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Saturday, November 30, 2013

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

Moat & bank
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 least to some extent. But that fact alone does not solve everything:
  • Budget cuts have led to homemade news clips, which are dominated by traditional media, selectively chosen and don't tell you whether most coverage is positive or negative, or why.
  • Social media news clips are unsophisticated or there is a perception that social media is "not real" or populated by extremists, e.g. "crazy people."
  • Providing negative feedback can get you in trouble - I have actually had someone caution me, "Be careful that people don't think you are disloyal for sharing this stuff." (And I've also seen myself quoted on a public message board with the insinuation that I'm a government propagandist.)
  • Some tend to shrug off valid criticism as "just more or the same" or "ignorance."
All of this is really just denial that listening is important, and that what our stakeholders think of us matters, and that we cannot control it. The denial comes from defensiveness - fear.

Agencies tend to equate listening to criticism, acknowledging it, and talking about it as equivalent to admitting they have done something wrong. It seems like a strange phenomenon, especially when you consider that government leaders and ordinary employees are extraordinarily dedicated to and passionate about helping the public.

But unfortunately, the fear is based in reality, as feds are regularly bashed in public and confronted by a lot of red tape as well. Former Harvard University president Larry Summers has commented about the daunting nature of public service as a career (of course, this as a political's perspective):

"The fact that it takes so long to be confirmed by the Senate, the fact that you have to go through the financial equivalent of a colonoscopy to enter government . . . The fact that there are so many rules and restrictions and bits of hostility towards those who are in government."

Conversely, the public does not understand the nature of federal government communication.
  • For one thing, Agency officials and their representatives are very careful about what they say. They cannot talk "off the cuff." Words have weight, the weight of history and official record. And there are many consultations about the way that speech is made.
  • There is also coordination across agencies, and between civil servants and political appointees, to coordinate and keep Agency speech consistent.
All of this is why Open Government is so critically important to digital engagement, and communication. 
  • Simply releasing high-value data in a usable format bolsters trust and credibility in and of itself. 
  • On this front, my experience has been that (contrary to popular stereotypes) the "politicals" want agencies to move forward, get the data out there, share as much as possible, now.
  • It's not just words, but absolute credo among every person I've seen speak, or spoken with directly.
I'm not saying bad things never happen - scandals. Of course they do. But the reality I see is much more banal.

You know what people say to me, when they hear what I do?
  • "Tell your agency to make records management a more logical process." 
  • "Tell me how I can find these images you have in the catalog, that only have a description of a location, but no actual JPEG attached."
  • "I visited NARA one time, I was looking for information on my grandfather."
There it is...and what happened? Some is good, some is bad, and nobody is going to die. Engagement, feedback, interaction, and dialogue have to be a normal thing. Criticism doesn't bite. We have to get used to hearing it and dealing with it in a way that's productive.

Within the Agency, there is also a key distinction to be made between related activities, and a critical realization to be made.

  • Digital engagement is not communication in and of itself. It is the act of facilitating communication across online channels, broadening access to all interested parties.
  • You can judge the quality of digital engagement by the number of conversations, the substantive quality of those conversations, and how well they filter into the agency and back out to the public.
  • Failure to listen, engage and "conversate" creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Silence or awkward, stuttering responses create assumptions - incompetence or a great big conspiracy to control the world.
Any fear-based strategy doesn't work. 

With respect to engagement and communication, it only leads to this kind of thinking as a trigger-fire response: "Don't add fuel to the fire."

The downstream consequence is "outreach" and "digital engagement" that shies away from substantive issues and toward non-controversial education. Sophisticated technology - flashy social media tools, the latest and greatest mobile apps, multimedia presentations - become a substitute for the real conversation the public wants. A waste of time if it doesn't move the needle.

So actually, the best thing a government engagement specialist can do is to be a channel for what people are saying - both on the outside and on the inside.

This "chief conversationalist" (digital engagement lead or director) listens, connects, validates that the sentiments are real - thus bringing inflamed emotions down, and facilitating a rational dialogue. This person does not have to be a subject matter expert - in fact it is better if they are not - because the goal is to hear what other people are saying without personal bias as to whether it is relevant.

Great engagement yields improvement in the way agencies work, better-served citizens, and more efficient and effective government as a whole.

* All opinions my own.