“It’s grass-roots technology in a top-down organization,” said Eric M. Johnson of the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy in Washington, during a talk at Wikipedia’s annual conference in Alexandria, Egypt.
He was referring to Diplopedia, a special wiki open to the contributions of all who work in the State Department, as a collaborative effort in keeping State Department information shared and up-to-date with an immediacy that has never been available to such a large bureaucratic organization ever before.
The decision to embrace wikis is part of a changing ethic at the department, from a “need to know culture” to a “need to share culture,” said Daniel Sheerin, deputy director of eDiplomacy, which was created in 2003. “This is a technological manifestation of a policy difference,” he said, a change he dated to when Colin L. Powell was secretary of state.
Diplopedia contains no classified information, but is not available to the general public, it must be noted. It is exclusively for use by State Department personnel. However, do we want more of this kind of changing ethic in our civil service instutions manifesting as policy differences and new ways of operating the government? Yes please.
As usual, there is a generational shift propelling the changing ethics that lead to the new directions in policy. It takes a certain youthful curiosity, resilience, and daring to try something new. And it might be that the people in government who are in their 30s and 40s and 50s are aware, because they're parents, that it's what the kids are doing these days. But that's something that can create an atmosphere of apprehension.
“There is definitely a learning curve of — I can’t believe I’m saying this — of my generation,” said [Stacie R. Hankins, a special assistant at the United States Embassy in Rome]. “I like computers, but I wasn’t a big Wikipedia person.”
The advantage of Diplopedia, she said, isn’t necessarily the ease of creating new material, but the ease in finding information.
Yes, it may be that the reason wikis are being embraced isn't because they're new, but because they really work out well when you use them like they're intended to be used. Even the State Department has figured that out. The New York Times article has some statistics on the wiki, which was introduced in 2006: "In addition to reference material like the 200 biographies of Italian political and business leaders, the more than 4,400 Diplopedia articles reflect the range of the staff’s concerns" from the lofty to the mundane. There are 1,000 registered users, 650,000 total page views, and 20,000 new page views a week.
“It is one of the most popular sites in the State Department, other than getting your pay information,” Mr. Johnson said.
Even so, success to Mr. Johnson is defined not only by what can be found on Diplopedia but also what cannot. There have been no “flame wars,” he said.
There was a larger point to bringing his message to Wikimania 2008, as the annual conference is called: if wikis can work at the State Department, with its fabled bureaucracy and attention to protocol and word choice, they can work anywhere.
I'm definitely starting to think so. This is an encouraging trend.