Apr 11, 2009

Participation Breeds Knowledge and Success

An imaginary idea factory--a girl looks at a big gear.In contrast to fear-mongering about the horrors of using new media tools in government--especially letting EVERYONE in on the game--NextGov has a few examples of agencies taking risks and unlocking knowledge.
[O]nline communities have inherent risks, so agencies must strike the right balance between opening up their operations widely and safeguarding sensitive information. Those with the most successful social media applications are taking various steps to protect information, such as assigning moderators.

The Transportation Security Administration, for example, has three moderators who monitor the conversations on its Idea Factory, an online suggestion forum that 43,000 airport security officers and headquarters staff use.  Idea Factory users, who are identified by name, must adhere to terms of use to ensure online conversations are respectful.

"Employees can include sensitive security information. This gives them the ability to really talk about the work they do," Lynn Dean [manager of strategy and Web communications] says. "But let's say a person forgets to mark a comment as Secret Sensitive Information. Someone else can report that and say it's SSI." Idea Factory participants...have submitted 7,000 ideas to the system, which ranks them based on popularity. A review panel determines whether they can be implemented. --Read more on NextGov.
TSA* has implemented 20 suggestions, so far. In addition, the Idea Factory is affecting its culture. Now frontline employee ideas are exposed to leadership who can implement change. This creates a positive feedback loop--two-thirds of the TSA workforce thinks the Idea Factory is  important, and more than one-third visit a few times each month.

There are challenges of security and information quality that agencies need to address, but if the CIA and other members of the intelligence community can create and use their own wiki (Intellipedia) for information and analysis sharing, other agencies need to view these challenges as problems to be resolved rather than as barriers that interrupt innovation and collaboration.

[* Disclosure, I work for the parent agency of TSA.]


  1. I am curious as to whether the Idea Factory has an option for TSA employees who have an idea for improving their workspace, but are afraid to share it because their supervisor might take it the wrong way (i.e., as a managerial shortcoming).

    For example, can a TSA employee to share their idea through an internal third-party, or anonymously?

    Also, the NextGov article says that 43,000 TSA employees "use" the Idea Factory. But that does not tell me what the participation rate is (i.e, it doesn't tell me how many are *not* using it). And does "use" mean that they actually posted something, or just that they logged on one time?

    If Idea Factory can be improved, then there has to be a baseline on certain parameters to determine whether changes actually result in improvements (e.g., the employee participation rate).

  2. Great question, Stephen. Let's ask the TSA. TSA?

  3. Lynn from TSA here. Thanks for the post, Gwynne and for your questions, Stephen.

    First, the IdeaFactory is up to more than 30 ideas implemented nationwide now, which doesn't include those that are seen on the tool and adopted locally where applicable. We've recently updated the tool - I'll add another comment later about the improvements.

    There is no option on the IdeaFactory for employees to send in an idea anonymously or through a third party, but that hasn't stopped many people from suggesting things that could expose a managerial shortcoming or anotehr controversial issue. You'd be amazed to see how open people are on the tool. They are passionate about what they do and about how things can be improved. If someone did have concerns, they could contact the Ombudsman with an idea - it's not part of the IdeaFactory, but it's a confidential communication vehicle.

    The challenge for TSA with the IdeaFactory is that unlike most federal agencies, the vast majority of our employees are not sitting at a computer very often - some only once a month. They're working the checkpoint or in other parts of the airport. And for many, the room where the computers are located is far away from the checkpoint, so it's not like they can do it while they're on break. That makes it hard for everyone at TSA who wants to participate to participate. Employees can talk about Sensitive Security Information on the tool - for example, they can suggest an idea to improve part of the Standard Operating Procedures to improve screening, so the tool wouldn't be appropriate on a public interface.

    There are dedicated IdeaFactory users who have embraced the tool and use it frequently. Then there are others who are enticed to try it as a result of a "IdeaFactory Challenge" on an issue that's important to them, such as workplace safety, the best way for management to communicate with employees, etc. There are people who post lots of ideas, and others who rarely post an idea, but vote or comment alot. There's also people like me who go on the tool a few times a week to comment and to look at ideas and comments to get an idea of what topics are hot in the workforce and share the information with senior leadership and others who need to know. That's one of the things I like about the tool - it is useful and used by many types of people.

    I'll be back later today with some stats for you.


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