OpenNASA takes one giant leap for transparency

OpenNASA, an employee-established public blog, is a “collaborative experiment in open, transparent and direct communication about your space program.” Team openNASA shares lessons learned, and what others can learn from them.

openNASA

What is openNASA and why did you create it?

OpenNASA is a collaboratively written public blog by NASA employees with open comments. The authors blog on their own time and therefore do not represent NASA. The motivation for opening up this unique voice from NASA and allowing dialog to occur is something that was lacking within the internal NASA community (to communicate between ourselves) and between the public and NASA. While, again, the perspectives of the authors are theirs and not NASA’s, it does give non-NASA people a different insight and perspective into some of the activities, thinking, and desires of individuals within NASA. Over the years, we have added additional functionality to the community such as ideation, voting, sharing files, and feeds from other NASA social media communications.

We created openNASA in the beginning of social media adoption within large organizations and while NASA was still watching the trend and weary of this communication methodology, our goal was to help NASA become more transparent, authentic and direct with its communication to the public. While there are many interest groups in the space community, there wasn’t a culture which was overly positive and humble with exploring challenges and opportunities; we wanted a different dialog. We wanted this communication to be a “conversation” rather than a one way directed message. From the beginning, openNASA has been an “experiment” because we were not sure if the NASA culture was really ready for this shift in communication. But, it was clear that the public was ready for more engagement with it’s space program, so we took the initiative to bridge that gap. Our intention is to help create a participatory space agency – one that actively engaged people from all backgrounds and perspectives.

What culture issues did you face in executing this?

OpenNASA has been quite well received since its launch. It’s interesting to note that most of the challenges we have faced have been within the space community. For those in the space community who are still testing out social media, openNASA can seem a risky proposition. We also have others, who have been involved in the space community for quite some time, pushing for the very same openness, transparency and authenticity in government that we hope for. To them, openNASA can be seen as competition and threatening to niches they have carved out for themselves. Yet, these cases are very rare and, overall, we have enjoyed overwhelming support from the space community and the openNASA audience.

For the authors, the question of when to blog, how to make it clear posts are not written in any kind of official capacity, and how to walk the line of transparency without sharing inappropriate information or causing strife has at times been a delicate one. Sometimes colleagues might be uncomfortable with the ideas being discussed or questions raised. There are times when being a leader in the transparency realm makes one a target inside their own organization, more because people aren’t sure what to do with it than because they really have bad intentions.

However, these are all important questions for the transparency movement to be addressing, so it’s important to participate in initiatives where the kinks get to be worked out.

What has NASA learned and changed because of it?

We don’t think that it is fair to directly link something that NASA has learned and changed from the activities of openNASA. That being said, it is conceivable that openNASA has served as an example of exploring new methodologies for engagement and to highlight the utility of more of a dialog with the public, rather than a traditional one-to-many communications approach. NASA should be greatly commended for allowing its employees to self-regulate themselves with their personal tweets and blogs. NASA itself has surely adopted blogging and tweeting and has done so with cautious aggressiveness. As a result, the last couple years has added to the transparency and personality of NASA and helping to create a more human-side of the space program.

What would you recommend to other agencies thinking about starting an ‘open agency’ collaboration blog?

1. Be targeted – in our experience, one of the reasons openNASA has been successful is because we aren’t just talking about space in general. There are lots of great sites out there that do that. Ours has a focus on operational and personnel aspects that NASA employees are uniquely qualified to participate in. We think this makes NASA more real and tangible, and also gives NASA’s employees (us!) a place to have a say, share ideas, challenge on another, and get new inputs.

2. Start simple – this is probably true of everything in life, but start with a simple site, a few authors who are committed to posting, and let it evolve from there. Give the collective voice of the site a chance to evolve, and then invite new authors.

3. Make it easy for people to participate – The idea is about participation. Make sure it is easy for people to comment without too much work. Also encourage and support authors with differing viewpoints. Constraining authors too much will result in a homogeneous community that lacks the spirit and energy of constructive disagreement and brainstorming.

4. Have a rough posting schedule for authors, and have someone who’s role it is to gently enforce it by nudging and communicating to the authors themselves. Consistently posting new content creates a virtuous cycle of conversation.

5. Defend and protect the culture you create – Write terms and conditions on your blog reflecting the type of culture you want to create. Heated discussions are great, but disrespect, name-calling and personal attacks are something we have had to draw a line at, and we feel our community is stronger because we stood up for those values. The culture created in the beginning of a community ends up creating its norms and becomes its personality when thriving. Be prepared for Government Trolls, and know how to defend the terms and conditions you set out. These people are tax payers, and they may have personal relationships with high-level people in your agency, so be prepared to be direct but firm.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh. He is also co-founder and CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

1 Response

  1. Keith Cowing

    Hardly an “open’ website since this younger, Gen Y crowd, makes a point of blocking posts from people with whom they do not agree.

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