Pleio is used by 75,000 in the Netherlands from all levels of government

A number of governments around the world — including various levels in Canada — are embracing open data, filling up Web sites with links to hundreds of datasets that, hopefully, can be repurposed.

But there’s also another way of encouraging governments to get closer to the public (and vice-versa), and that’s through online collaboration with colleagues at all levels of government.

As freelance columnist Federico Guerrini writes this week on, there are a number of initiatives around the world using software like Parliament Watch, Liquid Feedback and Airesis.  These are efforts built around open source software and run by private non-profit groups.

But what about bureaucrats collaborating with each other? In the Netherlands, he writes, civil servants who work for a wide range of government organizations at the local and national level have built an intranet around a platform that runs on the Elgg open source networking engine.

Called Pleio, it grew out of a collaboration site that used commercial software tools. However, they weren’t flexible. So backers turned to open tools to build the new platform based on one already started by people in the Tax Office. Pleio, supported by donations from government agencies, now has some 75,000 users.

“What I learned,” co-founder Davied van Berlo told Guerrini, “was that although we have the notion of government agencies as hierarchical top down structures, this is less and less true and they need to collaborate “horizontally” as well, with other government agencies, with companies and citizen groups. Government is becoming more and more a network of people collaborating to solve complex societal problems and to be able to do this, they need pervacive ICT platforms to empower them.”

Imagine — a national intranet for public servants, who can also use it to communicate with people outside and exchange ideas.

Would it work here? I doubt it. The federal and provincial governments  have a history of not working together at the political level, which translates into friction at the public servant level. And perhaps geography plays a role as well — it’s likely easier in a small country like Holland for people to see themselves as part of a community. In Canada the sheer size of the nation acts against that.

But one can dream.