Steve Kelman takes time to hear what the GovLoopers are saying.
Every once in a while I like to check out what's happening at the "Acquisition 2.0" group (founded by the General Services Administration's Mary Davie) hosted in Govloop.com, the social networking site for federal government folks.
Govloop itself has more than doubled the number of people signed up for the site over the last year, to about 45,000 -- and the acquisition group (one of, amazingly, almost 900 groups on the site) currently has 718 members.
I read through a series of posts on the topic "Collaborate Lately," which solicited experiences and best practices about the value of getting industry collaboration with government early in the process of developing an RFP, using social media. The posts (15 in all) were very interesting. There were several posts from contractors noting that their firm's chain of command -- and particularly the business development people in charge of the interface with the agency on a procurement in the works -- were frequently very uneasy about unauthorized communication with the government using social media by rank-and-filers inside the company. The "official" people remain terrified of saying something that night tell competitors or the government too much. (I'm not sure if this is more a statement supporting the observation that companies who play mostly in the government marketplace tend to take on all the dysfunctional features of the behavior of their customers, or just that bureaucracy is bureaucracy everywhere, private or public.)
To be sure, social media pre-RFP shouldn't be the only form of communication – one-on-one meetings allow companies to provide the government with information they don't want competitors to have. But social media does dramatically lower the cost of communication, and creates the potential to make communication more communicative, so this should be a tool in the government's information-gathering process.
There was also a comment by a government person that reflected a cultural problem inside the government that inhibits not only pre-RFP communication using social media, but early communication in general: "Many acquisition professionals I work with still believe we need to develop a complete requirement before providing visibility to industry. As a community, I don't think we're convinced of the imperative to engage early with industry if we're going to meet the government's needs in the most effective way in declining budgets."
Finally, there was a really interesting, and specific, post by somebody from the Australian Government Information Office -- wonder how they found out about Govloop? -- about helpful practices for organizing early communication.
A very different observation about the group is that the amount of traffic in the group is still rather modest even though it has more than 700 members. Only three discussions have been opened over the last few months, and one of the those has generated no traffic. There are a fair number of single posts about a smattering of broad topics – such as membership fees for the Tyson's Corner National Contract Management Association chapter or job openings – and some specific, targeted questions. This shows the challenge of building communities of practice. As work becomes more distributed, and more and more functional specialists work in cross-functional teams, the challenges of creating an equivalent to the office water cooler, where functional experts can help teach each other, grows stronger.
We need to learn better how successfully to create alternatives.