Applying social software to digital diplomacy at the U.S. State Department

Richard BolyHow do you move from a culture of “need to know” to a culture of “need to share?” Richard Boly thinks about the answer to that question every day. Boly, a speaker at next week’s Gov 2.0 Expo, is the director of the Office of eDiplomacy at the State Department. His office is an applied technology think tank within the agency that’s focused on improving the agency’s communication and knowledge sharing.

Boly is responsible for overseeing Virtual Presence Posts (VPPs), enterprise search, classified web publishing, and social networking, including the development of “StateBook.” He recently spoke with me about all of these initiatives, as well as the cultural challenges of integrating social software into a large, distributed enterprise.

Given the online reach of people like Jared Cohen, Katie Stanton and Alec J. Ross, the U.S. State Department has already accumulated social media credibility. When coupled with the State Department’s YouTube channel, official “Dipnote” blog , Facebook page, Flickr account, Second Life hub and RSS feeds, someone assessing “Government 2.0” success at the oldest executive agency in the United States might miss the importance of how social software is changing the way things work behind the firewall. Consider these numbers:

  • Diplopedia, the State Department’s enterprise wiki, has more than 11,000 articles, which are viewed by employees more than 35,000 times every week.
  • Communities @ State includes 64 online communities, with 20 more on the way. State Department workers have posted more than 32,000 entries and comments to these blogs.
  • The Secretary’s Sounding Board, an idea generation platform, has suggestions for improving the Department from nearly 1,000 workers, including more than 6,000 comments.

What’s happening with the State Department’s eDiplomacy initiatives?

“The interesting thing about all of the products, services and tools that eDiplomacy has developed or helped develop is that none of them are required reading,” said Boly. “These are tools where, if they don’t add value, people can walk away from them. Nobody’s mandating they be used.”

Increasingly, said Boly, Diplopedia is the first place people go in the State Department when they just want some information. “People know that if it can be updated, it’s more likely to be up-to-date,” he said. “It’s a place where you can take individual articles and aggregate them into a very useful portal.”

Adding “Virtual Presence Posts”

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010Boly pointed out that more than 200 cities with 1-million-plus inhabitants don’t have a physical U.S. diplomatic presence. How can the agency target them? “We started with Virtual Presence Posts, which were a way to have an outreach strategy for physical cities,” he said.

“More recently, these Virtual Presence Posts are targeted toward demographic groups, so Mayan speakers in Central America or university students in Sweden. They started with kind of a ‘Web 1.0’ approach, where the embassies would develop their own websites and try to attract the geographic group to that site. Increasingly, what we’ve done is move to a 2.0 approach. We find the networks where these people are already engaging and engage them there. These new Virtual Presence Posts are focusing on meeting and engaging with groups in Facebook — or the local equivalent — and engaging communities there. We’ve found it to be much more dynamic and useful.” [Emphasis added.]

Implementing internal digital collaboration tools

Communities at State are “blog-based,” said Boly, and they’re organized around commonalities in background, job function or geographic. “Maybe I’m a former Peace Corps volunteer and I want to be able to network with other former Peace Corps volunteers at the State Department,” said Boly. “Or I came through the Presidential Management Fellowship Program and I want to be able to network with the other PMFs at State. Or maybe I’m interested in tracking the impact of Chinese foreign aid to Africa. In the old days — pre-communities — that discussion would be restricted to the people who were in the silo where that information was being managed.”

Breaking down information silos within the government has been a long-term goal, whether it’s using Intellipedia, Spacebook or similar efforts. “If you were a desk officer for an African country, or you worked on China issues, or you worked in development issues, there may be a small area where all of those people would intersect and could have a space where they would share information,” said Boly. “Often, that would be locked up in emails, phone conversations and in people’s heads. There would be no way to enter the conversation midstream and catch up.”

Consider the scenario of a new desk officer, suggested Boly. “Typically, foreign service officers turn over every couple of years. A new desk officer may be on their third or fourth tour. They could be coming to Washington, potentially for the first time, trying to figure out how the State Department works. In an organization where there’s turnover every couple of years, I think institutional memory is easily lost.”

One way to keep that memory fresh and aggregated is a “Deskopedia,” said Boly. “It’s a portal containing all of the issues and practical tools that somebody would need to be a good desk officer.”

A “Virtual Student Foreign Service”

One of the new projects that the State Department has been working on is the Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS), which Secretary Hillary Clinton announced in May 2009 during her NYU commencement speech (embedded below).

In the first iteration of VSFS, students who participated had been interns at the State Department or at an overseas embassy. That means that they had already been cleared. “We knew who they were. It raised the confidence level of the entire State Department,” Boly said. “The vision is to expand that much more broadly to students who have not had a prior experience with the State Department.”

Boly wants to extend the program to students for whom diplomacy and the State Department isn’t a natural part of their reality. “Frankly, if a student has to work during the summer and can’t afford to take an internship, they may not be given that opportunity,” said Boly. “This is a way to reach out to a demographic and to geographies, reaching kids going to school in rural universities that may not be able to have that opportunity otherwise.”

The Office of eDiplomacy is considering focusing the efforts of students on particular projects or events, in a pyramid of stepped or scaled interactions. “At the highest, most intense level, you would have a student or a group of students who would be paired with a university on a specific project, something like the digitization of Iraq’s National History Museum,” said Boly. “But you could also envision where you would have a whole group of students swarm around a specific event.”

Take the Pittsburgh Summit, which happened in the fall, suggests Boly. “You could have students who are focusing on economic issues increase the frequency of their activities in the weeks leading up to the summit. They could do a ton of work a couple of days around the summit and then tail off. Student who couldn’t devote a full semester or a full academic year could collaborate and swarm around a high-level event that could benefit from a lot of students participating.”

Another tier could be an adapted version of crowdsourcing, said Boly. “It might be an approach like Mechanical Turk. An equivalent could be an embassy with a specific task that needs to be done quickly. At the end of the day, you throw the thing up. By the next day, you could have a few good answers. Students could be given points based on the quality of those answers, with a ranking based on point totals. At the end of the year, the top ranked students get some special recognition.”

This kind of tiered system could allow people to calibrate their participation, said Boly. “We could have tens of thousands of students having a meaningful relationship with the State Department. That’s a longer-term vision. We’re still at 1.0 or maybe even 0.1. But that’s a vision we would like to achieve.”

In March, Boly spoke at the Policy Making in the Digital Age conference. His presentation is embedded below:

Boly will be discussing government transparency at next week’s Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington, D.C.