The government is notorious for bureaucracy. Even simple articles and briefs often take government agencies months to write, when they should take no more than a few days. This problem pervades the federal government.
Most agencies are trying to provide 2008 information services using only tools from the 1970's or earlier:
Circulating drafts for review and comment
Emailing or conference calling
While these methods are very useful, they do not take advantage of the collaborative possibilities of the Internet. By contrast, Wikipedia is the seminal example of those possibilities.
Over 6 million people contribute to Wikipedia. They write and edit 9 million articles together without scheduling meetings, trading emails, or holding conference calls. Articles start small and grow organically into authoritative pieces. According to Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, it is good collaboration that makes the content good on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia has features that allow contributors to quickly collaborate well:
A single working copy anyone can edit
A forum to discuss controversial issues
The ability for anyone to revert to previous versions of articles
Email alerts to "watch" articles
The option to "lock" articles so changes require approval
Wikis receive criticism for their occasional vandalism, but this should be kept in perspective.
"Imagine that you are going to design a restaurant. So you think to yourself we are going to be serving steak. And since we'll be serving steak, the customers will have access to knives. And when people have access to knives, they might stab each other, so to design our restaurant we are going to put everybody inside a cage.
Well, this makes a bad society. That is not the kind of open society we want to live in. But unfortunately when people are engaging in web design, this is often exactly the kind of thinking that they have. They think of all of the bad things that people might do, and design everything around those worst case scenarios rather than saying, "Let's keep things as open as we can and wait until we see the bad behavior and then think about what to do about it."
Wales is right; this is a prevalent attitude toward wikis in the government. But thankfully, internal wikis have already changed the way some government agencies do business.
Intellipedia is a successful collaboration of intelligence agencies. It has become a useful knowledge base and method to share classified intelligence between analysts. Many believe it has already saved American lives.
Other government groups that use internal wikis to streamline creating technical information, managing projects, or updating their websites include:
Increasingly more agencies are exploring internal wikis, but change is still slow. I see agencies that want to implement wikis limited by a lack of expertise, internal support, or confidence that there will be a return on investment.
To overcome this, agencies need to share their successes more.
Agencies need to publish and tout information about their internal wikis. If intelligence agencies can brag about Intellipedia, then the GAO can showcase its project management wiki! And the Museum of the American Indian should continue to demonstrate the value of the wiki that runs their intranet site.
The wiki is a "new" technology that is already streamlining internal government processes. It is now time for agencies to help each other take advantage of it.
Thank you for writing about this subject. As a federal employee, I can tell you that we are very much in need of information of how to set-up wiki technology that also meets the security requirements of federal web use.
Any suggested resources would be greatly appreciated. :)
"The government is notorious for bureaucracy. Even simple articles and briefs often take government agencies months to write, when they should take no more than a few days. This problem pervades the federal government."
You're right that government wikis are a great tool to fight this problem, but wrong in your version of "why." The biggest problem is that the information that is widely spread by federal agencies tends to be limited to official documents and telegrams (no, I'm not kidding - telegrams) that are, again, official statements on behalf of an agency or post.
Wikis provide an excellent opportunity to push around unofficial information at far more rapid speeds in a far more open manner, but also without the potential risks to your organization's relationship with others, legal risks, and risks to personal reputations for people who make a mistake. This doesn't negate the need for carefully worded public-facing official statements, but it certainly does simplify their development and negate the need for many an internal statement that can be made just as effectively in a wiki or blog post.