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Agencies Share Information By Taking a Page From Wikipedia

By Stephen Barr
Monday, January 28, 2008

When President Bush challenged Congress to cut the number and cost of earmarks by half, the administration's budget chiefs turned to their wiki.

That's right, the Office of Management and Budget, where caution and precision rule, has embraced Wikipedia as a model, hosting an online place where federal officials can swap information and ideas outside traditional boundaries.

After hearing the president's challenge last year, the budget officials knew that the White House would need a tally of the pet spending projects that Congress had inserted into the federal budget if they were to measure progress toward the president's goal.

With the wiki, federal agencies compiled a database of 13,496 earmarks in 10 weeks. In the old days, it would have taken six months to get the information to the OMB.

The budget wiki is not as freewheeling as Wikipedia, the sometimes-controversial online encyclopedia. It is the government, after all. For security, federal officials have to ask permission to join; it is not open to the public or Congress.

Still, the earmarks project underscores how technology is helping change the way the government works. The OMB and other agencies used the Web's interconnectivity to more efficiently gather information and draw conclusions.

The wiki also created, in essence, a powerful insiders club, where members are encouraged to engage in collaboration before they arrive at business decisions.

It has 5,500 members and is growing by hundreds each month. A number of federal agencies are creating their own pages on the wiki, taking advantage of its automated tools and services that can perform multiple budget scenarios and analyze data.

The wiki permits budget officials to work in real time with one another, rather than sort through e-mail chains wending through the government. It allows officials to hold online meetings when time is short or bad weather makes in-person meetings difficult to schedule. It is open around the clock, so federal budget officials may post comments from home at night or on weekends.

The wiki was launched in December 2006 with the prosaic title "Budget Community." By September 2007, the wiki had proved so popular that it was renamed "The MAX Federal Community" to incorporate other government-wide issues and agencies. The MAX in the name refers to the OMB's technology system that agencies use to produce the president's budget.

Users can create and modify pages, add attachments of up to 100 megabytes each, make comments, search content and request e-mail updates when pages change. Users can restrict their pages to "invitation only" or open them only to certain groups.

Budget officials also may click into "governmentwide communities" to discuss or monitor such issues as acquisition, e-government, financial management, grants and human capital. Links are available to find out about documents, requests for data and collaborations that are underway.

Then there's the networking factor. The wiki features a directory of users, with their telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, an important feature in a government where people transfer among agencies or take different jobs every few years.

Career employees at the OMB have played key roles in rolling out the wiki and steering its development. It is part of a larger initiative to find ways to produce the federal budget with common, automated processes that agencies can share rather than rely on their desktop office software.

The budget wiki is not the government's only foray into user-generated content and sharing of important documents through password-protected sites. In 2006, the intelligence community launched Intellipedia to foster sharing of information. It has 32,000 users and more than 250,000 pages, which are edited or updated about 5,000 times a day.

Karen Evans, who oversees government-wide technology policy at the OMB, views wikis as a way to provide an opportunity "where everybody gets a say" that then leads to "a very informed decision" by officials.

Too often, the government takes three years or longer to reach agreement on a solution to a problem, but the problem will have grown or changed in the meantime, Evans said. "How timely is that?" she asked. "Are you addressing the same issue you started out with?"

Today, with the Internet, "technology people can deliver solutions and capabilities really fast, while people are still focused on the problem," she said.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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