Blog post

Why It Is Too Late for a FedSpace

By Andrea Di Maio | May 03, 2010 | 17 Comments

social networks in government

It seems that the US General Services Administration is about to launch FedSpace, “a new Facebook-like social networking program for federal employees”.

On surface, it looks like a good idea. A safe space for federal government employees to discuss, be in touch, share experience, built on the earlier success of Intellipedia and A-Space in the Intelligence domain, and following in the tracks of SpaceBook by NASA (see previous post) as well  as GCPedia or GCConnex in Canada.

Good idea, but not great. While the desire for a safe and secure space is understandable, the problem is that one cannot draw boundaries for collaboration. Those who already use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, GovLoop and other mainstream social media platforms in government do enjoy the ability to determine who they want to be in touch and share information with. In some cases, these are people outside government (ex-colleagues, contractors, academics, activists, and so forth). Providing  employees with an internal collaboration space creates artificial boundaries to collaboration. Questions that will arise include: how can I import contacts from my other social media platforms? How can I create a group including contacts across different platforms? How can I mashup with data residing in external sites? and so forth.

This is yet another example of how governments try to bend government 2.0 to fit within their comfort zone. Unfortunately the train has already left the station long time ago. I’m sure that FedSpace will be moderately useful to improve inter-agency communication and knowledge sharing. But I’m also sure that it will be less valuable and more expensive than just focusing on making sure that employees use wisely and productively consumer platforms that they – as well as their constituents and partners  – already use anyhow.

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  • Dave Briggs says:

    You’re right that this is unlikely to work. Attempts in the UK to run civil service only social spaces haven’t really taken off, instead informal online networks seem to work much better.

    The one exception to this would be the communities of practice network – which is aimed at, but not restricted to, local government. The fact that non-public servants can sign up and contribute has ensured that usage has been high, despite a slightly clunky user interface.

  • I’m not sure why I keep disagreeing with you Andrea – it’s not on purpose. Here’s my take:

    1) I think a Fed-wide social network would be great. I’ve been using milBook as a part of our work with the Army and it’s a really great platform with a lot of interaction.

    2) Federal agencies are already wisely and effectively using commercial social media sites. In some cases, they’re using them more wisely and effectively than our Fortune 500 clients!

    3) Artificial boundaries to collaboration already exist in the commercial sector! In answer to your questions let’s use Facebook as an example:

    How can I import contacts from my other social media platforms?

    In Facebook you can’t. You can import email addresses and I’m sure a FedSpace platform will let you do that too.

    How can I create a group including contacts across different platforms?

    In Facebook you can’t. We can’t expect the Feds do OUT Facebook Facebook! Why hold them to an even higher standard?

    How can I mashup with data residing in external sites? and so forth.

    In Facebook you…sort of can…if you count importing a Twitter stream or RSS feed INTO Facebook.

    I think you’re placing unreal expectations on this platform. Let the Feds network and collaborate and they’ll build a better government for and with us.

  • @Peter – No problem at all, disagreement is a healthy part of the dialogue that makes blogging worthwhile.

    Let me clarify though that I was not trying to suggest that Facebook is better than FedSpace or any other platform. Its only advantage (which applies to other mainstream social media platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter) is that it is there already.

    If I take your points one by one:

    – Importing contacts: what I meant is that if an employee has already created contacts in another platform, he or she may prefer to stay there. The problem of importing is one for FedSpace if it aimed at replacing the blurred professional/personal use of Facebook and other consumer tools

    – Creating groups: same thing. If I have created or joined a vibrant comunity in linkedin that addresses unemployment issues, and I am a human services case worker dealing with unemployment, I’d rather grow that community rather than create a new one.

    – Mashups. We reckon tha in a few years the ability to use externally generated information will be as important as – if not more than – using government own information. So the point is: how do I integrate stuff in FedSpace with stuff in external communities?

    The whole problem is that FedSpace, for how useful it can be for internal collaboration, created an insurmountable obstacle to blur the boundaries between internal and external. for some jobs that will be fine, but for others , where reaching out and gathering external knowledge is more important than chatting with a colleague in another agency, that may not be the case.

    As far as your other points:
    – the public sector is – indeed – public, and principles like transparency and participation, if taken at face value, go muh deeper that they would in a corporation.
    – the use you mention of social media site is the “institutional” one: Facebook pages with an agency logo or tweets that just mimic a normal RSS feed from their web site. Not hugely successful so far, I would say.

    Of course I also appreciate that, from a vendor perspective, the idea that governments leverage consumer tools and not spend in enterprise social software solutions is not so attractive, so I expect that they won’t supportive of this view. But, just to be clear, I do not mean to be black and white here. My suggestion is to leverage and exploit existing platforms that have already been uptaken by employees and see how far one can go before needing an own platform, which requirements will be much clearer by then.

  • @Dave – I love your point about “Communities of Practice”. Even there, though, whether a specific tool or an existing consumer platform is the best choice remain to be demonstrated

  • Whenever I attend meetings with state, local, and federal agencies like Interior or Agriculture I get a real sense of how spoiled the defense and intelligence communities are regarding budget and tools. The Department of Defense and the US Intelligence Community’s “solution pollution” is fueled by fragmented acquisition but also by the fact that DoD/IC can afford to acquire or build almost anything. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency doesn’t have the IT budget to purchase, build, and maintain 200 “solutions” in the name of “unique” mission.

    I’m glad folks have looked to Intellipedia and A-Space as exemplars, but having every tool under the sun and contract support tail to do almost anything is not universal across many enterprises of any kind. Also, an enterprise is not the entire internet and all mobile devices on earth. I think we need to be fair here.

    FedSpace will be perfect for providing a secure “official” space for interaction in wikis and enhanced by social networking functions for smaller agencies that don’t have these tools or endless budgets. I don’t think the the Bureau of Indians Affairs can pick between in-house systems similar to Intellipedia, A-Space, Sharepoint, milbook, etc. nor could they afford this type of overlap. Leveraging a “center” like GSA to host these types of tools makes sense for entities like the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

    Working out on the public internet is an option in many cases and the “terminally unique” argument for making more behind-the-firewall tools that mimic public ones is tiresome. However, Facebook, for example, is not accredited to process “for official use only” data. The over-application of this stamp is a whole other topic.

  • Daniel H says:

    It seems like there’s a question here about the maturity of these social networks, and the usefulness they might offer. A user has to weigh the added benefit of this new network with the high barriers to creating a new community inside it. Feds that are considering joining FedSpace are asking themselves whether this new platform offers something the others don’t. I think this is yet to be seen, though some of those cases from other countries offer some lessons (both positive and negative, to be fair). I’d love to have been in the room when they were discussing what problems this would presumably solve…

  • Nick Charney says:

    Andrea – the more I think about it the more inclined I am to agree that we should be focusing on teaching people to use third party networks in an appropriate matter. Especially when we consider population distribution, participation rates (think 90-9-1), and licensing fees (again think 90-9-1).

    Just as a heads up, it is “GCconnex”.


  • Kelcy says:

    The problem I continue to see is that everyone in the federal government wants their own social space with their own logos and branding. Creating a collaborative space is about cultural change not about building a technology (“and they will come”). There have been plenty of lessons learned about what worked and what is not really working within a number of USG organizations (especially the IC and DoD). Wouldn’t it have made more sense to test a number of pilots in various frameworks to link together external commercial and internal government applications already available and spend money on the glue needed to link them together than to build a whole new space? Despite seeing them in action for the past 3-5 years, people still have little understanding how to pull together a number of social media applications into their work flow effectively. But instead of progress, we get one more stovepiped application that may work indifferently for a few small agencies but miss the potential.

  • Kelcy says:

    Just a reminder about the paper that Mark Drapeau and Lin Wells did on social software and national security where they defined a framework for federal government social sharing which includes both external and internal functions. This should be a foundation for thinking about any creating any “FedSpace” – don’t just build the technology, but think about the problem and experiment with possible solutions. People are hard to change. Standing up glitzy software or buzzwords is just not the answer. (document link in blog; original NDU link seems to be changed).

  • @Nick – Thanks for the heads up, corrected in the post

  • @Chris – Of course if you look at it from a small agency perspective, it does make a lot of sense and – if the experience with ideaScale taught us anything – it is going to be used by larger agencies too. However I would argue that before going there one should have a clearer appreciation of how much can be accomplished with existing external platforms and focus the funcionality of something like FedSpace to cover the “official use only”.
    Further, meeting clients in the federal space as well as at state and local level, I am not sure they fully realize how pervasive the personal use of these consumer platforms is.

  • @Kelcy – I like your point about glueing frameworks and pilots. Most of this is a discovery and committing to enterprise tools may be premature. This being said, I am pretty sure that our friends at GSA will play the “open source” card as they did for IdeaScale. It is a good thing if it is cheap, but it is even better if it gets really used: I suspect that competition with FB, Twitter and the likes will be tough anyhow.

  • Emma Antunes says:


    Always good to get your perspective, so thank you. FedSpace is very new. and more information and opportunities for input are forthcoming, but I thought in the interim, it would be helpful to provide some additional information. FedSpace will be a professional collaboration space for Federal staff and contractors…many of whom don’t have access to secure, accessible, compliant collaboration tools to work across government. FedSpace will use the collaboration work/tools that some agencies have developed for internal purposes and fill gaps to provide these and other resources for interagency use. Intellipedia, Spacebook, Diplopedia, and other agency-specific internal spaces have proven to be highly valuable by increasing collaboration, nurturing innovation, increasing knowledge, and reducing redundancies. Similarly, there are many examples of how large-scale collaboration tools can and do work well internally in corporate settings. Jakob Niesen’s case study “Enterprise 2.0: Social Software on Intranets” cites industry leaders from IBM to Sprint who have found success in social intranets that were completely internal.

    The potential benefit of combining the best ideas, processes, and lessons learned from more than two dozen Federal agencies in policy, human relations, software development, and subject-matter specific areas is immense, and optimizing the talent of the Federal workforce is critical to accelerating efficiencies and effectiveness in government. By working with our government colleagues (and for profit and nonprofit organizations) that have demonstrated value in hosting internal collaboration spaces, we expect FedSpace will help provide the tools and platform for quality collaboration across government.

    Thanks for covering this. We appreciate and welcome any and all ideas for making FedSpace a usable and useful space.

    FedSpace Team

  • I wrote on GovLoop a blog post describing why I think FedSpace has a lot of value and 5 ideas I have for FedSpace.

    Generally, I think there is room for both formal and informal networks. I think the key for both is to focus on their strengths – there is need for formal networks for things that GovLoop and places like Facebook can not do – share procurement sensitive and FOUO information – for example sample Statements of Work that can be used across government. And there is room for informal networks that can do other pieces – easily collaborate across boundaries, move and iterate fast w/out bureaucracy, and offer different tone and cultures of collaboration.

    And the overall trick, I think for social network and E2.0 projects is that there needs to be a real emphasis on community building and management. It’s really a culture and community building problem, not a technology problem, and that’s the special sauce that we spend a lot of time and effort on in the GovLoop end.

    Steve Ressler

  • @Emma – Thanks a lot for reading my blog and providing your viewpoint.

    I am aware of the successful deployment of enterprise social software tools in many organizations, including government. However it seems to me that there are few important considerations to take into accounts while developing and deploying a government-wide solution like FedSpace:

    (1) unlike in most of the early (and sometime a bit trite) examples of successful deployments of internal tools (such as Diplopedia, A-Space and the likes), today the penetration of consumer tools in the governmemt workforce is much higher. I have witnessed several cases where clients just came too late to the party and complain that their enterprise solutions were underutilized for this very reason.

    (2) the success of an enterprise social software platform is determined by how valuable it is for its users. While there are certainly many cases where collaboration across federal agencies makes sense, I would argue that quite often collaboration around specific policy and business objectives implies the need to engage more external people and entities (clients, suppliers, advocacy groups, intermediaries) than people inside government. This is where my earlier point about the ability to build networks that fit individual employees’ goals kicks in. It is great to be able to engage contractors, but they are not the only ones.

    Let me give you a concrete example. If an employee in an agency is looking for advice about how to solve a new problem, he or she may need to tap into: (1) another colleague in the same agency, (2) a colleague in another agnecy, (3) a colleague in another tier of government (state/local), (4) a contractor, or (5) a citizen community. A platform like FedSpace would certainly support (1) and (2) (unless of course the agency is already using a different tool), may support (3) (although I do not know whether state & local would or could use it), would engage (4), but would not be able to reach out to (5). My point is that, depending on the employee and the nature of the problem to be solved, the balance of these five elements could be very different.
    To some extent, isn’t this what the DoD does by distinguishing Techipedia (as an internal tool) and (to engage a community that is potentially broader than its own contractors)?

    I am sure we all agree on the fact that different platforms serve different purposes. My only contention, and one of my research positions for quite some time now, is that the more seamless the integration, the greater the value. Today, it happens that the only platforms that “could” seamlessly integrate those five constituencies are consumer tools.

    Of course I realize that issues like public record and retention policies do limit the use of these tools. But using private and closed groups for stuff that cannot take place in the open would be a good starting point.

    I will be following FedSpace developments with great interest, and wish you and your colleagues the best success.

  • Jon Verville says:

    I am very excited about the conversation that has developed on this blog.

    I believe that the real Gov 2.0 web “killer app” will be when those within the government a given a platform on which they can take the material “inside the firewall” and push it out to public in a controlled manner with a workflow as needed.

    This will allow the collaborative development and curation of information and knowledge and then have a baked-in mechanism by which the content can be freed from the silo and made available for broader consumption.

    This concept of collaborative curation with a integrated plan for spinning the information out could be one emerging tipping point of many for opening up government.

    Jon Verville
    AETD Engineering Wiki
    NASA Goddard

  • Kitty Wooley says:

    Is the biggest need for another platform, or for:

    • Presentation to each agency’s senior leadership of the huge solution potential of Gov 2.0 interactivity – and enlistment of executive support for –

    o Knowledge transfer that can mitigate the impact of workforce turnover
    o Conversation, informal teaming, and formal collaboration on critical issues that cross intra- and interagency boundaries
    o Skills-building that employees can then leverage to improve service to citizens and

    • Getting employees to use the available platform routinely after signup?

    With all due respect to GSA, I ask this because there already is a robust platform that connects people, projects, and information across the federal enterprise: the MAX Federal Community. Substantial work is occurring there now. For example, in the past 24 hours, meeting minutes, drafts, and comments on a wide variety of subjects have been posted in 8 communities (Acquisition, Budget, E-gov, Financial Management, Grants, Human Capital, Open & Innovative Government, and Small Agency Community) and 2 agency spaces. As a taxpayer, I prefer to see us fully leverage its capacity before additional capacity is designed and developed, since 32 agencies have made substantial investments in several successful initiatives that it supports. That investment is detailed on pp. 32-34 in

    However, similarly to GovLoop – a similarly sized, successful global community of mostly government, employees, a small proportion of MAX’s 30,000 users is doing most of the talking and posting. To me this says that the current Gov 2.0 challenge, as with Open Government, is mainly about changing habits and culture, rather than technological. The collaborative conversation that government as a whole should be having across agencies and sectors, through layers of government. and with citizens, has to be integrated with agency business processes and anchored in employee performance plans.

    In short, I think GSA should explain the business case for FedSpace in a much more disciplined way – addressing the above – before an additional “FedSpace” is implemented.