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GovLoop: A Social Network for Public Servants

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, January 12 2009

Are you a local elected official looking for advice from your peers on how to make better use of web technologies to relate to your constituents? Or perhaps you're a government IT specialist looking for support in your battles with footdragging higher-ups? Maybe you're looking for perspective from within the system on how government entities are implementing web 2.0 strategies? Or perhaps you are a not-so-tech-obsessed young public-minded public servant who is simply looking for mutual support, across the often silo-ed and stultified world of government work?

You can find all of those things and more at GovLoop.com, an eight-month old social network created by Steve Ressler, a twenty-something federal employee living in Tampa, Flordia. Built on the free Ning.com platform, GovLoop has about 4,000 members at present, and is growing, Ressler says, at the rate of about 1,000 a month, almost entirely by word of mouth. The site is getting about 500 to 1,000 unique visitors a day, and about 150 thousand page views a month. Its members come mainly from all over the U.S., working in local, state and federal government jobs, but also include a smattering of good-government public interest types, academics and what Ressler refers to as "government contractors with good intentions." Plus there's an international contingent from English-speaking countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

I had a chat with Ressler late Friday afternoon, and he gave me a full rundown on how GovLoop came to be and where he hopes it will go. Here's a distilled version of our conversation:

I went to graduate school on a Homeland Security scholarship, graduated in 2004 and started working for the Feds then. I started organizing happy hours for young 'govvies', which led some of us to create a group called Young Government Leaders, which now has about 2000 members and holds social/professional events.

When I moved to Tampa and started telecommuting to my government job, I thought, wouldn't it be cool to continue these same kinds of conversations online: smart people sharing ideas and experience across siloes. Federal, state, local, not just young, not just core employees but also good contractors, plus good govt types interested in improving government but work all around it. There are lots of entry and midlevel folks who don't get all the buzz but often have the best ideas, especially in terms of implementing new technology.

Out of that vision grew GovLoop, which Ressler launched on Memorial Day by emailing his friends and reaching out to a few organizations. It grew slowly at first, but now seems to be hitting its stride, tapping into the civic 2.0 wave that seems to be rising around the country.

GovLoop enables people to connect outside normal channels. If Facebook is about your actual social network, this enables connections to other smart people you'd like to know.

For example, I'm implementing a wiki at work, on my day job, and I asked on GovLoop if anyone had guidelines for best practices. Most projects in government that you do, someone else in some other agency has done it already. The federal government is three million people, thought, and it's very hard to coordinate and share ideas.

Membership on the site is free, and Ressler isn't running or soliciting advertising. "It's literally a labor of love," he says, done in his off-hours. "It's all about improving government and sharing ideas to improve government. Getting four thousand people together yields value."

The blogs on the site set the tone. It's thought leadership from our members. Anywhere from 3-6 a day from them. Group forums are also very popular. Points are given out for participating on the site, how many blogs you post, how many people you invite.

People can put as much or as little info as they want. I do monitor accounts and if someone is acting inappropriately, I'll message the person and if they keep on violating, I can ban them. We had a few religious freaks posting rants who I had to ban.

I asked Ressler if GovLoop has a political slant or agenda, other than being a place where public service is obviously viewed in a positive light.

I've tried to walk a fine line re politics on the site. There's a 'left bank' group on the site, for example. And when you join, I ask people who is their favorite public servant. Tons have been putting Obama, which is interesting given that he just got elected. I did a poll including Colin Powell, David Walker of GSA, Obama, your favorite boss or colleague. 50% picked Obama. Obviously, many of our members generally lean left.

Is there a big goal? There's a lot of talk on the site about government 2.0, especially connecting with citizens to help improve government.

My feeling is: Let's start with people who are inside government, who may have the best ideas on how to improve it. If someone at one agency has been given the job of starting a blog to open up the agency to the public, they can tap others with experience from within. Too often, we rely on consultants and outsiders instead of our own. There's a lot of really interested, devoted people inside government who want to improve public service.

Ressler is also in the middle of pulling together an e-book called "I am Public Service." "We're gathering contributions from public servants on what they do and why. The image of public service so abysmal, but here's 44 stories for the 44th president..."

I love what Ressler is doing and plan on making GovLoop part of my regular web browsing--so much so, I've started a Personal Democracy Forum group on the site. If you are a GovLoop member and want to share news and insights on how technology is changing governance, I'm looking forward to hearing from you.