Steve Ressler | GovLoop taps Web 2.0 tools

For every social-networking success, such as Facebook, there are hundreds of e-ghost towns — anyone remember Apple's eWorld? What makes for a thriving hub of virtual networking? Perhaps Steve Ressler would know the answer. He is the founder of GovLoop, a social-networking site for those working in and around government agencies.

Started in early 2007, GovLoop features a newsfeed, forums, job and event boards, blogs, and profile pages. Most of all, it crackles with an energy that signals the start of a thriving community. We caught up with Ressler, who by day is an information technology specialist at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to find out what he did — and did not do — to create such a thriving community. 

GCN: When did you come up with the idea of GovLoop? Was there a sparking factor?

Steve Ressler: When I came to the government in 2004, I was fresh out of grad school, and I didn't have any ins in government, there weren't many other young government workers, and I was trying to figure out the bureaucracy.

So I started having happy hours, which grew into [a social-networking] organization, called the Young Government Leaders, which has over 2,000 members now.

Through that, I got to go to a number of conferences, and I saw all these different groups that were interesting — webmasters, people who worked for academia, people who worked for government — and I thought, wouldn't it be great to have these conversations online? I moved to Tampa, Fla., in the winter of 2007, I was out of the of the D.C. conference and happy-hour circuit, and so I [built GovLoop then].

My main thing was that I saw that there were government people siloed and couldn't talk with each other, and so it would be a great place to share ideas and best practices. It's fun as a government person to meet other smart people. It's encouraging and makes you want to stay in government. Even if you are having a bad week, you know you have another support system out there.

GCN: What benefits that GovLoop offers that can't be provided by the government work site?

Ressler: There is a diversity of thought. You may be stuck inside a firewall with agency people that you work with. Or maybe at best, you're stuck [speaking only with other] federal employees. There are diverse views of government, whether it comes from academia, students or reporters. I think there is something to adding state and local perspectives when discussing similar topics, like technology and training. It's also cool to tap into the international community. It's mostly English-speaking [governments on GovLoop] — Canada, U.K., New Zealand and Australia. They are working on the same issues. They are trying to deal with government 2.0. All these people are on GovLoop, and you can share ideas with them.

GCN: At last count, GovLoop has more than 8,000 members. Why did GovLoop take off when so many other sites have failed?

Ressler: I think a key part of this is being neutral third-party. It's a hobby [for me]. That definitely helped in the beginning. I had no agenda. 

I also found that the Young Government Leaders participants had some experience in building communities, and so I think people got what I was doing.

There is a real trick [to doing this]: There has to be enough content to get the right people to feel comfortable and come back. I've been lucky enough so that when the site grew, it seemed to have the right people.

We've had a group of volunteers that help make the site interesting, just by monitoring for any bad behavior and acting as a welcoming community. That's been really helpful. They interview members for the member-of-the-week series. We also have a project-of-the-week series.

When new members join, they get welcomed by a member [of the welcoming community] and are urged to join in. It's been a good part of this community that people get welcomed in.

GCN: When do you work on it? Is it a time-sink?

Ressler: Evenings and weekends. I spend some time each night on it and on the weekends. My lady is a tenure-track professor so she is always busy. So I can go to the coffee shop and work away.

GCN: What content management software do you use? How much customization work did it take?

Ressler: I used the Ning platform. Ning is a company co-founded by Marc Andreessen, who co-founded Netscape. Ning is a white-label social-network platform [offered] as software as a service. So it is really easy technology-wise to create your own social network through Ning. I had to do a few hacks to get what I like, and there are definitely some tricks of the trade — there is a Ning community where we share ideas on how to make things better. But it's been a great platform for me, to build something quickly without a ton of coding. It's highly reliable. It doesn't go down very often. It goes down about as much as your e-mail.

GCN: We noticed you use Yahoo Pipes for a news feed. So is it pretty easy to hook in these additional features?

Ressler: Yeah, with a lot of technology now, you need to be tech savvy, though you don't need to be a coder per se. For instance, I read about Yahoo Pipes and thought it'd be great to have a top news section on site, which would be a mashup of different government technology news sites. With Yahoo Pipes, [I] created an RSS feed which Ning will pull.

I think most people will need to play around [with these Web 2.0 technologies]. Same thing with Twitter. I noticed a lot of people were using Twitter, including myself. My handle is @GovLoop. That's where I get a lot of new members. So I [wanted] to have some of that conversation shown on GovLoop. So we use the hash tag [#GovLoop] of GovLoop a lot. So on the GovLoop home page there is a search for the hash tag. [Now] when people are talking about something related to government [on Twitter] and they include the GovLoop hash tag, it shows up on the GovLoop site as well.

[Another use of Twitter]: Just the other day, one of our members came up with the idea of having a daily "Best of Twitter" [compilation] on GovLoop. So she takes the top stuff from the GovLoop tag and writes a blog about it.

GCN: Could you offer an example of how GovLoop helped a government employee in some way?

Ressler: One this week was pretty cool — a person had a general human resources question. This person was a GS-13 Step 4 and was wondering if the pay was going to increase going to their GS-14 Step 1.

Within seconds, he had three answers from HR people giving him the exact answer. The answer was your salary must go up a certain percent. He said he already asked his HR people and got the general runaround.

Another one was from this person who worked for the Guam government, which is a U.S. territory. She had to write a standard operating procedure for one of her HR processes and asked if anyone had any tips on doing a large-scale SOP exercise. She got five responses right away — everything from templates to tips of the trade.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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