Government Technology

Web 2.0 Tools Strengthen Toxic Substances Control in California

April 19, 2009 By

In recent years U.S. consumers dealt with several frightening instances of contaminated products reaching their shelves -- dog food, children's toys and other products -- that contained poisons or heavy metals. At the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), CIO Shell Culp and her staff are using a combination of technology tools and legislation to keep toxins out of manufactured goods, while keeping Californians informed about what goes into the items they buy. To do this, the agency launched the Green Chemistry Initiative, a campaign to label manufactured goods similarly to food products. The initiative, which sparked the passage of two state laws, gives the DTSC new abilities to identify what chemicals are coming into the state via manufactured goods.

In this interview, Culp describes how the department uses new Web technologies, internally and externally, to accomplish its expanded mission. The department is among the first in the nation to use a wiki to collect public comment as it develops regulations to implement the Green Chemistry Initiative. The simple yet effective tool goes a long way toward more transparent government. But as the DTSC's duties evolve, Culp said employees need an outlet to share their thoughts and voice their objections. Interestingly the department lets staff post anonymous comments, positive or negative, to an internal blog. In the public sector, where speaking your mind isn't always an option, Culp described how Web 2.0 tools are helping employees manage change.

What is the DTSC's mission?

At its most basic, our mission is to protect the health and safety of California in terms of toxic substances. The Green Chemistry Initiative is very forward-looking, where before we were always concerned about what was coming out of the pipe at the end. We'd have all these manufacturing processes and life cycles of goods and products, and we were concerned with what happened to them after the end of their useful life or the end of the manufacturing process and cleaning up the junk that was left. The Green Chemistry Initiative really refocuses that view into "Let's not get to toxic waste. Let's make sure that chemicals and products used in the manufacturing process are green to start with and/or the product's next use is identified before it goes into production, so we don't have to clean anything up."

Can you talk about the blog DTSC created and its purpose?

It provides a channel of communication for feedback from employees. It's an internal blog. We implemented the blog so we could give employees a way to complain, make suggestions and offer feedback. We're in the middle of some big change initiatives, where we're flattening the structure of the department and implementing performance measures. That stirs up a fair amount of consternation for the employees. So the blog enables them to give feedback on any of those change initiatives.

We had used an older technology -- WebBoard. It has a newer version, but we used an ancient version. It's on our intranet, but it's not pretty. Because it wasn't pretty, our Office of Human Capital felt like we wanted to do something different -- a suite of tools to let people attach pictures, videos and that sort of thing. So we switched up and started using TypePad and moderated it. But that didn't really sit well with the employee base, and we didn't get any participation on it like we did with the old, funky WebBoard that provided a fair measure of anonymity. For a five-month period, we had TypePad and people had to log in and identify themselves -- and nobody used it. So we scrapped that and went back to the old WebBoard last month, and people are back letting

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