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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

As a government communicator I have always had a heightened sensitivity to the gap between what the public wants to hear and what the government wants to say.

I've also understood that the government tends to play catch-up with the communication tools used by the private sector. (It took us *years* to legitimize the use of social media.)

In 2016-2017 one of my major "labors of love" was a research paper called "Advancing Federal Communications." Dozens of us worked on this paper. It called for professional standards for federal communications, similar to the concept used in the UK.

There, the government releases an annual plan for government communication outlining its priorities.

When it comes to communication, the UK also explicitly values measurement, a.k.a. evaluation.

We all know that in the United States, trust in government is at or near what they call "historic lows." We can speculate as to why that is. No doubt performance is a significant part of it.

But so is communication.

In the "olden days," meaning when I started working for the government (2003), the preferred communication style was excessively technical, e.g. nobody could understand what we were talking about. Subject matter experts ruled.

Landmark: "The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed on October 13, 2010. The law requires that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use." https://plainlanguage.gov/law/

But a lot of problems still remain.

Somebody very smart recently was asked what they would do to improve the function of an organization. That person said, let's talk about enhancing the quality of what's already there -- not knocking people down. I agree with that approach.

So let's be positive, and talk about what government communicators tend to have in common: dedication, smarts, nuanced thinking, clarity of writing, technical skill.

Let's build on that.

What government communicators tend to have in common, higher level: They are good at offering strategic, nonpartisan advice.

Another, but not so positive: Federal communicators often don't have a "seat at the table" where communication decisions are made. (Even if they're literally, physically in the room, objective advice is often not wanted.)

They are not taken seriously. And the reason for this, I believe, is a lack of standards for the profession. For example, project management has the "Project Management Body of Knowledge" (PMBOK), and related certification.

Government communicators don't even have a single unifying definition of "communication" as opposed to all other activities.

Furthermore, there is no bachelor's degree in the civil service that I am aware of.

There is no major concentration in "federal government communication."

There isn't even a guidebook that tells people what legal and regulatory authorities they're following as government communicators.

You wouldn't go on Shark Tank without a business plan. Similarly the government cannot magically operate communications without a strategic communication plan for its employees who conduct outreach or convey information.

This really has nothing to do with politics, and it shouldn't. Government communication needs to be nonpartisan.

The only way for a body of work to avoid being dragged into ideology wars is for the work to adhere to a professional set of standards. You should be able to audit government communication according to those.

But unfortunately, most of what the government has in the way of standards for communicators can be reducible to "thou shalt not," as in - "thou shalt not engage in propaganda, puffery, or grassroots lobbying."

While it's helpful to know what NOT to do, this doesn't exactly tell us what TO do. We know that communication is an affirmative duty to ensure accountability, compliance, etc. but that's about it.

There are multiple ways for the situation to be tackled, but first and foremost there has to be motivation at the highest levels to tackle it. (Not only among communicators themselves.)

Here's hoping that that the future will bring us an institutional structure dedicated to establishing standards and annual plans for government communication. Those should clearly establish what the public can expect and how they can complain, and obtain recourse, if they don't get it.

Here's hoping that the government will use its communicators to the fullest, to share as much information as we can, as accurately as we can, as clearly as we can, to ensure the most accountability and compliance possible.

Copyright 2017 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own. This post is hereby released into the public domain. Photo via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

People often say that “you get what you pay for,” but in the case of communication that’s not necessarily true. Rather, “you get what you’re committed to.”

In the case of the federal government, it would be wise for leaders to consider renewing their commitment to honest, accurate, relevant reporting as to how agencies are spending taxpayer dollars. In August 2001, the GAO published “Internal Control and Management Tool,” which identified “information and communications” as one of the top 5 ways an agency can ensure accountability to the public. This term is defined from an internal point of view, as “relevant, reliable” content in all directions. However one can easily take it a step further: Great internal communication means great external communication as well.

And it doesn’t have to be costly. In September 2016, the GAO published a study of the $1.5 billion per year the federal government spends on advertising and public relations. Between FY2006–2014, on average, the federal government spent more than twice as much per year on advertising and PR contracts than on federal public affairs full-time employees: $1 billion vs. $430 million, on average.

(This data is admittedly skewed for a few reasons so consider it a general ballpark figure to compare the relative amount of money spent on contractors vs. FTEs.)

The Department of Defense does the lion’s share of the spending — 60% of the contract obligations and slightly more than 40% of the staff.

Oddly, when you consider how many headlines we regularly read about government “spin doctors” and propagandists, the government spends almost no money on public affairs specialists as civil servants— they comprise just slightly more than 1/4 of a percent (.28%) of all staff.

A recent internal audit by the Army found that much of its marketing and advertising is “ineffective,” a significant problem compounded by the fact that the DoD spends “hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars…each year” on this and plans to spend an estimated $4 billion over the next decade.

We don’t have a copy of the original audit yet, so it’s not clear how the conclusion was reached, but it’s clear that a simple Facebook Q&A is a free and effective way to reach the public. For example the State Dept. recently conducted a Q&A on applying for a U.S. passport.

For those who want to know more, Facebook & GovLoop published a guide to gov. use of FB that describes the Q&A feature (p. 9). This of course is not an endorsement of either.

The point is, there are many free ways to engage proactively with the public on topics they care about.

The trick to doing this well of course is to be receptive to public interest (they may care about a subject you don’t necessarily think is worthy of a session); prepare well (e.g. with a “murderboard” session where you think of the most difficult questions people could ask and develop responses in advance); promote the event effectively, across Facebook and Twitter (State had a great hashtag, #AskTravelGov), and have a clear moderation policy. (It should be a real conversation, not degenerate into a shoutdown.)

When it comes to good communication, commitment (and a bit of common sense) go a lot further than throwing dollars into the trash.


Posted January 9, 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. This post is hereby released into the public domain. All opinions are the author’s own. Creative Commons photo by paulbr75 via Pixabay.
To bring people closer to the observance of the mitzvos, to help them love and fear God in the context of an existence filled with suffering and cruelty.

To provide human and humane answers to the questions people ask, taking into account knowledge of the Torah in its totality. 

To view the totality of Torah as encompassing the commandments that regulate interpersonal relationships (bain Adam LaChavero) and those that regulate the relationship between human beings and God (bain Adam LaMaKom).

To be aware at all times that there are unfortunately so many rabbis who have singlehandedly destroyed the "brand" of Judaism with their misdeeds, in particular through vile exploitation of those who trusted them blindly. 

To support those who do the opposite.

To measure the fitness of other rabbis by their results, not their restrictiveness.

To look for example at the number of people who go to the synagogue and at the increase in their level of observance. 

To be aware that one's observance level is correlated with their being labeled as good people with the potential to be better always -- not sinners from the minute they walk in the door. 

Certainly to distinguish between an actual requirement and a made-up requirement, not to mention a leniency.

To remember that they exist in a social context wherein most Jews don't even believe in God.

To bring their heads up from the books, and get out into the real world with the people.
Posted January 10, 2018 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal, adapted from a Facebook comment posted earlier today. All opinions are the author's own. This post is hereby released into the public domain. CC0 Creative Commons photo by mig-ua via Pixabay.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"Those who know, don't tell, and those who tell, don't know."

That was a saying I heard often growing up.

Anyone can go on television, write a book, appear at conferences, give rousing speeches, and tell you they're a messenger of some kind of truth.

But in my experience, the people who really know things, the people who are in a position to opine on what is going on behind the scenes, are not going to tell you, ever.

The following factors produce their silence:
  • Legal agreements.
  • The trust of those who have confided in them.
  • A certain level of fear as to what might happen if they spoke out.
This isn't to argue that you should therefore adopt a certain way of thinking. That I somehow magically have the key, if such a thing could exist.

It does mean that you benefit from keeping an open yet critical mind at all times.

Think about what motivates the person to say the things they say.

Think about who they hang out with.

That, more than the chapters of their book, will tell you everything you need to know.
CC0 Creative Commons Photo by daswortgewand via Flickr CC0 Creative Commons. Posted January 8, 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Here is my best understanding, and if it's incorrect please let me know. You're a therapist in MD and an adult tells you they were molested by someone who is still working with minors. The official number to call, any time of day or night, in Montgomery County is 240-777-4417. (See links below for other reporting numbers.) The fact that this person still works with children makes it important to tell the appropriate authorities about allegations of prior abuse, even if the reporting party is an adult at the time they disclose this information.

* Informal guide to child reporting - see #7 and #9 (I did not write this)
* State-by-state reporting requirements
* Local reporting offices in Maryland

Most people are not bad, but the ones that are bad have a way of repeating their behavior till they're stopped by law enforcement.

If you're not sure what to do, please consult a competent legal authority.

Copyright 2017 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own. This post is hereby released into the public domain. Photo by LauritaM via Pixabay.
Last night we had the privilege of attending a musical havdalah service with The Traveling Chassidim at Aish HaTorah of Greater Washington.

Little did I know that these Chassidim, like my family, are Vishnitzer Chassidim, from Romania.

Wow! What a powerful sight to see Vishnitzers singing the traditional beautiful melodies I heard only occasionally, on visits to Brooklyn.

What a powerful sight to see Vishnitzers talking about outreach, when my whole life has been the dichotomy between Chabadniks, who broke with tradition by recruiting Jews in the street to put on a pair of Tefillin, and non-Chabadniks, who have long believed that outreach is a bad idea.

Essentially: "If you want religion, you want it and if you don't, you don't -- we don't push."

What a powerful sight to see Vishnitzers saying that ALL Jews are one family, and one community, and come visit us, and all the divisions are really artificial.

This means so much to me because I am acutely aware that I'm not as religious as my extended family, and I often feel inadequate because of it.

What a powerful sight to see Vishnitzers saying that the arrival of Moshiach depends on such unity.

I loved the singing and the dancing, and the message of redemptive joy, joy amid all the pain and the suffering of life. (Here is Andy in full shtreimel -- now there's a sight I never thought I'd see!)

What a powerful night, a night I will never forget.

Here's what the concert looked like.

Here's the miracle that happened last night, too: The community came together and prayed, and within about 12 hours of a missing woman's disappearance being announced, it was relayed to us that Aliza (Greenberg) O'Connor, who went missing from D.C.'s Union Station on January 2, 2018, has been found and is safe and sound.

A complete, complete miracle.
As Andy said yesterday, God please save us, for tragedy always lurks, and for some the pain has struck and is terrible beyond words.

Maybe we can't all do all 613 mitzvos, but we can support one another and do the best we can.
Copyright 2017 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal. This post is hereby released into the public domain. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own. Photo by Dr. Blumenthal.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

When I was about sixteen I went into “the city” (that means New York City, to me, because there’s only one NYC!) and took a long walk across midtown.

Along the way I had my palm read, which is not okay to do according to the way that I was raised. But I did it, because I was too curious to wait and find out what my future would bring.

It turns out that spending $5 on a street psychic was overall a dumb thing to do, for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that you end up believing that what they tell you is true. In other words, life becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

But there was one redeeming part of my mistake, and that was an offhand comment the person made after the reading: “If you can avoid it, don’t gossip. Gossip is bad for the soul.”

My great-grandfather, Reb Dovid Garfinkel, may he rest in peace, is remembered by the family for his frequent admonishments about this. So much so, in fact, that this side of the family avoids prolonged conversation.

(To some who don’t understand, this can seem a little cold, but avoiding the potential for gossip is the reason behind it.)

As a neighborhood acquaintance recently put it, “There are so many things you’re not allowed to say, when it comes to the Jewish laws about lashon hara, (evil speech, Hebrew for ‘gossip’), that basically you’re left only talking about the weather.”

We sort of laughed, ha-ha laughed, like this was a joke, when she said this. But the truth is, Jewish laws about clean speech are really very strict.

So strict, in fact, that you aren’t even supposed to say something good about a person, because praising them might cause someone else to lean in with a jab.

I thought of this the other day, when a friend told me about her experience looking for an event planner.

The person she interviewed seemed good enough, but one of their references highlighted specific areas of concern.

My friend decided not to hire the person after all, based on this report. But I questioned her: Doesn’t the planner deserve the opportunity to make their case? To know what others are saying about them, and to respond?

This concept seems really important in today’s day and age, when the line between fact and opinion is so regularly blurred in conversations and in the news. People are so strongly polarized, that rarely do they spend the time to talk to one another, not to “convince” but to learn.

In organizational development they call the latter kind of talk “appreciative inquiry.”

It’s important in the workplace to have this skill. Because often, flaming disputes can arise where a discussion would have diffused it.

And most of us can probably think of a “family feud” that could have been avoided, but instead dragged on like the Hatfields and the McCoys, over not just decades but generations.

It’s true, we aren’t living in Fantasyland, and sometimes you have to speak about unpleasant things, and that often means human behavior.

But gossip — mindless, hateful, poisonous gossip — is something very different altogether. And if it is at all possible, gossip is a good thing to avoid, because it really is poison. Not just to the other person, but to your own soul as well.

Before you make a snap judgment about another human being, especially one based on what “other people” have said, consider whether it’s possible to just walk up and ask them directly about your concerns.

Posted Jan. 3 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. This post is hereby released into the public domain. All opinions are the author’s own. CC0 Creative Commons photo by Geralt.

Monday, January 1, 2018

So the world did not go up in flames last night, which is a good thing. 

But for many people in the world, life is nevertheless suffused with tragedy.
This Sabbath we went to synagogue and learned that someone in the community was stricken on vacation. In one freak accident, he lost his wife, his son, and his mother-in-law. He suffered many broken bones.
I saw the man standing on a cane, but I didn't know who he was, or what had happened to him.
The rabbis' wife walked over to him, and spoke to him in hushed tones.
It was only a few minutes later, during the speech, that I learned the scope and scale of the tragedy.
During his speech, the rabbi spoke to the man before all of us. He said that we are all one family, and that the community grieves with him.
Looking over at him, I saw a human being whose spirit was totally shattered.
I wondered how he got up the strength to come to synagogue at all.
The pain in his being was so strong, so palpable, it was as if the air around him was tinted a different color altogether.
And yet he was there, and he wasn't screaming or tearing out his hair.
He wasn't raging against God, against His unknowable ways.
The rabbi kept his focus on staying in the moment. We needed a minyan for the afternoon prayers. A carpool to visit the family at shiva. Could someone step up and help contribute toward a digital display, to communicate events of interest.
Life is what is happening when you are living in fear. The thing you are afraid of has already happened, it's happening to someone else, it could be in the future, you just never know.

Over the course of my life, and in the past few years particularly, I have become more aware of and sensitive to the suffering that other people go through.
Over and over again, because I think I am unshockable, I find out things that shock me, the depth of the pain, the loneliness of the ordeal, the fact that someone seemingly calm and collected on the outside is literally on fire in the heart and soul and mind.
And I guess what I want to say to you is this.
Whatever it is you're going through in life, know that other people are going through it too, right now, at this very moment.
They will survive, and so can you.
The unpredictability of world events is frightening.
You can still make this the year you ignore all that, and put one foot in front of the other.
Like in that great moment from the movie Annie Hall, when Alvy Singer freaks out and says, "The universe is expanding...some day it will break apart and that will be the end of everything."
Alvy's mother yells at him to get him back on track. "You're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!"
"The world is a very narrow bridge," as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once said, "the important thing is not to be afraid."
The truth is there is a lot to be afraid of.
Make this a year to focus on your homework anyway.
Posted January 1, 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own. This post is hereby released into the public domain. CC0 Creative Commons photo by Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay.