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Message as the Medium

Agencies reach out via portals and handhelds to expand collaboration and tap user knowledge.

Figuring out how to take advantage of current IT and business applications to make social-networking tools part of the enterprise has become a way of life for two federal organizations: the Army’s Office of the Judge Advocate General and the Federal Aviation Administration.


Many government IT users “have reached a certain comfort level, and that’s as far as they’re going to go,” says Lt. Col. Charlotte Herring, chief of the IT Division for the JAG Corps. She calls them the analog users. “We have significantly fewer analog users as the years go by, however. Now we are getting the native users of technology — 18-year-olds who have three or four different instant messaging accounts and are comfortable online.”


To keep up tech-wise with savvy young users and a more distributed workforce, the JAG Corps and the Federal Aviation Administration offer two examples of how government agencies are stretching the tools they have to bring Web 2.0 applications into the mainstream fold.

The JAG Corps, says Herring, has used its six-year-old JAGCnet knowledge management portal to enhance social networking and will continue to modernize. At the FAA, a grassroots effort begun in 2001 by a small group of employees has blossomed into a full collaboration environment for about 35,000 government workers and contractors.

 

The FAA Knowledge Services Network “grew by adoption,” says Russell C. Hayslett, the agency’s messaging services manager. In the early years it was a fee-for-service program; federal users had to pay. They grew in number to about 20,000 by 2006, when he took over to pull KSN together with e-mail and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry handheld devices as a sanctioned enterprisewide collaboration initiative.


Three core drivers keep these efforts on a fast pace: creating applications for enterprisewide use; relying on qualified developers who can think up original, efficient solutions; and maintaining these systems as much as possible in-house.

Taking on the Enterprise

The JAG Corps insignia, a sword crossed by a quill pen, symbolizes an organizational history that began in 1776 with the American Revolution, when the Continental Congress appointed the first judge advocate for courts-martial.  


Today, the JAGCnet portal brings together information about administrative and civil law, international law, claims, legal assistance and military justice for some 12,000 users — judges, lawyers, paralegals and court personnel as well as active and reserve soldiers. Judge advocates assist commanders; Army lawyers give legal help to soldiers and their families in such matters as drafting wills and dealing with landlords or creditors.


“We provide both public and private access” to the law, trial records, contacts, applications, several hundred databases, and Army and Defense Department sites, Herring says. “It’s not as specific as meeting with an attorney in person; it’s a kind of a library” that was conceived by Army leaders who a decade ago saw the need for a robust, paperless information portal.


The users are scattered around the globe, mostly in the continental United States and also at every Army installation worldwide. The young, so-called native users call on the portal’s IBM Lotus/Domino collaboration suite’s capabilities, but they rely “quite a bit” on instant messages for real-time discussions instead of e-mailing each other back and forth.


“That’s a benefit to the mission,” Herring adds. At the same time, supervisors in the chain of command “must enforce the rules about what’s work and what is just talk.”

  

Of the FAA network, Hayslett says, “It’s a jewel anyone can use.” KSN serves as a knowledge repository with version control and document check-in and -out. Sites responsible for designing air traffic control towers, for example, use KSN to store and disseminate plans, approvals, permits and construction schedules.

Tapping the Right Talent

Herring heads a division of 35 soldiers, government employees and contractors who administer and maintain the portal, develop software to generate reports, and see to network operations and information security.


At FAA, each new KSN site must have an administrator trained to set up accounts. KSN currently uses Microsoft SharePoint Server software plus Lotus Notes for e-mail; plans call for incorporating Lotus Sametime later this year for instant messaging and virtual meetings.

 

“Some users live in e-mail and some live in KSN, so we’re looking for connectors,” Hayslett says. “People could enter their calendars and to-do lists just once and find them to use in multiple places.”

BlackBerry users currently number about 1,080. “We started around 2003 with a 200-person pilot, and it got a 97 percent approval rating,” Hayslett says. “Upper management is starting to see its usefulness. It’s the agency’s only authorized wireless device — information is encrypted from end to end according to our security policy.”

19% The growth in the FAA’s BlackBerry user base last year

Keeping IT In-House

The Domino platform has been “scaled up significantly” over the years to be more robust than in the early online days of the JAG Corps, Herring says. “The budget is paid out of different Army pots” without a single specific budget, but she believes the features of Lotus Notes have been “cost-effective for us, and we keep the costs down by doing our work in-house. We have the systems administrators and the help desk and the developers, so we don’t pay licensing fees for software development.” 


In the long run, she says, “We save by owning our code enterprisewide. It used to be tremendously frustrating for soldiers to learn a client-based application at Fort Bragg, then get sent to Fort Hood or Fort Stewart and have to learn a different application at each place.”

   

To maintain its services and support KSN, FAA uses various wireless carriers across the country, but wireless voice and data service generally costs about $100 per month per user. “There’s no base funding,” Hayslett says. “We charge each user $890 per year to cover servers, licenses and help services. We’re looking to add modem capability for notebooks, at about $15 per month.”

No Going Back

Moving forward and expanding their organizations’ social-networking capabilities hinges on funding, say both Herring and Hayslett.

 

At FAA, BlackBerry integration with KSN is still ongoing. And there are always requests for new tools. For instance, “we get some requests to use its Global Positioning System capability,” Hayslett says, “but we don’t have that yet because we don’t have funding. It would depend on the number of interested BlackBerry users.”

Adds Herring: “We do have budget constraints. Certain things can only get done at certain times.”

 

Apr 18 2008

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