Showing posts from November, 2013

Chief Conversationalist: Why Federal Agencies Still Shy Away From Real Engagement

It is better to be the river than the moat. Photo by Colin via Flickr.
Recently I read that people trust federal employees, but they don't trust the federal government as a whole. According to survey after survey, trust in this institution is at an "all time low."

From a common sense point of view, it's not really hard to know why. The public regularly depends on our huge infrastructure to function. But of course it doesn't always do that, or people disagree about...well just about everything.

But then agencies make a neutral-to-bad situation worse - by being notoriously closemouthed about responding to criticism.

(There are some exceptions, like the Transportation Safety Administration, probably because they have an unpleasant but necessary job involving so many customers every single day. This story about their partnership with a hotel chain to reduce tension at checkpoints is a must-read.)

It's not that they don't know what people are saying. They do, at le…

My Top 10 Principles for Federal Digital Engagement, FY2014

Like Swiss cheese, real transparency is open and engaging (well, to most people). Photo via Flickr.
I'm the Director of Digital Engagement for a Federal Agency, the National Archives and Records Administration.

We're talking about how we evolve our social media plan into something bigger, broader, and more like what we have implemented on the ground. And then to give that thing more of a name.

Personally I tend to like the informal approach. Whatever you are doing, it's an animal that's moving in time. It's already got an energy. But every now and then it's good to give things a name, a structure, to articulate the method.

Let's start with what I absolutely abhor:

1. We do not, cannot, and should never be doing propaganda, because we're not Coca-Cola and we're not allowed to do it. It is not about pushing a story that makes us look good.

2. We should not be wasting taxpayer money on pointless babble. Even if we aren't killing a tree, it is a misapprop…

Focus: It Is Always A Problem Of Leadership

Sherlock Holmes has focus.
“What are we trying to achieve here?”
It’s such a simple question. But for a messed-up organization, the answer is impossible. They’re divided against each other on the inside, fighting to look good on the outside, and afraid to stand behind a priority that isn’t the flavor of the day.
So you listen to their words, and try to make sense of stuff like this: Idealism versus profit: “We want to change the world, and hopefully earn a living at the same time.”Pie-in-the-sky revenue models: “Our concept is unlike any other. We’ve got to spread the word. Our brand will do the talking for us, and eventually we’ll sell this thing for billions.” All-over-the-place goals: “It’s all about investing in the next big thing, but we can’t forget efficiency and customer service.”

Collaboration, Or Have You Been Played?

Photo by Kenneth Lu via Flickr

"I am not your Governor." That great line from The Walking Dead rang in my ears as I watched the latest episode, where the bad guy pretends to be reformed and then shows his true colors. 
As a leader, this character takes it right out of the nastiest playbook around. His method of "teaming up" consists of murdering his enemies, then flattering and then intimidating a set of minions into doing what he wants. 
A true Machiavellian.
In contrast, on this fictional survival show that has a very realistic vibe, good guy leader "Rick" doesn't like doing mean things. He will kill if he has to, but Rick established his leadership position by empowering people and working as a team. 
Here's another example, because this plot line is a staple.
Remember Melrose Place? That quintessential '90s show gave us Heather Locklear in rare form as the scheming ad agency exec "Amanda" - a lying, scheming, manipulative but well-dres…

Open Government, Branding & The Fishbowl

Photo by Tristan Ferne via Flickr
In today's "open," social media-dominated times, private sector branding and government branding are completely different animals.

Private sector branding is about making money through the construction of an image that adds a premium to the real value of the product. Given the raging demand for authenticity, the strategy is to establish an illusion of transparency while maintaining strict control over what appears on the outside.Public sector, i.e. government branding is about actually getting the public involved in what the government is doing, for a lot of reasons. Compliance reduces enforcement expenditure. Partnerships reduce costs, increase efficiency and allow subject matter experts to focus on what they do best. (This is not to mention that the government is not supposed to be an entity distinct from the people but rather one and the same, accountable to them.) The communication imperative therefore is to drive actual transparency, …

Couples Therapy

Photo by Francis Norman via Flickr
Old Gov and New Gov finally went to see a therapist. It was that, or part ways after so many years.

The two of them started out happy, but New Gov had recently received her "15 Years of Service" pin.
Though she had only a dozen or so years left until retirement, New Gov's midlife crisis was getting worse and worse.
Old Gov would not have gone to therapy at all. But he could not ignore the numbers. And this year's Best Places To Work rankings were the pits.
At first he had tried to blame their problems on money - specifically, the lack of it. The pay freeze. Shutdown. Sequestration. Furlough. Continuing resolution. 
Call it what you want, it all spells "less food on the table."
But there was also the morale factor to consider. After so many years, Old Gov didn't care what people said anymore. But New Gov wanted to be listened to, and appreciated. She had so many years ahead of her.
Frankly, Old Gov was scared that New Gov would…

I'm With Stupid

Photo by dbkfrog via Flickr
The following conversation never occurred, but it could have.

There we were at the conference table. Yet another meeting. Close to sundown, as the days are growing short.

"I have to tell you something," I said.


"I don't think I'm as smart as I need to be. And it bothers me."

"What? What do you mean?"

"I mean, I can't keep up. Harvard, MIT, interns who know five languages and produce videos on their iPhones. Coders for America."

She looked at me as if to say, I can't believe you're saying this. And then she started laughing.

But I felt like Norma Rae. I had to speak out.

"What the hell is all this new technology, anyway? Every minute a new thing to learn."

A surge of blood flew up my face. My fists clenched instinctively. I would stand up against the constant invasion of new, new, new!

"Snapchatter, Github, APIs. What the hell is an API?"

Up, up, up and away.

"First they…

Beautiful Ugly

Photo by CameliaTWU via Flickr
My mother is absolutely beautiful. But if you asked her, she would tell you she is ugly.

I love my mother more because she is who she is. People who lie, whose faces are a mask of plastic surgery, are repulsive no matter how beautiful they are.

Falsehood makes us run. On television, Mad Men is a mad hit, but "the sexism, in particular, is almost suffocating, and not in the least fun to watch," Gregory Rodriguez writes in the L.A. Times.

It's the hidden side of the characters -- the dark and painful and yes, ugly -- that is most compelling.

Miley Cyrus is a tasteless train wreck, showy and exhibitionistic. Is that why people listen to her music? Or is it that we hear in her voice our own broken hearts? "Wrecking Ball" makes me tear up every time. It got a record 19.3 million views within 24 hours of its appearance on the Vevo video music channel.

A lifetime of drug-fueled partying is ugly, too, when you look at it up close. Charlie Sheen…

Innovation Is Supposed To Feel Bad, Not Good

Photo by Meg Hourihan via Flickr
When you work for an innovative person, it is actually like living underneath skis.

There they are, flying high, doing all sorts of exciting stunts. And you are looking up from underneath.

You know they're going to land, right? And when that happens, boy will it make a big mess.

If you are snow, you can only look forward to losing your clean, white, smooth surface. That calm you worked so hard to achieve...ruined.

Some days the innovator walks on the snow instead of skis. And it's actually worse.

But the practicalities of navigating a slope cannot be avoided. You can't fly all the time.

So they're slogging around, and your beautiful snow is even more dredged up. Destroyed.

But what if you, yourself are the innovator? Is it any better then?

Not really.

Because all the while you are soaring here is what you have to think about:

* This feels

* Is there going to be enough snow to catch me when I land? Did someone take care of that?

* If this…

Quantum Physics & Guardian Angels

Photo by Allen County Public Library via Flickr

This week the U.K. Daily Mailpublished an article about Professor Robert Lanza's theory that death is an illusion created in our own minds. Lanza's theory, "biocentrism," uses quantum physics to make his case.

I'm no quantum physicist, but I have always believed there's a "before" and an "after."

It takes different things to convince people of what I see as an obvious fact.

In Many Lives, Many Masters, psychiatrist and initial skeptic Brian Weiss talks about his experience with a patient whose regression into past lives provided the scientific evidence he needed to believe.

The patient was cured and Weiss was motivated to write down what he saw in a book, observing, "If faith is not enough, perhaps science will help." 

I have personally observed on many occasions that new friends seem like people I already know very well. There is no way that I could know this, and they tell me the same t…

It Is Better To Be Interesting Than Likable

Peggy Olson is interesting. Are you ready for Mad Men, Season 6?
We were put on this planet to evolve. Not just from physical infancy to maturity. But also in our heads and hearts. We are supposed to nurture our talents. Grow out of ignorance, hatred, selfishness. Become who we are really supposed to be.

None of this can happen if we are living for a Facebook "like."

You see this in kids all the time, especially girls. They are so busy with the hair and makeup. Where are they? 

You see this in leaders too. They have something really good to say. But they are consumed with what people say about them. If they aren't popular, they get scared and become all mealymouthed.

I often think this about President Obama. I remember the 2008 campaign. And there are flashes of that candidate now on TV. But most of the time he seems "handled." And when a leader tries to be likable rather than do things that command respect, they wind up with low approval ratings - signifying neithe…

The Most Important Marketing Lesson We Can Learn From Obamacare: Just Make It Work

Photo by t_buchtele via Flickr
At every staff meeting the executives agonize about how to say things.

"Should we 'message' it this way or that way?"

"We don't want to sound too negative, but we also want to be credible."

"What's the big idea? They will want to know the vision."

But most of the time, unless you're giving an annual address - through which I might add the vast majority of people sleep, having listened to meaningless promises before - the people just want to know one thing.

Why doesn't the goshdarn thing work?

In politics ideology quickly falls away when a party demonstrates its effectiveness at getting things done. People run to politicians who can execute!

This was the lesson of Obamacare. The mission to provide healthcare for all is noble. But the actual website is a fail, the law is incomprehensible, and the business implementation is a nightmare as insurance companies and citizens alike scramble madly to figure out what t…

Remembering The People We Tend To Forget

Photo via
In every war movie there is a death scene. A character has their head blown off, a second is traumatized to see it and wants to stay with them. A third person inevitably grabs the second and says, "Let's go! Don't look at them! We've got to leave!"

There is something about death, like depression, that sucks you in and grabs hold of you. Like a zombie on 'The Walking Dead,' it bites you and turns you into one of them. Last night, the leader gives his son a massive gun and tells him: Kill, run, or die.

When Sodom is destroyed in the Bible Lot's wife is told the same thing. G-d will save you but you have to run straightforwardly - do not turn around. She doesn't listen, turns back to look, and is immediately struck dead, "a pillar of salt."

The tendency to run from people in trouble is not only selfish. It is a primitive act of survival. We do not want to be one of them.
We do not want to know about the Philippines typhoon -…

People Become What We Label Them

As an 80s kid I watched all the popular John Hughes movies. 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off,' 'Pretty In Pink,' 'The Breakfast Club,' 'Sixteen Candles,' and so on.

Every one of those movies had a hero who was also a troublemaker.

'Ferris Bueller' - Matthew Broderick, who played Ferris, skipped school, stole his friend's father's car, and broke not a few other rules of convention for a day of fun. Yet he continually received positive feedback from the crowd. It seemed no matter what he did, or because he did what he did, Ferris was a star.'The Breakfast Club' - Judd Nelson, who played Bender the juvenile delinquent, also broke the law and the rules. His actions frequently made sense, including self-defense against the sadistic principal. Yet because he was in the category of "bad," there was no good that he could do, and every action pushed him further down the rabbit hole.
Here is one scene between Bender and Vernon (the pri…