How Thousands Of Dutch Civil Servants Built A Virtual ‘Government Square’ For Online Collaboration

Federico Guerrini at Forbes: “Democracy needs a reboot, or as the founders of Democracy Os, an open source platform for political debate say, “a serious upgrade”. They are not alone in trying to change the way citizens and governments communicate with each other. Not long ago, I covered on this blog a Greek platform, VouliWatch, which aims at boosting civic engagement following the model of other similar initiatives in countries like Germany, France and Austria, all running thanks to a software called Parliament Watch.

Other decision making tools, used by activists and organizations that try to reduce the distance between the people and their representatives include Liquid Feedback, and Airesis. But the quest for disintermediation doesn’t regard only the relationship between governments and citizens: it’s changing the way public organisations work internally as well. Civil servants are starting to develop and use their internal “social networks”, to exchange ideas, discussing issues and collaborate on projects.

One such thing is happening in the Netherlands: thousands of civil servants belonging to all government organizations have built their own “intranet” using Pleio (“government square”, in Dutch) a platform that runs on the open source networking engine Elgg.

It all started in 2010, thanks to the work of a group of four founders, Davied van Berlo, Harrie Custers, Wim Essers and Marcel Ziemerink. Growth has been steady and now Pleio can count on some 75.000 users spread in about 800 subsites. The nice thing about the platform, in fact, is that it is modular: subscribers can collaborate on a group and then start a sub group to get in more depth with a smaller team. To learn a little more about this unique experience, I reached out for van Berlo, who kindly answered a few questions. Check the interview below.

Where did the Pleio idea come from?Were you inspired by other experiences?

The idea came mainly from the developments around us: the whole web 2.0 movement at the time. This has shown us the power of platforms to connect people, bring them together and let them cooperate. I noticed that civil servants were looking for ways of collaborating across organisational borders and many were using the new online tools. That’s why I started the Civil Servant 2.0 network, so they could exchange ideas and experiences in this new way of working.

However, these tools are not always the ideal solution. They’re commercial for one, which can get in the way of the public goals we work for. They’re often American, where other laws and practices apply. You can’t change them or add to them. Usually you have to get another tool (and login) for different functionalities. And they were outright forbidden by some government agencies. I noticed there was a need for a platform where different tools were integrated, where people from different organisations and outside government could work together and where all information would remain in the Netherlands and in the hands of the original owner. Since there was no such platform we started one of our own….”

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