General Technology, Government, Innovation, Social Computing

Does social computing have a role in government?

As of early 2013, there are over a billion active monthly users of Facebook and almost 700 million daily users. People from across the world use this social network to share and exchange stories, pictures, ideas, and more. These numbers suggest a compelling platform that is engaging humanity in a manner without precedent. Facebook and its competitors have convincingly demonstrated that people will share and collaborate with each other, and with strangers, in an inclusive manner not just for fun, but to make things happen. And yet, when most of the working population of those users goes to their places of employment, they use technologies that reinforce barriers to collaboration. Email—albeit an important business technology—primarily facilitates sequential and non-inclusive collaboration. Up until recently, the merits of social networking has had the hardest time successfully penetrating the enterprise.

The tide is turning. Today, an increasing number of organizations are exploring, experimenting, and deploying social collaboration tools. They are becoming social enterprises. Why the change? It may be because of better solutions or more leadership support or greater recognition of its potential value. Perhaps it is a mix of all these things and more. But without a doubt, workers rising through the ranks today are more apt to try social networking in the enterprise. They have already accepted and blended the use of technology in their work and home lives.

With enterprise collaboration in the private sector just entering the early majority phase of the technology adoption curve, where does that leave the public sector? As one would imagine, there are only a few innovative agencies that have taken the leap to build a social enterprise. Most notably the City of Boston and the State of Colorado have been pushing the envelope. With the recent deployment of a social collaboration platform citywide, we can now count the City of Palo Alto as one of those innovators.

City Manager Creates the Business Case
It all began in March 2012, when City Manager Jim Keene approached me and asked if there was a way for him to more easily communicate and engage with all City staff. There’s nothing I like better than a tough challenge to solve and this one met that criteria. We sought to keep costs as low as possible and at the same time to try to find a solution that was truly cutting edge. I also wanted to go beyond the original request and find a way not just for the City Manager to engage with staff, but for all staff to be able to connect more easily with each other, to share ideas and documents, and to solve problems together. If we could do that and more, we could create an agency that would have improved access to timely information and a platform to solve problems more quickly. This, we surmised, would have a very positive impact on the services we provided to the community.

At the City of Palo Alto we have the responsibility and privilege to be a role model in how a public agency should use innovative technology to serve a community. As an example, last year we deployed an award-winning open data service. We didn’t just repeat the work of others; we applied new ideas and innovation to our solution. We know other agencies look closely at what we do as guidance for them. So rather than going down the well-trodden path, we often want to chart new territory. Of course, this strategy has implicit risks, but we don’t apply it to everything. It’s a deliberate and balanced approach for the right, qualifying projects.

The City Begins an Experiment
In April 2012, after extensive research, and the application of some of my own personal work experience in this area, my team and I decided to deploy a small, short-term experiment with Salesforce Chatter. While several impressive solutions met the basic requirements, Chatter was compelling because it was closely modeled after Facebook. It was also exceptionally low cost, and being a software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution, it was easy to deploy.

My expectation was that we would run the experiment for about three months and we would have around 50 early adopters. To my surprise many more people wanted to try it out. So the number of users grew very quickly. I then learned something important. With only a few months to try it, most users found this a deterrent since it seemed that it wasn’t worth the effort for the short amount of time it would be available. So I quickly made the decision to extend the experiment through the fall. In no time at all we had over a hundred users. Most were just viewers, with just a handful of staff brave enough to post items. Staff posted pictures and created groups. One particular group was used as a place to encourage members to eat healthier and do more exercise. Another group was for sharing tips and tricks for smartphones and tablet computers. These were not earth-shattering collaborations, but they showed the promise of collaboration in a manner that previously did not exist.

I personally committed to posting and commenting—common features of a social network—and I encouraged the IT team to follow my lead. By the time we were reaching the end of the experimental period, it just seemed too premature to end it. More people were joining and there were good discussions about social networking happening at the organization. In late fall of 2012, we had over 200 people signed up. Again I decided to extend the experiment until early in the New Year. At that point, we committed to making a decision whether to deploy it citywide or shut it down.

The Decision to Deploy Citywide
When my team and I reviewed the metrics in early 2013, the data was not overwhelmingly conclusive, but it was sufficiently persuasive to make a decision. In conjunction with our City leadership team and the City Manager, it was agreed to deploy Chatter citywide for a period of up to 18-months.

On March 1, 2013, almost a year after we started to think about social collaboration at the City, we invited all staff to participate. So far, so good. Lots of curiosity and great questions. It’s far too early to know if we are on a course to change the nature of work at the City. We’ll gather that evidence over the medium-term. But we’re doing things differently and opening our minds to a whole new world. We don’t want to play catch-up, we want to lead. It’s beginning to be clear who gets it and who is still trying to figure it out. Of course, we have plenty of people who don’t get it at all and are not shy to share their view that it doesn’t seem to offer them any value. But isn’t that one of the greatest challenges of innovation? Those of us tasked with anticipating a possible future, even when we have little idea what that future will bring must push forward with our ideas despite enormous pressure from the naysayers and antagonists. If there is success, everyone wins. If there is failure, we learn something and then we apply those lessons as we move forward with other innovative experimentation.

In 2004, nobody thought about Facebook. Nobody knew they would want it or even what value it could have in their lives. Less than 10 years later, Facebook–a social network–is one of the most remarkable phenomena of our time and a billion people discovered a new, fun and productive way to interact together.

Can we do the same at City Hall?

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