GSA takes a fast, free approach to Web dialogue tool

The growing maturity of Web 2.0 software is giving government agencies not only new ways to get things done but also, increasingly, the ability to choose tools that are free and quick to deploy.

That’s just what the General Services Administration needed when it took on the task of providing federal agencies the means to host interactive online forums with the public — on short notice — as part of President Barack Obama’s Open Government Directive.

The directive, handed down Dec. 8, outlined a variety of requirements to make agency information more publicly available. Among the orders: Agencies each needed to launch a Web page on their sites that incorporated a mechanism to collect and make use of public feedback — and set it up within 60 days.

Choosing free software that functions via the Internet made eminent sense. The price is right, and it means agencies could sidestep the traditional purchasing process that involves formal notices, competitive bidding and occasional protests.

And by electing to offer a single solution for use governmentwide, GSA banked on simplifying “the public engagement process for both agencies and the citizen…making the process as efficient as possible,” said David McClure, associate administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications.

But as McClure explained to GCN, free and simple weren't all GSA was looking for.

“We wanted to make sure the public could contribute ideas online and create a community to discuss things — and be able to vote up and down,” he said. “We wanted it to be very easy to use but by a large number of people.” That meant supporting a single sign-on process. And it had to have “the ability to export data to Data.gov…in XML format,” he said, referring to the government’s federal information Web portal.

Although software might be available at no cost, the service provider needed to agree to specially crafted terms of agreement, developed by GSA. The agreements spell out user licensing terms that take into account the unique nature of government agencies in dealing with public information, McClure said.

McClure said various products could do the job, including WordPress, UserVoice, Google Moderator and IBM Jam. But GSA quickly narrowed the choice to IdeaScale “because it was rich with applications,” and it already had a track record at the White House, GSA, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Labor and Housing and Urban Development departments. Among other features, IdeaScale makes it easy to build and customize a feedback widget on Web sites. And it uses Drupal for its single sign-on tool, so users can log in on various agency Web sites without needing to create new accounts.

GSA officials introduced the tool to more than 70 government officials from more than 20 agencies in early January. Agencies are expected to launch the service Feb. 6 and will be collecting and analyzing feedback for five weeks, McClure said.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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