colab, nasa, reinventing government, second life

How Online Organizing in ’04 and ’08 Can Improve our Federal Government in ’09

Recently I was asked to reflect on how the lessons of online organizing by those of us who worked in the 2004 Presidential campaign have impacted not only the 2008 Presidential campaign (in which Dean ’04 and Clark ’04 veterans teamed up to create Blue State Digital, the technology backbone of Obama’s online operation), but also the Federal Government, over the past four years.

Many 2004 veterans have been working in the realm of making government more open in order to enable watchdog oversight of it. I have been working more in the realm of trying to make government more efficient and effective through technologies and organizing techniques that promote openness. I’m personally mostly focused on the cultural and policy side of things– trying to get people inside NASA used to being more open and sharing by default rather than only when explicitly forced to. There is also a great deal of work being done by reformers in the CIO’s offices and elsewhere on the communications technology side of NASA’s operations. They’re working on open APIs, open-source licenses, etc. I’ve told a bit of this story, in the context of NASA, in several presentations over the past year. Here below I’ve attempted to break down the problems, implications and solutions I see in a more structured format, again using examples we have encountered at NASA.

Note that none of these observations below are specific to NASA… They apply to any large government bureaucracy, and we are working with our change agent peers in other Agencies as well. We simply have the luxury/curse at NASA of a high-profile brand and significant public interest and goodwill to use as a lever for this change.

I. INTERNAL COMMUNICATION / COLLABORATION IS INEFFICIENT:

EXAMPLE:

  • no internal searchable database of people, projects, skills and technology assets

IMPACTS:

  • internal inefficiency and redundancy; internal competition for resources and a culture of sequestering information because having information that no one else has is perceived as having power

SOLUTIONS:

  • reforming human resources policy to permit and encourage more open communication (internally and externally) and bottom-up innovation, and reforming management structure to create a more flat more networked organization
  • foster cultural change, including renovating NASA’s physical plant to create inspiring workspaces that foster openness and collaboration
  • creation and implementation of systems to capture knowledge and make it searchable

II. EXTERNAL COMMUNICATION IS CONTROLLED, CENSORED, AND UNIDIRECTIONAL

EXAMPLES:

  • slides for any Powerpoint presentation to be given to a public conference are supposed to be submitted for review well in advance to make sure that no sensitive information is included in them, rendering it onerous to speak openly or to include recently updated information
  • policies for NASA employees to spend their own time working on other projects, communicating through social media about their ideas and work, etc. are restrictive and at best fuzzy, and the burden of proof rests on the employee to prove WHY they should be able to communicate with the public, rather than the burden of proof resting on the Agency to prove why not
  • NASA.gov reaches millions but is all processed edited moderated content; very difficult to mash this content up and re-share it, and no opportunity for user-generated content either from the public or from a broader array of NASA employees than just authorized Web Content Managers.

IMPACTS:

  • less public interest and awareness and inspiration and educational benefit than otherwise possible, because content consumption is passive
  • NASA unable to benefit from the innovation and work cycle leverage that could result from leveraging the goodwill, technical skills, time and creativity of members of the general public, and entrepreneurial private sector
  • NASA has difficulty attracting and retaining talent that is used to working in a more open environment in the private sector

SOLUTIONS:

  • agency-wide deployment of the Web 2.0 communication tools, communications policies, and processes used by the world’s leading private technology enterprise
  • build communities and create formal processes to leverage the time and skill of these communities for practical benefit to NASA
  • highlight and build on the few examples of successful crowdsourcing at NASA
  • create sustainable professional relationships between NASA and non-NASA personnel that shift NASA’s internal culture through co-working and open-space format events
  • shifting the budget and skillset of NASA Strategic Communications staff to focus on encouraging, training and supporting non-StratCom staff in their public communications role, including hiring staff with corporate blogging and online organizing skills
  • set communications policy that mandates open publication of all internal Agency communications such as meeting minutes, absent demonstrable and internally verified need to maintain confidentiality; shift the burden of proof from the need to show that information is “safe” to publish, to the need to show the information “is not safe” to publish.

III. KNOWLEDGE, DATA, AND IP CANNOT EASILY BE SHARED

EXAMPLES:

  • NASA hires contractors to write code and doesn’t mandate that is be open-source and often doesn’t even acquire the rights to modify, repurpose, or release that code
  • IP created within NASA is unknown and unsearchable internally, let alone externally, and it is extremely labor intensive and relationship-dependent for internal business development staff to collect data, identify IP licensing opportunities, and execute those licenses
  • petabytes of data collected by NASA that is legally in the public domain is extremely difficult to find, search, interpret, and share, due to slow data processing and archiving and limited APIs

IMPACTS:

  • the inability to get more eyes on code eliminates an opportunity to reduce the likelihood of failures such as the Mars Climate Orbiter explosion
  • NASA pays more $ for code to be written by contractors than it would have to if it leveraged existing open-source projects (including its own)
  • NASA returns less value to the taxpayers because IP assets aren’t easily licensed or contributed to the public domain where they could yield ancillary benefit to society

SOLUTIONS:

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co-working, presentations

How collaborative work is changing how companies engage with their customers, staff, partners, and community…

From my writeup about my panel at the upcoming PSFK Conference in New York:

“Collaborative co-working is putting more people on the creative “edges” of workgroups by fostering informal but vocationally relevant peer to peer interaction across boundaries of bureaucracy, organization, and in the case of NASA with Second Life, physical geography. Cultural cross-pollination results, making organizations more contextually aware, nimble, and responsive. It’s Biz Stone’s (Twitter founder) “crushed ice theory” at work– with more surface area, the crushed ice melts faster. Co-working exposes more surface area within an organization, melting bureaucracy away and generating creative juice from the meltwater.”

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