Dear Bureaucrat,

I know there’s somebody in every agency doing the exact same work I do, but I don’t know them. I’d like to see if other people have better ways to do the job, and I wouldn’t mind sharing (showing off) some solutions I’ve worked out. I found an online group for people who do the same work as me, but there hadn’t been any postings to it for years, and when I posted introducing myself nobody replied. I could put in the effort to try to find people doing my job in other agencies and build community, but I don’t want to waste my time if people aren’t going to participate. What makes a professional community work?

Signed, Vox Clamantis in Deserto

Dear Vox,

The abandoned online group you found is not unusual. There is lots of free and easy-to-use technology for groups, ranging from old fashioned email lists to social media. But if members don’t post questions and information that others are interested in, then the community fades into inactivity. Go ahead with your impulse to revive your professional community. There are some research findings that can help you make it a success.

Binz-Scharf, Lazer and Mergel examined why public sector workers do or don’t participate in a network of practice. The workers they looked at were DNA analysts in state and local government crime laboratories. They found that workers seek advice from their colleagues in other agencies when they all need to meet the same requirement from above. In the case of the laboratories, the requirement from above was FBI standards for the quality of DNA profiles they all supplied to the national database. Look for some requirement that you and your colleagues in other agencies are all subject to, such as a form you all need to submit to an oversight agency or an approval you all need to obtain. When you invite colleagues in other agencies to participate in the community, talk about how you can share information on meeting these requirements you all deal with. Keep the community useful by posting your own questions and experience about meeting the shared requirements, and encourage others to do so.

The research also found that workers want to feel secure that information they share in the professional group won’t be used against them. The DNA analysts’ original email list was not limited to employees of the state and local crime labs. Defense attorneys joined the list, and the analysts were concerned anything they posted might be used to discredit their testimony in court. Eventually the analysts started a new email list that outsiders were not allowed to join. For your own professional community, you will probably find your colleagues will be more willing to post questions and share experience if outsiders are not allowed to join. But members might forward posts to non-members, and the postings may be subject to public records laws, so there is no guarantee that what is posted will stay within the group.

Maybe the most important lesson from Binz-Scharf, Lazer and Mergel’s research is that even after the email list was made insiders-only, personal relationships and in-person meetings were still key to sharing information across agency lines.

Personal relationships build trust — trust that the person giving you advice knows what she is talking about, and maybe trust that the two of you will keep the conversation private. Relationships also provide a reason to share information. You are more likely to take time for a colleague you know than one who is just a username on an email list. So in your own professional community, help the members feel they know each other. For example, set up the online group to show the members each other’s real names and agencies, rather than just usernames or email addresses.

No matter how good your online community is, in-person meetings will make it better, because they build personal relationships and trust. Binz-Scharf, Lazer and Mergel found that national conferences, including an annual training conference sponsored by the FBI, built personal relationships that made the DNA analysts willing to ask each other for technical advice and to give it. I had the same experience. I started an online discussion forum for my professional colleagues. A few people joined, but hardly anyone other than me posted to the forum. Then someone else started organizing in-person meetings of our professional community. There was valuable information sharing at the in-person meetings, and they led to more use of the online forum.

So yes, building a community among people who do the same work as you is valuable, and it can work, but it may take more than an online group.

Dear Bureaucrat provides the federal workforce with the opportunity to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.

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