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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Escaping Backwards Content


I joined the civil service in 2003 as a Writer-Editor for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Now - before you hit the "snooze" button on your alarm clock, let me tell you that the OCC was a pretty compelling place to be.

You know those incredible credit card offers you get in the mail?

OCC, which regulates the national banks, was out there before the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was born -- educating its employees about the risks of deceptive credit marketing.

During my time there, a dynamic and idealistic Elizabeth Warren gave a talk on such practices. I remember how much I enjoyed it and how proud I was to see my resulting article in the newsletter.

SuperVisions, as we called the employee publication, was the major part of my job. As part of the internal communications team, we had to deliver it -- stuffed like a goose with articles -- regularly.

But as I soon discovered, delivering a monthly employee publication that people actually want to read is not such an easy job.

Because while our stated purpose was to deliver compelling content, our actual goal was, mostly, to:
  • Find employees willing to contribute an article.
  • Lightly copyedit their work.
  • Obtain their permission to publish the final version.
It was at the OCC that I earned the (dubious) title of "USA Today," as in, "there you go again, USA Today, oversimplifying everything!"

Now please, don't get me wrong: I consider it a compliment, as a writer, if you "insult" me in that way. Because it means that I've made a difficult thing comprehensible, even interesting.

However, in the professional world that I lived in, such talk was considered harsh.

It didn't seem fair to me.

But what was I to do?

Fast forward a bit and one day I was presented with the opportunity to make an electronic version of the newsletter.

Until that time, it was a given that the bank examiners wanted something in print.

"They like to take it into the bathroom with them and read it," was my supervisor's comment (which I had to think about for a minute. Is that a good thing???)

In any case: We had started using "Lotus Notes," a product you may remember.

This was before the social media years, and apparently the software had a neat little trick built into it -- one that absolutely amazed me.

You could assign ratings to content!

Like a fevered, mad scientist, I labored to bake that special feature into the electronic version.

Now you had a reason to go online!

And now, thanks to Lotus Notes, you could tell us -- the newsletter's editors -- if a particular article was not particularly interesting.

(We could also have measured how many people actually clicked on each particular article.)

I recall that my electronic version debuted with very little fanfare.

I believe my supervisor "previewed" it for all of ten seconds.

And then she screamed, "NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!"

Or at least, to my ears, it sounded like she had.

"WE ARE NOT GOING TO TELL PEOPLE THEIR ARTICLES ARE BORING!!!!!"

I had to bend over forward in my chair.

I had to shield my ears.

"HAVE YOU GONE COMPLETELY INSANE????????"

I was a fully grown human being, all of 32 years old, but that didn't stop me from crying -- bitter, angry tears.

All the way home on the train, through two train connections and a miserable packed train, I cried and cried and cried.

Painfully, I had learned the very first and most important lesson about organizational behavior: Every organization is dysfunctional, but as irrational as it may sound, that dysfunction actually serves a purpose.

Now it's almost 15 years later. Government communication has progressed -- incredibly so.
  • We've learned how to use the tools of the private sector.
  • We've accepted the importance of measuring our own work, using analytic tools that are objective.
  • And we're even starting to agree with the idea that government information can and should be customer-centric first, not a turf-building exercise that skirts appropriations laws that prohibit "puffery and propaganda."
But what we are missing -- what we're still missing -- is the fundamental shift in thinking that has turned the private sector on its head.

The reason we exist, as a government entity, is only to serve the public.

Everything we do, every single piece of content we create, must be aimed at meeting their needs.

If we can't demonstrate that sense of singular purpose -- if we have even a shred of doubt in our minds about whether the words are worth it -- why then should we bother?

___________

This blog post is hereby released by the author, Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal, into the public domain. All opinions are the author's own. Public domain photo via Pixabay.