a single division, not to mention connecting across other departments or a state or local agency. So I just started thinking the best way to build these solutions is just someone on the outside getting up and doing it. If you wait for it to get officially sanctioned, it's the government, so it takes awhile.
GT: It seems like a great hub to come to if you're interested in government or what's happening in the public sector, to find out what's really happening on the ground. But have you run into any cases of bureaucracy holding back peoples' voices?
SR: I think people are self-regulating. You can see it in the topics people are talking about, a lot of softer issues. People aren't necessarily going in and saying, "I work on project X and we are behind schedule and our contractor is screwing us." I think that's where it gets into, on a public forum, can you really talk about your contractor? Can you talk about your project schedule being off base? I think that's inherent, people know that, so the discussions are around the different topics.
GT: Are you happy with the direction the site is going now?
SR: I'm pretty happy with the way it is now. There's a kind of balance. We're talking about Web 2.0 and the whole principle of Web 2.0 is being open, collaborative and creating. Those are things the government, historically, has not been good at. Government's risk averse, so why would they put all their stuff out in the open? They're not used to rapidly innovating. So it's a fine balance of government trying to learn to deal with Web 2.0.
GT: A lot of times in government, people wait for someone else to take first action. With GovLoop, can they now see that this stuff is going on and there aren't any negative consequences? Do you see the site as facilitating more openness and removing some barriers?
SR: I think it's a proof of concept. I now have examples of times where it has helped people in their jobs. And I think that's what people need. For example, the other day there was a National Institutes of Health human resources specialist. He was working on a cross-comparison analysis of what other HR firms were doing across the federal space and he was having a really hard time getting anyone from Homeland Security to give him a call back. So he posted on GovLoop and within an hour someone had fired a message to him, they talked, and he got the information he needed. Where else are you going to do that?
Another cool example is the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is doing a YouTube contest about [the potentially deadly gas] radon. It's one of those things where everyone submits a video and people vote. The one that wins gets a prize and their commercial across the nation.
GT: Many in government IT are worried about finding ways to get young workers to fill the retirement gap. GovLoop seems like it would be ideal for, say, a college student who might be interested in working for the government to talk to people in government and find out what it's like.
SR: I just posted a blog called The Unofficial Guide to Getting a Government Job. There are two main things with generational issues. The first is getting the younger generation interested in government. The second, more practical challenge, I get e-mails once every two weeks from
random people who want to work for the government, who've been applying online and can't get in. Their resumés are always impressive. There's never an issue about salary. The bureaucracy is just too much. So I see GovLoop as another vehicle to give them informal advice about what's really going on. The type of informal advice no one is giving you. On GovLoop, people are also posting job opportunities.
GT: I think, at an even more basic level, younger people perceive government to be out of touch. They think people in government don't do the things they do or share the same interests. But if you come to GovLoop, you see all these people in government who are just like you and maybe government isn't as out of touch as you thought.
SR: It's not a black hole. It's not a bunch of faceless people. I know what you look like, you know what I look like. We're normal people. I went to college like everyone else, I went to grad school. I go to the same bars and restaurants. I play the same fantasy football. It's not a faceless black hole. Some people think government is all a bunch of dumb people who went to bad schools. But it ranges, people of all educational backgrounds are doing interesting things.
GT: It looks like you modeled the site on some of the best features of sites like Facebook and Digg. Or did you design your own model?
SR: The first piece I thought was very important, that doesn't really exist for government, is good, social profiles that you can connect to see what others are doing. With Young Government Leaders, we had 2,000 members but you didn't know what everyone was doing, what they looked like. It was hard to contact them directly.
I like the idea of having blogs because there is a lot of good information out there in magazines like yours but there's no good, informal guidance. So I set up the blog feature so anyone can write a blog post. We have a senior fed who gives his wisdom. There's another one out in Washington. She works for the Forest Service and she has a lot of interesting ideas and thoughts. And anyone else can put up a blog or two and people can comment to get the discussion going.
Forums have been around awhile, but I still think they're valuable for people to pose questions and get quick responses.
The final piece I really like is the events feature. There's a bunch of Web sites that try to list all events. But for me it's always been hard to narrow down the good events. If there are 1,000, what are the 20 I really need to know about? I like the idea of the people who are adding the events are interested -- they're the innovators and they're putting up really good events.
GT: It sounds like this might be evolving into a sort of one-stop shop to learn what it's like to be in government.
SR: The hub description is exactly what my thought was. I tried to get GovHub, but that was already taken. It's a place to talk government. Whether you're federal, state, local; whether you're a grad student, professor, contractor, let's all get in and share information with each other.
Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.