How Public Sector Organizations Can Learn from Quora

Friday, January 21, 2011
There has been a lot of hype around the not-so-new social network called Quora in the past few weeks. Quora describes itself as:

A continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.

Or as David Griner puts it:

It’s like the community side of LinkedIn, merged with the organic networking of Facebook, smashed up with the informative aspects of Wikipedia, topped with a dash of the “I just can’t see this catching on” from Plurk. With blog comments.

(note: I found that quotation in a piece written by David Armano called “Are Quora Votes A Viable Metric? Influence, Popularity, Expertise, Campaigns & Currency.”)

How can public sector organizations use Quora?

First, I think we need a similar ability to crowdsource questions (and answers) like the one in this Twitter thread somewhere within the government firewall (as opposed to externally):

Hypothetical: Can one deploy back into the core PS from a place like CFIA? Or are you considered "external" at that point? #gocless than a minute ago via TweetDeck

@otowncoho It's not as simple as a deployment, and not "external." It depends on org's status as a separate employer/particular agreements.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

@canuckflack any idea where I'd be able to find more info? Or is it one of those "call the agency" type questions?less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

@otowncoho All your questions answered about deployments in the GoC PS http://www.psc-cfp.gc.ca/plcy-pltq/rfli-lirf/a-z-eng.htmless than a minute ago via TweetDeck

This question has undoubtedly played out hundreds, if not thousands of times within different pockets of the bureaucracy. Each question answered on a case-by-case basis. Think about the time saved if we actually started to codify some of the questions and answers that makes them reusable, easy to update, and endorsed by the members across the organization (the “crowd”).

Quora combines the search and add question feature, meaning that as you add a question it automatically starts to search the database for similar questions, resulting in a reduction of duplicate questions, thereby increasing the exposure of existing questions and perhaps ultimately improving the quality of the answers given.

In it's simplest terms, an internal Quora would be akin to an ever-evolving crowdsourced FAQ asked and answered in plain language. If we compare Quora to GCPEDIA, Quora wins hands down:
  • greater sense of focus (without being too prescriptive)
  • better information management
  • better search
  • no need to learn how to code

I'm not saying that GCPEDIA isn't valuable (I still think it is) but only that it is being pulled by users in a number of different ways. In fact, I've heard it described as the “Wild West” by a handful of public servants; and I have come to agree. I think the natural consequence of the environment is an incredibly high potential for small innovative uses at the expense of mainstream and/or systematic adoption. To be clear, I think GCPEDIA definitely has it's place within the tool belt, but I also think we need more than one tool to get the job done. The old adage about having only a hammer and everything looking like a nail comes to mind.

One of the other things I find fascinating about Quora is that many people are asking questions related to culture. A quick Google search of the site reveals 23,000 results for the word culture; moreover that doesn't include any of the implicit references to culture. I find this fascinating because, done internally, it could start to expose the workplace culture in some interesting ways. Think about new employees entering the enterprise asking questions or challenging answers for questions already answered. The structure creates room for conversations that drive workplace culture, connects like-minded individuals and creates institutional memory.

I should mention however that one thing Quora does (that most online services do really) is leverage your existing social networks in order to connect you to relevant users and questions. Any organization looking to bring Quora-like functionality behind the firewall would have to reconcile this in some way.

Is there also a place for external stakeholder engagement on Quora?

In a word: Yes.

There will undoubtedly be communications and marketing opportunities for government agencies on Quora. Think about people asking questions about service provision, grants and contributions, tourism, immigration, regulations around foreign investment, taxation schemes, etc. To be honest, I just haven't had the time to think them all through.

What about you? Have you checked out Quora yet? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.