Getting Government Right Behind the Firewall

The other week I stumbled on this fantastic piece by Susan Oh of about a 50 day effort by the BC government to relaunch its intranet set.

Yes, 50 days.

If you run a large organization’s intranet site I encourage to read the piece. (Alternatively, if you are forced (or begged) to use one, forward this article to someone in charge). The measured results are great – essentially a doubling in pretty much all the things you want to double (like participation) – but what is really nice is how quick and affordable the whole project was, something rarely seen in most bureaucracies.

Here is an intranet for 30,000 employees, that “was rebuilt from top to bottom within 50 days with only three developers who were learning the open-source platform Drupal as they as went along.”

I beg someone in the BC government to produce an example of such a significant roleout being accomplished with so few resources. Indeed, it sounds eerily similar to GCPEDIA (available to 300,000 people using open source software and 1 FTE, plus some begged and borrowed resources) and OPSPedia (a test project also using open source software with tiny rollout costs). Notice a pattern?

Across our governments (not to mention a number of large conservative companies) there are tiny pockets where resourceful teams find a leader or project manager willing to buck the idea that a software implementations must be a multi-year, multimillion dollar roll out. And they are making the lives of public servants better. God knows our public servants need better tools, and quickly. Even the set of tools being offered in the BC examples weren’t that mind-blowing, pretty basic stuff for anyone operating as a knowledge worker.

I’m not even saying that what you do has to be open source (although clearly, the above examples show that it can allow one to move speedily and cheaply) but I suspect that the number of people (and the type of person) interested in government would shift quickly if, internally, they had this set of tools at their disposal. (Would love to talk to someone at Canada’s Food Inspection Agency about their experience with Socialtext)

The fact is, you can. And, of course, this quickly get us to the real problem… most governments and large corporations don’t know how to deal with the cultural and power implications of these tools.

We’ll we’d better get busy experimenting and trying cause knowledge workers will go where they can use their and their peers brains most effectively. Increasingly, that isn’t government. I know I’m a fan of the long tail of public policy, but we’ve got to fix government behind the firewall, otherwise their won’t be a government behind the firewall to fix.

10 thoughts on “Getting Government Right Behind the Firewall

  1. Sameer Vasta

    One thing to note, however, is that BC already had a standing “intranet team” and governance around intranets (at least, so I gleamed from the article). One of the larger struggles that large organizations (especially government) is establishing the governance and ownership around intranets — the technology and rollout can be done quickly once that is decided and approved — and often that process of governance can take much, much more than 50 days.

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  3. Rueben Bronee

    Thanks for mentioning what our team did with the BC Public Service intranet. As the leader of that team, I can tell you it is indeed an exceptional group and they are already hard at work planning the next evolution of the intranet, which will take us much closer to toolset you point to with SocialText. That evolution likely won’t be based on open-source however. Drupal was the right choice for us with this last round, in large part because of the limited budget. But we also realized the challenges of ensuring ongoing support in an environment where open-source was so new. What we are working towards now is much more significant in scope, and so it is unlikely that we’d be able to sustain support for it in Drupal. But no question, it was an excellent option for us at the time.

    To Sameer’s point, we did indeed have an existing team in place and that made a huge difference. We are extremely fortunate to have very strong executive support for our work on the intranet and internal communications. While I’ll agree that great things can be done by passionate individuals with a good idea. But it does make life a lot easier when you actually have executives on board and supporting (in some cases even driving) the vision.

    1. David Eaves

      Rueben, it was great to read about.

      I’m happy with governments using either open-source or proprietary software, whatever is most effective, meets their needs and is financial responsible. What I think is interesting is that open source makes it cheaper/easier to experiment and learn – so if you go drupal or another direction in the future, in either case, the lessons learned will help keep costs down and allow you to spec out your needs more effectively.

      As for having an executive on board, I couldn’t agree more. I just wish their were more of them out there willing to do projects in this style.

      Thank you for sharing more info on your great work.

  4. Thom Kearney

    Governance is a huge issue, but lots can be done with a simple coalition of the willing. I really like the point near the end about cultural and power implications of these tools. We have to try them to discover what those issues really are and then we need to work on changing biases underneath. I am excited and encouraged to see progress on all fronts.

  5. Nicholas Charney

    David – interesting timing on the article. I’ve been exploring the issue of the cultural dynamic of wikis within the public sector in a number of related ways over the past few weeks:

    More specifically the changing relationship between accountability and responsibility (; motivation and incentives ( and licensing models for collaborative software (

    There are a whole slew of issues that are coming to a head around intranets and wikis right now in the public sector.

  6. Jeff Braybrook

    Thanks David for this. As I prepare to leave the Public Service this Friday I look back on the GCPEDIA journey as a very real example of how everything in government is about pace. When you can have an effect on speeding up that pace you have made a difference

  7. Luke Closs

    On the Socialtext blog just recently was a salient point: Social media efforts need to begin with your own employees:

    The idea there is that if you don’t have tools for employees (or public services workers) to use to collaborate between themselves “behind the firewall”, how can we reasonably expect them to use these public internet tools to collaborate efficiently with the public?


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