Several weeks back, at a GTRA Council Meeting, I heard my former CIO at EPA, Malclom Jackson, talk about “Developing a Secure Mobile-First Culture – the EPA’s Story.”

Among other points, he announced an “aggressive and accelerated procurement for new EPA collaboration tools”: one month to advertise, one month to decide, and four months to implement, so it is ready by November. Malcolm deserves credit on a number of fronts for pushing these ideas forward and quickly.

But it also reminded of a point about government that I experienced many times during my 30-plus years of government service at EPA: namely, senior managers in government repeat work that has been done in the past either because they do not know about it or choose to ignore it and start from scratch again.

I asked him if he was also working on the two functions that I had found important in my experience with doing this, provisioning content and dealing with limited bandwidth, and he said they were.

But I know from my experience at EPA that those two things are not going to happen in a short period of time. It took me three years to prepare EPA’s best content in a collaboration tool that supports limited bandwidth use on both desktop and mobile devices.

In my government experience, the 90-9-1 rule applies… only 1% will really use (new tools) and be doers and evangelists.”

I would have also felt better about what Jackson announced if he had mentioned it supported and followed the standards outlined by Federal CIO Steve VanRoekel in his Building a Digital Government Strategy.

One can do these things from the top down: That is, respond to the need for collaboration tools for an agency that work on mobile devices, procure them and hope that the employees put their content in them.

Or one can work from the bottom up: Use what employees are already using to put their content in to collaborate with others and see if those tools will scale up and federate.

We have all seen organizations procure yet another set of collaboration tools, only to then have a massive migration problem with legacy content and users still continue to use their tools of choice. For example, mobile has evolved from “This is the only tool we offer” (e.g. BlackBerry) to now Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) (e.g. iPhones, iPads, etc.)

So what should Malcolm and others in his situation do?

First, I would go around asking and looking for what has already been done and ask the real productive people at EPA, who are collaborating with others inside and outside the agency, what they are using (at EPA or outside of EPA) or would use if they had permission, and encourage others at EPA to try those pockets of excellence first.

In my government experience, the 90-9-1 rule applies: 90% of the employees will just observe what others do (with collaboration tools in this case), 9% will use them in some way, but only 1% will really use them and be doers and evangelists of others. This rule states that 1% of people create content, 9% edit or modify that content, and 90% view the content without contributing.

So in effect procurement of collaboration tools for the masses can be a frustrating and wasteful experience because the real content creators (1%) will keep using what they have been using, and the viewers (90%) won’t care, unless they cannot find the content they are looking for, which can happen if all the legacy content is not moved and their bookmarks to it updated, which is a big job!

I encouraged him to look at some of the work I did when I returned to EPA in 2007, where I was asked to build EPA and federal content into a collaboration tool, that has become the leading social knowledgebase (using MindTouch), and now makes that content available on mobile devices to users with limited bandwidth.

So I’m wishing Malcolm good luck, and I will still be here with my collaboration tool with all that EPA and Federal content if you need me, and it will not cost you a thing. And I’m also including this list of suggested apps and their data sources from EPA (and the Department of Health and Human Services) and a new app contest that might also be of help to Malcolm and others so as not to reinvent the wheel.