A while ago I expressed my skepticism about the decision by the US General Services Administration (GSA) to launch its own collaboration platform, dubbed FedSpace. As reported by Federal Computer Week recently GSA has posted some updated project information on usa.gov, clarifying that the platform will be launched in phases, starting in the late summer of 2010.
The reason why I do not believe it’s a good idea is that internal collaboration platforms – irrespective of how good they are – are rarely people-centric. What I mean is that the value that people find in collaboration is based on their ability to decide who they want to collaborate and share information with (inside and outside their organization). Consumer platforms such as Facebook or LinkedIn have the desirable attribute of making their users establish and accept connections, join or administer user groups, set the privacy rules for those groups, in ways that fit their own preferences (although – admittedly – some of those platforms may be doing a better job at providing finer-grained and more effective privacy controls).
On the other hand, the benefits of an internal platform is that confidential or sensitive information can be shared securely. behind the firewall, and there is no doubt about the identities of those concerned.
There are at least three reasons why, in its current formulation, FedSpace may fall short of expectations.
First of all, it does not seem to allow seamless interaction with or any sort of effective bridge to consumer social media that several employees – almost always in their personal capacity – use quite extensively. I do have quite a few US federal employees as friends on Facebook or contacts in LinkedIn, and some of them have posted comments to my posts in Facebook rather than here.
Secondly, and related to this, FedSpace refers to an exclusive professional use. A sentence in the updated project information says:
FedSpace will provide a usable and accessible platform for accessing resources that Federal employees and contractors need to do their work better, faster, and more efficiently. FedSpace will be “social” in terms of people interacting with other people through the use of social technologies and tools to enhance professional communication and relationships, not “social” in terms of personal social networking. FedSpace will provide netiquette guidelines to help people understand the kinds of behavior that contribute to a collaborative virtual workplace, as opposed to behavior more suited to personal activities
This seems to negate the very essence of engagement and collaboration, where sustainable networking is based on blurring personal and professional relationships. I am not saying that people always need to get personal to make collaboration work. What I am saying is that in certain situations they may wish to engage more personally, to either take the heat off a conversation or establish greater mutual trust. Ruling our this possibility, while justified by compliance reasons, shows considerable shortsightedness on the dynamics of social networking.
Last but not least, there is already a vibrant community of government employees supported by GovLoop. The good thing about it is not that it has been around for a while and already has thousands of users, but that membership is open to people who are not federal employees (including officials from state & local and other countries, and people like myself). In a discussion about its relationships with Fedspace, it is quite clear that not many see the value added by FedSpace.
This being said, it is quite likely that FedSpace will be presented as a success story (so, yes, it will land safely and there will be flags and red carpets welcoming it). The number of users will grow quite rapidly, collaboration spaces will be set up and its supporters will be able to tick another box in the “Gov 2.0 Best Practices” examples.
In fact, FedSpace’s failure will be less visible but far more remarkable. It, will reside in the missed opportunity of blurring government boundaries (also with state and local, let alone professional vs personal), in the lack of empowerment of employees to choose who to collaborate with, in building an artificial wall between internal government information and data that millions of citizens and businesses are collecting, exchanging, rating, and would add great value to what government tries to accomplish.