Communities @ State is an initiative launched by the Department of State to connect employees from across the agency to discuss issues or events, request or respond to requests for assistance, share knowledge, develop best practice solutions and connect a network of interested and knowledgeable people.
State's workforce is highly mobile and highly dispersed. With employees assigned to more than two dozen strategic business units domestically (primarily bureaus that cover specific regions or foreign policy subjects) and more than 260 embassies and offices abroad, a solution was needed to bridge gaps in communication and information sharing. Employees needed an easy and reliable knowledge management, collaboration and information sharing method that could be accessed throughout the world.
State's Office of eDiplomacy, in the State Department's Bureau of Information Resource Management, began the Communities @ State program in 2005 on the unclassified interagency network, Intelink-U. Intelink provided server space and an installation of the Movable Type web log software so that State could offer online communities websites that would be available to the USG foreign affairs and national security community. eDiplomacy worked to modernize State's internal regulations to make it clear that this type of community blogging is a valuable and approved activity. In 2006, Communities @ State expanded to State's internal network, OpenNet, and in 2007, Communities @ State expanded to the classified interagency network, SIPRNet.
Movable Type is a centrally hosted, lightweight, commercial, off-the-shelf, inexpensive web application that allows great versatility in design but is simple for non-technical personnel to use. eDiplomacy administers the program, providing technical and business consulting support to the administrators of the sites. Most administrators are non-technical diplomatic professionals and locally employed staff in State Department bureaus and overseas posts.
To ensure best use of resources, personnel who wish to form an online community fill out a detailed planning questionnaire that requires them to consider goals, audience, content, success measures, marketing and day-to-day management of the community. (This questionnaire is available on the Internet at: http://www.state.gov/m/irm/ediplomacy/c23840.htm#communities.)
At present (5/21/09), the program has 55 active Communities. The Communities fall under at least one of three categories: office- or bureau-based, topic area-based, or professional dialogue-based. PD in Europe, a bureau- and professional dialogue-based community, allows public diplomacy staff from more than 40 European posts to share their public diplomacy best practices. Another highly successful bureau-based, inter-mission community focuses on specific topics rather than a specific profession: the North American Partnership, a community of staff in the U.S.'s large diplomatic missions in Canada and Mexico, which provides a forum to discuss common homeland security, commercial, economic and environmental issues. Another community in the program spans all three categories: Iran Watchers allows staff in the Near East Affairs bureau to report and discuss Iran-related issues at the classified level.
Many State employees, offices and posts have found the Communities @ State initiative to be an innovative way to collaborate and build effective, productive work groups across countries, networks and professions. A number of things have proved crucial to success: (1) The community planning process provides a strong foundation for growth of a community; (2) Use of a simple blog application that combines content with conversation has minimized end-user training requirements (a half hour is usually enough); and (3) online communities have life cycles - don't be afraid to retire them; and (4) because community administrators rotate to new assignments every few years, it takes a special effort to sustain online communities.
2. Communities@State new community questionnaire