Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Don't Underestimate the Value of Community

In 1996, we pulled together 100+ people throughout HUD for a web management meeting. We’d never done this before. After all, HUD only had been in the “web” business for a year. We met in Indianapolis, to try to keep costs down. We had one person from every HUD field office and at least one person from every Headquarters office. Many were staffers who were doing some sort of volunteer work on our website. Some were there because they drew the short stick when it came to finding a representative for their offices. A few came just to see what was going on. We were a motley crew.

We met for two days. We updated everyone on plans for the coming months, showed them websites that we hoped to emulate, discussed issues they were confronting, and brainstormed together about possibilities for the future. We went to meals together, worked in groups together, and got to know one another. And in that meeting, an amazing thing happened. A spirit of community was born that was to be the foundation for the success of HUD’s web organization.

It was like spontaneous combustion. We put together a bunch of individuals - each bringing passion, ability, or just plain ol’ curiosity, let them know the sky is the limit, had some fun together, and – bam! – we’ve got a pack that energizes and helps one another across the Department. It was phenomenal. It was contagious. And it lasted.

In 2000, we started the Web Content Managers Forum. Our internal community at HUD was going strong, but we felt isolated. We wanted to trade ideas and find out how our colleagues in other agencies were dealing with problems…or if they even had the same problems we were facing. I’ll never forget that first meeting of the Forum. We had people from 20 or so agencies, as I recall; and we couldn’t talk fast enough. It was like a revival meeting. Web content managers were starving for camaraderie, and the Forum gave them that venue. The community expanded.

The Forum met monthly, after that. I won’t say that every Forum meeting was a “high,” but I will say that people who came to those meetings left feeling better about their own jobs, either because they learned something from a colleague or they found out that the way they were doing things was pretty darn good. Eventually, the Forum grew so large that we went to conference calls, instead of "in person" meetings. It was a gamble. We risked losing that community spirit in order to gain wider involvement. But guess what? The esprit de'corps stayed in tact. In fact, I’d say it grew. Now people all over the country were part of the government web manager community. Hardly a week goes by without a Forum listserv message from some member of the community, looking for information or recommendations to solve a problem. The community pitches in and helps. I've never seen it fail.

In the past two years, the Web Managers Advisory Council has sponsored a series of workshops, both in Washington and out in the field. The sessions were good. Some were great. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the thing most people value – and take away with them – is the sense of community…that sense of mutual respect and support and energy. Put a bunch of web managers together, and the bonding just happens. We feel better and do better because of it.

A couple of weeks ago, my former colleagues at HUD had another HUD web manager meeting, this time in Albuquerque. I talked to a few of them, both before and after the meeting (the community doesn't throw you out just because you retire!). They discussed plans and possibilities for the future. They went to meals together, worked together in groups, and re-established their personal relationships. And once again – bam! – the sense of community took over. A couple of them confessed that they’d been feeling a little down, a little isolated (even though they talk on the phone every day!). But after a few days together, the energy reappears. The community never fails to help you adjust your views, to rekindle your passion, and to remind you that - together – we can do something really important for citizens.

Coming together with others who are facing the same challenges you face is not only enjoyable – it’s essential. Being a government web manager gets more difficult every year. But you are not alone. There is a strong community that’s eager to help you, support you, encourage you, energize you, and involve you. You need them, and they need you. Never underestimate the value of your community.

Oh, and if you aren’t already a member of the web manager community, just go to webcontent.gov and find out when the next meeting of the Forum is scheduled. Go ahead. Jump right in. The community will be there for you.

Related Links

Proceed Until Apprehended
History of the Web Content Managers Forum
Working Best When Working Together