Several months ago I hosted a roundtable discussion with public-sector CIOs from multiple Singapore government agencies. We focused specifically on social computing — how it will alter the way public-sector agencies interact with constituents and each other. While the focus was on Singapore, the key takeaways are universal, hence my interest in sharing the findings here.

In the midst of discussing the usual suspects — concerns about security, privacy, risk management, audit, and compliance — we came to a consensus on some key points:

  • Clearly identify what services or information constituents actually want, not what the agency wants to deliver. A poorly implemented social computing app risks becoming a glorified suggestion box, or worse — “next-generation knowledge management.” In other words, a costly solution looking for a problem. Focus instead on how to actively engage users — using advanced analytics and business intelligence (BI) to deliver value. In some cases, it is as simple as asking instead of assuming.
  • Combining formal and informal data will be a major challenge.The more effective agencies are at encouraging voluntary, “opt-in” style usage, the more challenging it will be to segregate user-provided information and data from more formal, agency-provided data that must be rigorously maintained and secured. Take this information “sourcing” issue into account when documenting data management policies.
  • Avoid seeking to “own” the underlying technology platform for social computing initiatives. Resist the urge to “compete” with large vendors and/or platforms (Facebook, Google, Skype, Flickr, Twitter, etc.) to provide the platform for social computing and instead leverage these platforms and focus on creating communities and/or shared access. Far from limiting flexibility, leveraging publicly available platforms will encourage usage, help establish credibility, and minimize costs/maintenance efforts.
  • Don’t expect IT to have all (or most) of the answers. Traditional IT departments think and act transactionally, not socially. The temptation is typically to design a system and impose it on a predetermined set of users. This approach will fail. Social computing requires a bottom-up approach that starts by identifying services that constituents are likely to want or need, essentially infiltrating existing social structures and platforms to encourage awareness and participation, and then using this groundswell of support to drive active — and viral — usage.
  • Expect IT budgeting for social computing initiatives to be a challenge. Initiatives that involve only service enablement but not more traditional technology spending (software licensing, hardware purchases, implementation, integration, etc.) may ironically prove more difficult to fund — even if they are cheaper than traditional IT projects. With no clear technology-related expenses, there may be no clear “sponsor” within the organization, and the project may likely fall outside what IT considers its domain. Consider creating some type of “service innovation” department that is separate from the more traditional IT department.
  • When it comes to social computing initiatives, “do something.” With opportunity comes risk. But continually identifying reasons to NOT invest in social computing is too easy. Public-sector agencies are notoriously resistant to change — Singapore included. Over the next 18 to 24 months at least, successful initiatives will likely not be large-scale, top-down, grandiose projects spanning multiple agencies, services, or constituents but instead will be pragmatic and incremental. Mistakes will be made, but the benefits in terms of improved service delivery and engagement with constituents will in almost all cases ultimately outweigh the risks.