Yes We Can. (Maybe.)
When President Barack Obama took office in January, he made it clear that he expected transparency to reign supreme in government at all levels. Another expectation was greater public participation in government.
Not even 100 days into Obama's new administration, new research from Silver Spring, Md.-based analyst firm CMS Watch indicates that federal managers trying their hardest to follow Obama's memorandum to the letter will find that it will take more than just a line-item purchase to meet the demands.
"We're encountering a fairly common desire," explains Tony Byrne, founder of CMS watch. First, he says, enterprises like to "do everything off of one platform," but they prefer to rely on officially published information they can distribute through an interactive community. "The reality," he warns, "is that these [efforts require] two very different environments."
In other words, Byrne says, the call for greater transparency and more-participatory Web sites still means utilizing two entirely separate technologies: a Web content management system (CMS) and social software. Consequently, efforts to align Web publishing and citizen interaction are extremely complicated. "A hassle is that you have two different repositories, two different management regimes, and two different interfaces for others and administrators to learn," he says. "When I talk to people at government agencies about this, it's an ongoing source of frustration they have."
The end goal is to integrate both user-generated and official content together, but that is still complicated to undertake, argues Byrne. The architecture simply isn't there yet. "Companies want a single product to do both, but we won't see the technology for another two to three years," he predicts.
For now, companies are still best suited to go after best-of-breed providers for both CMS and social software platforms. "Look for vendors that have the services, scalability, and usability along with security controls in order to create your public communities," he says.
A valid question to raise regards Obama's directive itself. Was it too much too soon? Or, is this the shot in the arm the federal government needs? Byrne says he believes it is the latter. "No one will suggest that these are unworthy goals," he insists. "The reality is that federal administration managers will not be able to build community services on top of their existing CMS implementations. They'll likely have to go to third-party providers and figure out a way to integrate them. This doesn't mean they shouldn't do it ... just go into it with your eyes wide open and have a realistic expectation of the cost and energy it will take."
Part of having your eyes wide open is casting them across the aisle to private sector counterparts and heeding the lessons they have learned. Namely, using separate platforms. Byrne says vendors well-suited to take advantage of those looking to blog and set up communities outside of firewalls can be divvied up among blogging and wiki tools.
A couple of blogging providers that have appeared in CMS Watch's research include WordPress and Six Apart's Movable Type. For wikis, MediaWiki, Socialtext, and MindTouch are a short list of "tools and services that have stood up in the public environment," Byrne says.
Essentially, Obama wants government to extend beyond the firewall and get out to the people. This, Byrne says, is difficult but is nonetheless a work in progress for government agencies. "There has been greater success behind the firewall [with] unified platforms," he admits. "Federal agencies have done a good amount of implementations there, but the key issue is when they start exposing their platforms to the public. That's what they're experimenting with now."
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