Diplopedia: an agile State Department?

I’ve been looking for examples of agile solutions to real world problems to put into a presentation I’m giving on my last day here, and this one just fell into my lap today:

IN the past, said Stacie R. Hankins, a special assistant at the United States Embassy in Rome, when the ambassador prepared to meet an Italian political figure, the staff would e-mail a memo about the meeting and attach biographies of those who would be attending to be printed out.

Today, she said, they still produce the memo, but “now they attach a link to the Diplopedia article” — Diplopedia being a wiki, open to the contributions of all who work in the State Department. The ambassador, Ronald P. Spogli, frequently reads the biographies on his BlackBerry on the way to the meeting.

The advantages are obvious, in efficiency and in saving paper, but it has required a leap of faith, too. For, theoretically at least, anyone at the State Department could have edited the biographies Mr. Spogli was reading — unlike traditional resources.

I love stories like this — stories of stodgy, bureaucratic agencies trying to reverse their ossification with new lightweight tools that promote a culture of openness. So many times when I’m talking to people about this technology they feel separated from the heroes of DIY community, assuming that people that start things like LibriVox or flu wiki must be technical geniuses (wrong) or exist outside of the business constraints most people live in (ok, point taken).

But when you read stuff like this, it resonates with people in large organizations:

The advantage of Diplopedia, she said, isn’t necessarily the ease of creating new material, but the ease in finding information. “The political section used to keep biographies on political people, and the economics people kept biographies on economics people,” she said. “It was not always up to date. You didn’t always know what the other had.”

The practical information, likewise, is material that was floating around the halls of the State Department, but not typically written down.

“Not to resort to clichés, but it demonstrates the long tail effect,” Mr. Johnson said. “A lot of things are not things that you would put on a traditional Web site. If someone directed a desk officer to create an article, it would not be about how to order lunch. That might seem trivial — but getting food into the main State Department building is not an easy task.”

If anyone else has examples of open tools penetrating into Kafkaesque realms, please share. I’ll update this blog with them as I find them.

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