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Webinar: Building an Interactive Online Community Within Government

On Monday, December 13th, D.J. Caulfield and I participated in an online webinar presentation where we discussed our experiences in launching the interact.gsa.gov social media platform.  For those of you that were unable to attend, the facilitators of the webinar, Government Executive.com, will make a recorded version of the presentation available in their archives at http://www.govexec.com/events/

We are as much interested in learning from our federal peers as we were interested in communicating our lessons learned in building this community.  As you can see, the platform is in beta and we are striving to migrate meaningful business content to the platform as quickly as possible.  As we discussed in the webinar, the challenges now are in finding real and practical business questions that would benefit from our use of collaboration technology. 

We received a number of questions at the end of our webinar presentation that due to contraints of time we were unable to answer.  We promised everyone in attendance that we would be using this interact.gsa.gov platform to both answer the remaining questions as well as entertain thoughts, suggestions, and new questions related to our use of this collaboration platform to engage our stakeholders in multi-directional conversation.

 Below are the Questions we received and our best attempts to answer them:

Q. If you had to change something that you did in launching your social media platform, what would that be?
A. (Luis Medina) I would have allocated more of my time to building internal support so that when the application was ready to be launched, we would have had content available to allow for greater collaboration in addition to our "Getting Started" group.
Q. What do you believe are the greatest challenges to the federal government in implementing social media?
A. (Luis Medina) I believe that prevailing cultural impediments are the greatest obstacles.  As with many large organizations, implementing change is not only a matter of identifying logistics and operations that will support the change, but is also a matter of leveraging the greatest asset of an institution: the people who work within it.  Identifying the fears that concern the use of social media as well as aligning its use with a stated business value is the work that we are now engaged in to try and address these cultural impediments to our continued use of the technology.
Q. What knowledge, skills, and abilities do you believe need to be added to the skill set of federal employees and federal contractors that would assist in the use and adoption of social media?
A. (Luis Medina) I believe that we need to professionalize the series of digital media specialist within the government's personnel classification system.  I believe that the series might draw from a variety of disciplines such as social sciences, business, and technology.  I would like to see a greater use of social scientific research methodology so that professionals in digital media can develop effective measures of effectiveness. 
Q. How much do the survey responses differ by Department or Agency?
A. (Luis Medina)  We were using the survey result data made available by Market Connections.  In the report that we purchased, that level of detail was not available. 
Q. Also what are the differences based on demographics: e.g. age, grade, years in government.
A. (Luis Medina) As in the answer to the question above, the details of the report may best be learned from Market Connections, Inc.  We did communicate that 75% of the federal respondents to the questions related to their use of social media were over the age of 45.
Q. Blogs are currently blocked on federal networks. Will there be codifed instructions on use of Social Media sites for Federal Acquisition Services?
A. (Luis Medina) That is a very good point.  The way in which the use of social media has developed is that our peers within GSA in the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, assisted in the creation of negotiated Terms of Service agreements with certain commercial providers of social media technolgies.  See, the latest inforrmation at apps.gov and select social media apps from the menu bar.  I would also join the community at WebContent.gov and join the conversation about ways that we might codify or otherwise support agencies use of these technologies.
Q. I think I missed the name of the Social Media platform; could you repeat the name of it?
A. (Luis Medina) We are using Drupal Open Source.  The actual configuration of the technology is Drupal Commons, which is an aggregation of various modules developed by Drupal coding developers across the world that have been vetted (for security and operability) and combined to form this social media platform. 
Q. Why are there so few days between the time a bid is posted and the due date?
A. (Luis Medina) This question would best be answered by one of our contracting specialists.  I am going to refer you to our Multiple Awards Schedules Help Desk in the hope that they may be better able to answer your question.  MAS Helpdesk (National Customer Service Center) (800) 488-3111 mashelpdesk@gsa.gov
Q. Should DISA prevent access to these social tools how can we then have a paradigm shift?
A. (Luis Medina) Defense Information may be in a category all on its own.  Generally my thoughts are that not everything poses equivalent risk.  I would start with examining the type of information that is ordinarily shared publicly and then find ways in which collaboration or stakeholder feedback might help DISA improve its offering or make the communication more efficient.  As I have indicated to my fellow government professionals, sometimes it is possible to engage in a certain effort but it is not practical.  If we can identify the practical instances in which the technology might be used, we can try and allay the fears of those whose responsibility it is to safeguard information and/or prevent the government from coming to harm as a result of the use of this technology.
Q. In your experience, should social media within program or field agency offices be voluntary or mandatory? How do you go about training employees to use social media tools like Facebook or Twitter?
A. (Luis Medina) I believe that collaboration technology holds the promise to make us more effective in the way that we work. Supporting increased remote work (a.k.a. "Telework") across the government, reducing the need for meetings, and decreasing reliance on email (as three things that float to the top of my personal list).  That said, I would not support the use of Facebook or Twitter as official federal communication channels.  This opinion is due to technical and legal reasons that I will not bore everyone with in this answer, I would be happy to expand on my thoughts if people would like to hear them.  We have a developed online training course, but I suspect we will need to expand that training if/when adoption of the technology grows across our agency.
Q. In your experience with social media + Gov't so far, do you have any recommendations on social media sites or areas to pilot before implementing social media usage throughout an entire organization?
A. (Luis Medina) I would reference my answer above to the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).  Existing communication efforts and strategies may allow for "low-hanging fruit" ideas where the use of the technology will support existing collaboration or feedback efforts.  In our division of the agency, I have been attempting to gain traction for converting some of our agency's events whose purspose it is to glean feedback from our vendor partners to online collaboration events. This may allow greater participation, reduce travel, and support our efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of government operations.
Q. Have you had any successes to date?
A. (Luis Medina) As we indicated during the webinar, our major success was actually launching the collaboration platform.  There were various hurdles including most notably those included as part of the presentation, FISMA security & Privacy.
Q. What was the reference for mobile internet usage eclipsing desktop internet usage?
A. (Luis Medina) The article that D.J. cited was in December 2010 Government Technology print publication's Spectrum: Reports from the IT Horizon section which was citing "The Mobile Internet Report."  See, Morgan Stanley's Mobile Internet Report
Q. How can Learning Committees being incorporating interactive online social media in training?
A. (Luis Medina) I am not sure if I completely understand the question.  However, I will try a short answer and if I am off-base, perhaps we can clarify in the comments below this blog post.  Online training might be supplemented with social media tools by including feedback mechanisms as part of the training. Polling for example.  If we are talking, in-person training then we might incorporate the use of smart phones or text messages in the class where rather than proving handouts a one-pager can summarize the course and the entire course materials might be delivered via a QR code that points them (using their smartphone) to an electronic version of the document. 
Q. What's been the single biggest ojection you've faced to date from your internal customers?
A. (Luis Medina) Resources.  There is a lack of resources that are available to be used to support the interaction between us, the government, and our anticipated stakeholders.
Q. Is there really such a thing as Santa Clause?
A. (Luis Medina)  Yes Virginia, there truly is a Santa Clause.
Q. Can you name some best practices in using social media for recruitment?
A. (Luis Medina) This is an area that I have not personally participated in.  I would look at Linked In, Monster Jobs, and other recruiting/networking sites that allow for interaction between prospective employers and human resource officers.  I mention Linked In because I have heard anectdotally, that many H.R. professionals are referring to the information that a prospective employee makes available in this social network.  Similarly, I have heard that many applicants search the organization to try and get an idea of how happy existing employees might be at that organization.  I mention Monster, because there are remote phone apps, community support around building resumes, etc.  I would look at many of these existing practices and see which I can "borrow" that support my needs.  I always say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. 
Q. You presented a timeline for 2018, I think for mobile devices to surpass desktops. What is your timeline for implementing a mobile device for your current software and what devices are you targeting, i.e., Blackberry, Android, iPhone?
A. (Luis Medina) I believe that the arcticle that D.J. cited actually put the date at 2015. We are hoping to begin trying out some mobile device alternatives as soon as the beginning of the coming year.  We will most likely use existing communication collateral to cross promote other activities by allowing a user to scan the QR image code that then will point to other communication pieces such as a website, a video, or other related items.  We will be piloting while developing strategy and guidance in the spirit of innovation and operational excellence.
Q. Of your internal constituents where do you get the most resistance from the top or from the working level?
A. (Luis Medina) I would say that Middle Managers are probably in the most difficult position.  They often have several operational goals, existing business priorities, and are very busy.  This makes them less amenable to trying a new process or function.  Second, I would say that resistance is strong when there is a long-established process and employees are suspect of how a new "innovation" might translate to a learning challenge or greater work for them at the working level.
Q. What did it cost to set up interact.gsa.gov? What is the annual operating cost?
A. (Luis Medina) The cost will differ depending on the modifications and customizations that are required to meet your agency's requirements.  The open source code is free but there were employee resources and contractor resources dedicated to the project that were part of the operations staff in our digital marketing division. I will say that it is the intention of the team to keep costs low and when we ask for custom development we do so in a manner that will ensure that our developed module is shared back with the Drupal community so that anyone can use that module.  Similarly, our development is minimized because we will use existing free modules whenever possible. Therefore it is difficult to provide an estimated annual operating cost because the requirements are developed in response to business needs which will be determined when the business lines begin to use the application.
Q. Can we see a graph of the survey results?
A. (Luis Medina) I am assuming that you are asking for the results of the survey poll we conducted during our webinar?  If so, I will check with ON24, the facilitators to see if they can provide that to us.  If you are referring to the Market Connections, Inc. survey data we referenced in the first few slides of our presentation, the information is copyrighted by the company and we only received permission to share some of the findings as part of our presentation.  I would contact the company for more information.
Q. Was this developed entirely by government personnel? If not was there a bid process and how long did it take from the initial plan to get to the beta?
A. (Luis Medina) No. We collaborated with an existing BPA holder (contractor) to assist in the technical implementation.  Our agency CIO supports us with the server and security processes for the site.  It took us approximately 7 months to launch our beta site.  Most of the time was actually dedicated to solving the business related questions and FISMA.
Q. Regarding the poll question, clearly there is a strong selection bias of people who are taking the time to participate in this web presentation
A. (Luis Medina) Yes.  Very good point.  I actually had intended to point that out as well. But as you get older these thoughts are all too fleeting and I forgot to mention this fact.  I hope to add a survey to this site and allow people to participate who may not generally be in favor of social media.  I hope this will balance some of the bias in our sample.  That said, none of these are truly scientifically valid ad representative samples.  We hope to collaborate with our agency research division to plan such a statistically valid study in the future.
Q. What is the best way to introduce innovative social media technologies in an organization where it is not inherently used or understood?
A. (Luis Medina) It is always difficult to implement change.  We began with buy in from senior leaders and policy/guidance being issued for the agency.  We then tried to educate managers and employees.  We are right in the midst of continuing this education and outreach campaign.  I hope that when we have demonstrated business value through its use by others in our organization this will help others to feel more confident in trying the technology for themselves.
Q. are you aware that many federal agencies have blocked employee access to social media websites?
A. (Luis Medina) I have heard about some agencies' restrictions on access to social media.  I would suggest that the agency try a social media platform for internal communication and collaboration.  This is often less provocative than its use for external communication and collaboration.
Q. Not a question, but a comment: Unless your position supports the function of social media, the DoD (not sure about other agencies) does not allow social media on the clock. Reflective in the responses to your first polling question.
A. (Luis Medina) Thank you for your comment. See my answer to the similar point in the question above to see what might work if you were hoping to introduce social media within your organization given the restrictions.
Q. What was the definition of social media?
A. (Luis Medina) That is a very good question. Words have power.  I have heard this class of technology referred to as "Social Media" or "New Media" or "Collaboration Technology."  When I began working in this arena, I wrote a blog post that tried to differentiate social media from new media (the term that was being used at the time by the Obama administration).  New Media I postulated is the use of social networking tools and techniques to support and accomplish business priorities.  I have since become much more sloppy in my use of all of these terms to refer to that similar definition. 
Q. Is the government planning to post the GSA bids on multiple lines of online networking sites (i.e. having a "Linkedin Group" to post) in efforts to reach more possible bidders??
A. (Luis Medina) At this point there are no plans to change the various business electronic tools available to support the operations of the acquisition process.  There are many legitimate and necessary regulatory precautions and guidelines that must be adhered with in order to effect fair and equitable treatment.  We are hoping to find ways to use this new technology to supplement and whenever appropriate increase efficiencies in the federal government acquisition process.
Q. Did it take a long time to navigate the gatekeepers...CIO, Security etc? How long is long days? weeks? months?
A. (Luis Medina) Yes. I would say that it took approximately six months. 
Q. Are you hosting your site behind the agency firewall or on a cloud? How did you make that decision?
A. (Luis Medina) We are hosting the site behind the agency's firewall.  It was a requirement of launching an IT application within our agency. 
Q. What about the risks involved with "geodata" through uses of these social media?
A. (Luis Medina) I am not certain I understand the question.  I was discussing this question with D.J. and he thought possibly you might be referring to position location of the end user as a risk of a violation of privacy and security.  I would need to learn more about this risk in order to be better able to present my thoughts.  I welcome anyone to assist in educating me on this topic. 
Q. Thank you!! This has been a great forum, presentation, etc.!!! THANKS GSA!
A. (Luis Medina) Thank you for your comment.  We had a great time as well.
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