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Thursday, February 26, 2015

All Roads May Lead To Open Opportunities

My first years in government were not exactly easy. Well, let's correct that - they have never really been easy. The bureaucracy was built, at least conceptually, to process many people in a relatively efficient way - employees included. The idea of "individuality" was an anomalous. Not bad, necessarily, but sort of like finding a purple orange. You would hold it up and say, "wow, that's different," but at the end of the day you'd want the regular orange kind. Because...the fruit is supposed to look a certain way and that's the only kind you'd trust.

But it was around 2003 then, and it was a time of change anyway. Not so much around social media or branding or any of that. But around the idea that we did not have to do things the old-fashioned way, the inefficient way, anymore. 

From a communication standpoint I do think that Al Gore's Federal Communication Network was revolutionary. Suddenly there was this loosely knit group of people who reached out to one another - regardless of what agency they were in - and commiserated. They encouraged each other to do great writing. No...more than that. They believed, very staunchly, that government ought to set the standard of excellence when it came to all things communication. 

No matter what was going on inside the walls of a particular government agency, the FCN was there as a kind of support group.

And we all knew each other. It was a very "in-person" thing, no emails, no phone calls. At every meeting I went to, in every conversation, at some point someone would say, "Did you know Pat Wood?" and yes, everybody did, we all knew Pat. Maybe we didn't know where she worked, necessarily, but she was a symbol of all that we sought to be.

One time Pat actually called me, and it was almost like I'd gotten a call from the President himself.

It was around 2009, maybe, that I started to get involved in setting up speaker events for the FCN, along with the GPO's Jeff Brooke. Jeff was a lot like Pat Wood - just plain motivated to do the work of networking. He was involved with the International Association of Business Communicators, and they used to sponsor breakfast learning sessions. Periodically, about 40-50 of us shlepped over to that red brick building and learn about best practices from a "real" speaker - someone who didn't mind giving us an hour of their time.

Also around that time, I recall that we formed the Federal Social Media Subcouncil. I am concerned that if I start saying names, I'll miss some, but there were a lot of us. I can't remember anymore what the structure was, but I do remember a kind of primitive wiki, and how a very large group gathered in a conference room somewhere in D.C. And there was a foundational white paper that went along with it as well.

Steve Ressler formed GovLoop in November 2009, I think. I remember the month and year because I wrote one of its first blogs, and couldn't believe what I was thinking. That despite the horrible logo and color, it was going to be a huge success.

Of course, the past five years have seen an explosion of interagency work. It's hard to believe the dynamism of it. And it does seem like the private sector vendors who used to sell us conferences have largely faded into the woodwork, as we embark upon the work of teaching ourselves.

Anyway. 

A TIME OF NO TIME 

I started to get involved in DigitalGov last year, but not as much as I wanted to - too busy.

But I did think about it. The academic in me kept churning. Why don't we do things all together? I always thought. The federal government is really just one brand. Why don't we consolidate certain mission support functions and offer them back as shared services? Human resources, IT, graphic design, procurement - every single agency shouldn't need to do these things for themselves.

Again, busy busy.

One thing I kept coming back to was social media terms of service. So many good concrete steps forward (and here I will shamelessly promote Gwynne Kostin, one of the unsung heroes of this space). But why don't we go a step further? I remembered Pat Wood's Guide for Federal Communicators, and how hard it was to get a copy, and how everybody wanted one. 

I thought about the Standard Operating Procedures I was trying to write for our folks.

Why couldn't we have a Big Blue Book of SOPs for all federal communicators? One set of rules, that covers everything, with a rationale and tied to all the various laws and authorities that guide our work?

At the end of the day, communicators really just want to communicate. We needed to take the administrivia and the bureaucracy out of the picture.

The big ideas didn't really go anywhere. But I filed them in that place in my head that you file these kinds of things.

COMING TO NIST

And then I joined NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology), as Communications Director for the Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office.

I have to tell you that I had no idea what NIST was when I went on the interview. 

Also I did not understand what "advanced manufacturing" was. 

Nor did I find it easy to find NIST. Literally, I could not drive there without significant difficulty.

But you know how when something is good it just clicks? As soon as I sat down with the interview panel, I just had this really positive feeling.

And I said all those things you're not supposed to say. For example, I was negative: "Your communication materials are really bad." 

But somehow it was okay. I had never really been interested in science before, but it seems that was my loss. Scientists think...really scientifically. And that is not to make fun of them. It's to express admiration. They just love what they do, and they think logically. 

So they wanted to know all about branding, in this really curious way. 

It felt like I was back in school, but in a better school than any I'd ever attended. No brainwashing, no ideology. Just talk.

In any case, our program is very young. And communication resources are extremely necessary, especially graphics to explain what we do. 

I asked for some detailees, and inquired about Open Opportunities.

TOTAL INCREDULOUSNESS

Internally to my office, people had trouble believing that Open Opportunities existed, or was for real. They were like, "The government does that?"

I said, "Yes, the government does that. It's actually legit."

They were still trying to figure out how I was getting detailees. Because the prevailing image of a detail was something like, "punishment."

But I had this feeling that Open Opps was more than just a way to fill spaces. It was - based on my limited experience as a supervisor - a chance for people to build their careers with low risk. They could find new skills, meet people from other agencies and "soak up" the culture. They could do, in a high-tech way, what I had found so fulfilling through FCN - establish a web of support and good colleagues.

We've had a couple of applicants to our program so far, and both have worked out well. One is working virtually from DC; the other is coming in to the office. And I've spoken with probably half a dozen more.

SEEMS LIKE A TEMPLATE

The unifying themes throughout all these conversations, from candidates:

1) I'm a high performer
2) I want to grow my career
3) I know that skills are needed to do that
4) Not sure where to begin
5) You seem like an encouraging person, and my boss is encouraging me too

If the above 5 factors are indeed a "formula" for Open Opps, aren't they a formula for improving human capital management in the government as well?

Isn't it high time we started thinking of our employees as a lifelong resource to grow, nurture, draw upon, and support over a lifetime?

In the private sector it is fashionable to "churn and burn." But we are different.

Open Opps is the kind of program that proves it. 

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Note - this is not a sales pitch.