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Making Connections: D.C.-To-Tampa YP Creates GovLoop, A "Facebook'' For Government Workers





Government is often described in the unflattering terms of "big,'' "bulky,'' "slow-moving'' and "wasteful.'' Rarely do people think of government -- federal, state or local -- as being a leader in using technology to gain efficiencies, create mentorship networks and share best practices across agencies.

So, it may create some cognitive dissonance for you to think that the largest social network for government employees is operated out of Tampa, FL.

The man behind it is tall -- maybe 6'3'' or 6'4'' -- and despite being a frequent flier to D.C., he's much more of a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy than a Seersucker suit man.

Steve Ressler, 27, was working at the Department of Homeland Security in 2007 when his supervisor asked him to create a strategic plan. His first thought was to reach out to another agency to sneak a peek at theirs (not a bad idea, right?), but when he discovered that there was no way to connect with other government employees online, he realized there was a problem.

Funny thing about problems: They're usually opportunity in disguise.

Ressler recognized what could be, and soon started GovLoop. Four years later, it's now widely considered to be the "Facebook for government.''

But while Facebook affords you the opportunity to know what your neighbor had for lunch, how terrible her new tattoo looks and just who's been 'poking' who, GovLoop is different. Indeed, the comparison begs the question: How exactly is "Facebook for government'' a useful endeavor?

For starters, and much like Facebook, GovLoop is a content machine. There are more than 20 new blog posts every day on topics from leadership to project management and best practices in human resources. Another popular GovLoop feature is the more than 1,000 sub-groups on the site. Examples: government videographers, geeks in government, cloud computing for agencies. One of the most popular sub-groups: intra-agency employment opportunities.

Sounds cool, right? Ressler says it's getting better every day.

"One of the biggest needs of our members is more mentoring at work, so we're starting a mentor matching project this summer where we'll match our members with peer-to-peer, traditional and reverse mentors mentoring opportunities to help people do their jobs better and advance their careers,'' Ressler says. "We see ourselves creating safe spaces for people to discuss the real problems they're facing.''

Who Pays For It?

The site is supported by 14 key partnerships with companies like Google, Geico and Deloitte.

"Our philosophy on sponsorship is that advertisement is about true engagement, as opposed to blinking banner ads and annoying popups,'' says Ressler. "We believe it's about offering opportunities for our partners to engage with our members, and educate them on the products, services and thought leadership that can help their agencies better serve the American people. For example, sponsored sub-groups, and guest blogging are common practices.''

To facilitate and manage this online community, GovLoop has employees who focus on the community side: content creation, a daily e-newsletter, engaging with community members, etc., and another team specifically involved in experience design and quality.  They've also recently tried their hand at events, with government-specific meetups (GovUp's), as well as their flagship program: an annual conference.

 Just how did GovLoop end up in Tampa? USF.

Ressler's fiancé (congratulations!) is a professor at the University of South Florida, and they moved to Tampa in August of '07.

GovLoop seems to be a very DC-focused organization, so there must be challenges to operating it out of Tampa Bay, right?

"Obviously the heart of government is in DC, and I have to travel there one to two times a month. However, it's not bad because I love Tampa International Airport!'' Ressler says. "There's a direct flight and free wifi is my friend."

He then smiles and says that he can wake up in Tampa and still have a relaxing morning even though he needs to attend a 10 a.m. meeting with beltway bandits.

What else does he like about living and working in the Tampa Bay region?

The people.

"For example, my friend Chris Bennett – he runs GovLive, and has just launched a new company called: Callyo; we have a ton in common. We both graduated from Penn, started dating our girlfriends at the same time, and got engaged at the same time. We met online via Twitter, and I realized he was based in Tampa. I reached out to him and we've just been friends ever since. He's also how I got into the entrepreneurial networking group for web ventures: WaVE.

So What's Next For GovLoop?

With a goal of educating and inspiring participants dedicated to public service, GovLoop will have its annual conference on July 28th and 29th. They expect to have more than 500 Gen X and Gen Y government leaders, representation from the White House, as well as an industry presence from notable businesses such as Zappos.   

They're also working on a redesign of the site to include an expanded jobs and career advice section and expert interviews with government leaders. Without tipping his hand too much, Ressler says he thinks there is an opportunity using multimedia to have truly engaging interactions across government agencies that have never been done before.

At a time when Florida unemployment lingers at a disturbingly high rate, it's good to know that GovLoop is hiring. Steve says that they're always looking for talented people, and that they've designed a fellows program to help 2-3 graduate students or recent grads who are passionate about public service and social media get paid to work on meaningful, real world projects.

At the end of the day, this is a guy who: 1) Experienced a problem (strategic plan assignment); and 2) built a solution on an open-source platform (NING), that is now creating value for tens of thousands of people around the country. It's safe to say that Tampa Bay has imported another DIY'er with an entrepreneurial soul.

To close the interview with 83 Degrees, Ressler was offered a chance to weigh in on where he thought the future stadium of the Tampa Bay Rays should be located. His response:

"Are you serious?''

Yes.

"I could live with either side of the Bay, as long as it doesn't hurt my favorite coffee shop in St. Pete, Kahwa, or Café Hey in Tampa.''

Well-played, sir. You must spend time in DC.

Nathan Schwagler is a freelance journalist, creative problem solving facilitator and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at USF St. Petersburg who will buy you a cup of coffee or a delicious pint if you promise to tell him something interesting -- on the record. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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