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8 Ways To Encourage Change Agents In Government, What Are Yours?

1. Drawing on change agents in a local environment to solve a local problem innovatively. Example: CBP's Small Vessel Reporting System, which started as a pilot in Florida. I worked on the outreach for the project, which is critical when you consider the potential threat a terrorist can do with hidden WMD in a small boat, where they might leave the U.S., pick up a weapon, then try to come back in "under the radar."

2. Appointing change agents as leaders. Leaders, for all their human frailties, are normally extraordinarily driven workaholics who are literally unable to fail. There is something inside them that motivates them to persist no matter what. The problem comes when they get scared. But when they are confident and charging toward a noble goal, people are drawn to that and they will follow. 
3. Putting change agents in charge of social media, especially YouTube because this is a medium most people can follow and comment on. Government words are usually too complicated and too negotiated for the average person to understand.
4. Letting change agents find ways to engage the average citizen - through media they can easily use, like texting or telephoning. Example: See Something, Say Something (also coordinated between public sector, private sector, local, etc.)
5. Putting change agents in charge of cross-functional initiatives like cooperation between the public sector, private sector, academia and NGOs - nationally and internationally. Example: human trafficking, anti-counterfeiting.
6. Establishing a real and transparent process for change agents to submit and then follow up on ideas.
7. Instituting training for people in change management - how to initiate then maintain change. This could take the form of coaching. You would be surprised how often the stupidest things get in the way of the most significant game-changers. If you know ahead of time what works and what doesn't you can eliminate years of frustration. Example: Sharepoint is incredibly good for workflow, but the word "workflow" scared me. So I asked someone at work to show me. I told her about my word block and she said to call it "playflow." Now I can deal with Sharepoint.
8. Supporting change agents with a team of people who can support them in action. Normally there are people who are good at building and people who are good at maintaining, people who are technical and people who are social, and all of them are needed to make change stick.

Using Principles of Branding to Address Mistrust of Government

This is in response to the question of "Why do people mistrust government?" A comprehensive answer would get into politics, history, sociology, economics, philosophy, etc. I can talk about it from a branding perspective.
  • Here the noun "brand" means "your image" and the verb "branding" means "positioning" or the act of distinguishing yourself so that you have an image.
  • Branding is basically long-term, holistic marketing.
  • Branding is a business (government here is conceived of as a business) activity not solely a communications activity. It incorporates frontline operational decisions (mission), human capital decisions, technology decisions, etc. because all of these have an impact on your image.
  • Therefore "positioning" means setting up the organization in such a way that you actually can fulfill your promise (or in branding terms, the "brand promise.)
  • You can fail to live up to the brand promise through real activity or perceived activity where the perception is not credibly corrected.
Mistrust of government agencies is due to their failure to live up to the "brand promise"
  • The essential promise of government is that it will be there to provide society with the basic services necessary for functioning in a secure and orderly manner; that it will provide the most basic human care to individuals in desperate need; and that it will administer its services justly.
  • The "bonus promise" is transparency, something that was emphasized in recent years.
  • Mistrust of the government is due to a performance gap on the part of the government between the brand promise and the reality as it is experienced or perceived by the customer (taxpayer, stakeholder, constituent).
Actual Performance Failure
  • Insanity as we know is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
  • If you are in the government you know that there are things that are not working. 
  • On an individual level you can orient your mindset to the customer - that person being the person who receives services from  your agency. When you do your job you do it with excellence. You also do outside reading and studying of your agency so that you understand the bigger picture around requests, initiatives, etc. and can respond with more understanding of what the real issues are. Sometimes you challenge them.
  • On a team level you can find other people inside or outside your office who share a passion for service and don't care about ego and titles. You can work with them to solve problems. In your formal work teams you can deliver excellent customer service to others and establish a higher standard for working together. You can also call out instances where process is failing or someone is subverting it.
  • On an Agency leadership level the role of political appointees should be considered and clarified. (See the 2006 study "Political Appointees and the Competence of Federal Program Management.") 
  • Same for the role of contractors - clarify what is inherently governmental. Broadly institutionalize procurement training. 
  • Again on a leadership level there should be real (not just lip service) emphasize on coaching to lead, supporting leadership, human capital development, etc. as an activity that is AS IMPORTANT as operational implementation activities.
  • On a Federal level there ought to be consideration of broadly consolidating cross-cutting functions that provide service to employees (e.g. IT, HR) and having local agency representatives report to chains of command in those broad centers. This would reduce insularity of any agency in particular.
  • On a Federal level we ought to reorganize agencies in a way that makes sense to the customer - i.e. by service provided. If there are agencies whose services overlap, consolidate them. If there are agencies that are too big and providing too many disparate services that don't go together, separate them out. (This is brand architecture.)
  • On a Federal level we should finally accept the concept of pay for performance while at the same time finally put some backbone behind protecting employees from the wrath of irrational poor managers and/or whistleblower retaliation.
Perceived Performance Failure
  • Stop being snotty about social media. GovLoop is social media. It's not going away. People read it. They forward chain mails about how Wal-Mart is run better than the government. They make fun of us. Then they read our own pompous stuff and they make fun of us some more. Time to get over it and join the conversation in a plainspoken way rather than ignoring, denying, minimizing, marginalizing, or  punishing those who exercise their right to free speech.
  • Tell the truth about potentially controversial decisions early on rather than waiting for someone to say something, or posting something in some obscure place and hoping people don't find it, then reacting when they do. First movers have the advantage; defense in communication always loses.
  • Admit when we are wrong early on rather than defending ourselves.
  • Establish a coordinated mechanism for Federal communication rather than devolving it to every agency to act on its own. Think from the customer's perspective - they want simple and unified not to have to hunt down your special 1-800 number. 
  • Create an independent clearinghouse for public complaints about the government (don't leave it to each agency) and release scores quarterly. Require agencies to investigate and respond. 
  • Clarify the role of public affairs so that we distinguish between the provision of information (this is the job of the CIO) and the provision of media/outreach materials. These include basic factsheets that answer questions people have. The public affairs role should also include intake of public questions in combination or liaison with the Office of Federal Communications. 
  • The CIO function in each agency should include Federal records management and the response to FOIA requests, the development and posting of high-quality data sets (Open Government).
  • The Federal Government should cross-cuttingly take the data sets and proactively consolidate them into something more proactive - housed in the Office of Information Sharing. Instead of multiple portals, choose one and  and park as many raw spreadsheets into that space as possible. Explain how to use the data sets then let the public mash them up. The point is not to spin a story, but to let the public find and write its own - engaging with the government that is in the end theirs not the property of those who work for the Agency.

"Melrose Place" Feminism, Not A Blessing In Disguise

Image source: Movie news/review site Collider

As a younger person I used to watch the original Melrose Place series on TV (not the CW version which I sneer at...wasn't everything better in the "good old days" :-)?

It was an ensemble cast but the central character was really "Amanda Woodward" (Heather Locklear). Amanda was one of the first female characters on TV to boldly assert her right to be ruthless - not for any larger goal, but purely because "I want it." To that end she had these characteristics:

  • Used her intelligence to manipulate people rather than solve problems
  • Used her good looks to charm and flirt to get her way
  • Preyed on the morality of other people as she broke the rules to get what she wanted
The counterpart to Amanda's character was "Alison Parker" (Courtney Thorne-Smith) who was the polar opposite. Alison was smart, but not manipulative; pretty, but didn't "work it"; and above all moral and kind.

Amanda and Alison battled it out at work and in the apartment complex, each trying to win "Billy Campbell's" heart. But it was never about them in particular. The larger question was whether good will triumph over evil, even if evil is smarter and more ruthless.

The feminist question was whether Amanda should be given a special pass for her ruthlessness because women are historically disadvantaged, or on the other side, judged more harshly because women are somehow supposed to be "better than that."

The reason Melrose Place was brilliant is that the question was never answered. Instead we got only more questions, and saw more scenarios where these dynamics of good and evil, and so-called power feminism versus plain-Jane non-feminism, played out.

In real life, acting like an "Amanda" - i.e. immoral, and somehow weaving that into a "feminist" narrative - hurts oneself and other women as well. People can tell who the Machiavellian game-players are, and when they're women the negative reaction is exaggerated.

Meaning more discrimination against women by men.

Meaning more distrust of women by other women.

When the oppressed group uses the tools of the oppressor, it's disheartening. When they use their own own tools of survival during bleaker times as a way of achieving domination, it's downright scary.

Women can do a lot better than aspire to be an Amanda. We're smart, and capable, and we've earned it. Let's encourage ourselves and our daughters to achieve something based on what we objectively contribute as people - rather than how well we work a system where subtle but powerful sexism (and ageism, and more) still remain.

Functional vs. Emotional Branding in the 2012 Campaign

Maybe “branding” is a relatively new word for the mainstream, but the use of it in politics is old. They called it other things, probably – I couldn't tell you. But there's no doubt that the great political consultants are the equivalent of great brand strategists. Some examples: Roger Ailes, Dick Morris, Frank Luntz.

I still remember watching The McLaughlin Group as a kid, especially Eleanor Clift and Pat Buchanan as they battled it out in “Round 1” and “Round 2,” the tiny speck of time allotted to every issue on Sunday mornings.

Today, I don't watch the news primarily to find out what's happening – there is the Internet for that. I watch to see how the various political commentators, media veterans, and subject matter experts debate how the speech (or blooper) of the day will affect this person or that.

My absolute favorite, a rarity nowadays, is to see James Carville and Mary Matalin interviewed together, because Carville is a Democrat and Matalin is a Republican, and they're married.

Some people like to watch football games, or boxing. I like being a paraprofessional pundit, watching these TV “debates” as though they were boxing games, scoring them in my mind. Sometimes the family watches with me and then it's fun to compare notes.

In any case, I know that branding is mainstream today because my mother clipped a column from the local paper on “personal branding” and gave it to me. In the realm of politics, it definitely got a jump start with the Reagan years, but when I joined the government it still wasn't something people really “got” instinctively.

At that time (2003), for most people, I think the perception of government was closer to the massively popular TV show The West Wing – which portrayed the incredibly complicated nature of trying to do the “right thing” while still managing the many crises, including image crises, that could pull the Administration off track.

Another show that influenced my thinking was the TV show 24, whichfurther dramatized not only the tough calls a President has to make, but the impossibility of promising full transparency. The show depicted how, over and over again, the rules and procedures already in place could not match the evolving terrorist technologies and threats that sought to bring the country down.

The actual 2008 Presidential Campaign, with its expert use of branding, was so masterful that it actually became a case study in the marketing textbook I used at University of Maryland University College.

All of this is by way of saying that the traditional political campaign is dominated by branding, whether it's called by that name or not.

* Primary tactic: “Emotional” - i.e. to connect the candidate with the populace.

* Secondary tactic (usually): “Functional” - an effort to convey that the candidate has a better skill set.

Normally functional value is secondary for a few reasons, but primarily that the details are too “wonky” for most people to understand or care about, and secondarily if you're smart you can usually make a case either way.

What sets this election apart is that one side is focused on emotional branding as per tradition, while the other is zooming in on the functional branding tactic and making it primary. Can it work? This was the question asked on TV by Bill Kristol at the GOP convention.

From a political communication perspective, I am not sure. Assuming that the two parties are trying to split the baby in half – one “owning” style, one “owning” substance – does this really leave either of them responding effectively to the consumer demands (if we can put it that way) of the moment?

This “baby is split” ambivalence is visible in the following ideas, which to me represent the “mood of the moment,” still unresolved:

1) While it's true that the economy is bad, it's not worth sacrificing civil rights or promoting a culture where it's acceptable to abandon the poor and weak.

2) We're willing to work hard and sacrifice for the sake of progress, but we don't want to be taken advantage of by the ruling classes.

3) We want to help the needy and weak, but don't want to encourage a culture of dependency.

4) We are willing to trust political and business leaders, but we have seen a lot of scandals and are not fully ready to trust what they're saying.

5) We don't have enough information to tell who's telling the truth, since the mainstream media is biased, social media is unreliable, and it's hard to get information from the government you can really use.

The CEO of Panera, Ron Shaich, was on Fox the other day saying basically this. He called the problem “the political class” - he did not name one party or another – and voiced his doubt at their ability to actually solve problems. i.e., their jobs.

Shaich said in the end, he is accountable to the laws of profit and loss. Make money and keep going. Lose it and go out of business. Implication: Need to run the country the same way.

Note that Panera is an incredibly socially responsible company – not only giving back to the community but pioneering a cafe concept where you “give what you can, take what you need.”

While it's not clear how the election will shake out, one thing does seem clear to me. People are repeating over and over again that they are sick of divisiveness, that they feel it has now gotten in the way of actually moving forward to real solutions. This coincides with the trend toward hyper-customization – epitomized by the popularity of Pinterest - in which the person cherry-picks from this and from that to create a patchwork of brands that is truly “them.”

From a communication perspective, this election is like a graduate seminar in progress. 

On a personal note, I feel in my heart how very dangerous a time we are in, and pray that G-d has mercy on us as we move forward to the future.*

*Note – This blog is intended as a commentary on communication, and does not represent a political commentary, endorsement or non-endorsement of any candidate or party. 

Panera's Positioning: A Suggestion

I like what Panera stands for:

1. They give back to the community through various programs

2. They are piloting a cafe where you pay what you can, take what you need

3. The CEO was on Fox News tge other day talking sense, about how we must forget political divisiveness and solve real economic problems

Their brand needs help though. A very brief suggestion - change the positioning.

Right now Panera doesn't own any unique mind space. They are competing with Starbucks instead. With better food but worse coffee.

Suggest changing the focus to one it already owns, judging from who goes there and its corporate values: family meals.

More specifically, build the brand around the concept of old-fashioned Sunday dinner. Sort of like Boston Market, but with a Midwestern feel.

My two cents. Good luck to them.