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Civils and Politicals

We already had a YouTube channel. That was launched quietly with no fanfare, in 2007 I believe.

A group of us interagency folks got together. We started the Federal Social Media Subcouncil, a lot of us civil servants in a room. That was about year later.

Around that time I spent a long time doing research. It was hard to figure out what the rules were. I was worried about how we kept records, mirroring. If we did a Tweet we had to have copies on our site, right? How would that work?

Terms of service...Section 508...freedom of speech...ethics rules. Codes of conduct.

We met with the lawyers. Gray they said. A lot of it was still gray.

One day we had a meeting with the lawyer in charge. He did not know what social media was. We talked about analogies like op-eds in The Washington Post, or talking to friends at cocktail parties. How would traditional principles work with a new media world?

Eventually after lots of research and too many meetings I came up with a chart. Things to consider as we moved ahead. That chart became a binder with many pages.

Civil servants live by rules. Engagement. Incrementalism. Consensus. We do everything in task forces.

Sometimes we do "workarounds" because the mountain will not move.

Sometimes we don't move.

The temporary head of Public Affairs was a civil servant. He didn't know what blogs were, what Twitter was, or that Facebook did anything other than give recipes to his wife via her friends.

But he was able to make a decision.

"Just do it. Now get out of my office."


So I was doing social media. His wife was on Facebook. All was good. I added it to our little roster, along with Twitter.

Ask me how I started the Twitter account.

The previous boss was a political. He was not into the bureaucracy. He liked to get things done, easily and quickly and was fairly on top of the trends.

I wasn't supposed to speak to this person as the informal rules of civil service are: Shut up when in the vicinity of someone more than one rung above you. (Normally senior leaders will always talk to you because that is leadership. But senior executive managers will not.)

One day I saw the boss in the hallway. I was literally walking down the hallway, and the boss was walking towards me from the other direction.

Just do it, I thought to myself. Courage.

"Sir - good morning.  I hear Twitter is popular nowadays."

"Great, get it going."

"Yes sir, thank you sir."

Yahoo! Aha! Excited!

Because the problem was we were tangled up in knots. There were no answers back then. You just had to hold your breath and pray.

And so, with completely limited knowledge and with the cover of this political's approval, I started the Twitter account, now with tens of thousands of followers who use it to get news and information, stay close and interact with the agency that demands compliance from them.

The civil servants, with a few exceptions, did not know what Twitter was at that time. They called it "Twittering" or they made jokes about saying "Twitter is for telling people you're going to brush your teeth now, hahaha."

My supervisor knew what it was. She was brilliant. She told me to keep going.

Every day I checked social media too, for negative or positive blog mentions.

But they did not take that seriously. "Why would you bother checking the blogs?" they said. "Those are just a bunch of crazies."

Politicals, back then, knew social media, knew how to check a blog and knew the power of Twitter.

One day - it was a sunny, beautiful day I remember - I went to another one of our buildings to answer questions about social media.

Some civil servants wanted to know if they could join online communities of practice. That's what they called them. Not "social media" which had a dangerous ring. "Best practice."

Our office didn't have an official policy yet, and I was a civil servant, so I didn't really know what to say. I had research. I had a task force. I had in my head the results of meetings with subject matter experts, lawyers and IT inside and outside the Agency. I could at least take questions.

Someone showed me to the back. The office was confusing. I couldn't tell one cube from the other. Everything was beige.

They had a little circular table near the window, tucked by a plastic plant. It felt friendly and warm and collegial.

I sat down on the chair and saw a piece of paper on the desk. Stray paper I guessed. It had memorandum stuff at the top. It was upside down.

"Have you seen this?" one of the attendees asked me. She flipped it over.

"What?" I said.

I looked at the paper and felt my face turning red. It was a memo from my own office, a memo about social media, a memo from the political.


The memo had my own words in there...weren't those my words? I couldn't think.

"Excuse me, please - I have to make a call."

I stepped outside and called my boss, and she told me. "Yes, that's our memo and the political took our words. I don't know what to tell you."

The walk back to HQ only took a few blocks, but those few blocks felt like forever. I realized how much could change with the politicals involved. How they could melt ice, shatter bricks, turn concrete into harmless sludge, then mud then muddy water you can power away with a garden hose.

Today I do not know how I feel, completely. I know that civil servants get stuck and politicals move very fast. Is is a creative tension that produces progress? Or are we Mars and Venus, just talking past each other in the hall?

*As always, all opinions my own.

Don't Show Weakness

"Never cry."
"Give it to them before they give it to you."
"Don't trust anyone."
"Be on your guard."
"What are you, a fool?"
"Grow up."

This kind of thinking kills companies and kills people too. 

It's true: Some people are greedy and cold and grasping for power. Others have too many problems. They cope by acting them out on others. Some cultures are messed up. Stagnant. Fearful. Besieged. Cutthroat.

What is the best response for the individual? Must we choose between Clint Eastwood type leathery toughness and its opposite, despair and blubbering?

Not really. In any situation, bombastic bullying at the one extreme and excessively giving in on the other are both maladaptive. Aggression just adds fuel to the fire, making others angry at you. Martyrdom leaves you angry at yourself. 

Psychologists tell us that assertiveness is a middle path. Seeing reality for what it is, we take in the environment and respond appropriately--

1. Self-Defense: Enforcing reasonable boundaries.
2. Diplomacy: Keeping our commitments and thus relationships alive. 
3. Authenticity: Being real - being true to ourselves.

Super-toughness may sound good. Accommodation might seem safe. But in the end both of these extremes create more problems than they solve, and cost the individual a lot more than they give back.

Social Media In Government - Legitimate and Illegitimate

Social media is legitimate when it helps people access government services  and to reinforce social marketing messages from government.

But if you can't bake the cake in the first place (write informative content) then don't bother putting on frosting with sprinkles (social media). Maybe someone will take a bite, but they will soon realize that the calories aren't worth it.

I don't think poor writing is the problem. The government is full of outstanding writers actually. 

The problem is also not lack of social media skill because again, the government has lots of techies as well as clever Tweet writers and Facebook page-makers.

Rather, the problem is fear. Legitimate fear and illegitimate.

* The legitimate fear from a managerial point of view is that we lack sufficient management controls. We've got a car - who is allowed to drive it? How fast? What is considered appropriate versus inappropriate use, and by whom? 

* The legitimate fear from a leadership point of view is that we lack a strategy. Where are we driving that car? Are we tweeting just to be heard? 

The illegitimate fear, from where I sit, is that people will actually use social media the way it was intended to be used: to speak truth to power.

It's fine and good to have fun and friendly outreach and for Facebook to be an arm of that. (Actually it may not be fine and good - one could question where education becomes puffery.)

It becomes uncomfortable to have the outside world talking back, not just in a spammy way but in a substantive way that takes issue with government policies and activities - a way that challenges the dominant feelgood narrative.

It becomes uncomfortable to have employees or ex-employees talking back, not just with tweets but with an entire alternate blog site. (Examples of unofficial blogs - CG Report, Chuck Hill's CG BlogTaking Sense Away)

The truth of the matter is that really brilliant leaders WANT to have true social media engagement because that is REAL participatory government - it gives them credibility - it builds up public trust which therefore increases compliance.

There is nothing a social media person hates more than propaganda. Nothing we respect more than honesty.

But very few people (government leaders) have the guts to handle it. Even if they do, their bosses don't or there is a colleague nervous and nervy. This is actually true in the private sector too. People think, "Oh no, we're not perfect, things are going to get out of control, let's just shut it down."

It's a shame, because in my experience government is much more complicated than people think. People in government work much harder than people think. There is a lot more drama and the issues are worth engaging in. It's easy to make fun of the TSA - do you want to be the person who lets a bomber on the plane? I wouldn't. 

The real work of a government communicator is not to be internal paparazzi. It is to simply pull the curtains back and let the public engage. To the extent that social media tools can facilitate that I say fantastic. But the more we try and aggrandize ourselves and live in fantasyland the more we we will continue to be the butt of jokes - from Hollywood movies - to Saturday Night Live - to those Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: emails that say "Must Read" etc.

* All opinions my own.

Emails Are Meant To Be Forwarded

Emails Are Meant To Be Forwarded

Enjoy -


"Brand Simple" and Good Intentions

"Brand Simple" by Landor brand thought leader Allen Adamson is an excellent book. It explains one of the key functions of branding, which is to simplify the decision-making process.

People have trouble making decisions. They don't want to be wrong. Wrong feels like trouble - you're a fool, you're out money, you're inferior, it's irrevocable.

Branding is there to reassure you. More than that it takes the place of thinking.

The Staples easy button symbolizes branding used in this way. "That was easy." (If only the store were not confusing!)

There is a saying, "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM."

There is "analysis paralysis."

I overheard someone say in an elevator that there are way too many brands in this country. It's hard to buy even a bottle of milk. "One percent, two's a cow!"

But used well a brand connects the skim milk drinker who is allergic to lactose to precisely the right product.

People who succeed at work use branding in this way as well. They make it simple to choose them over somebody else.

Their actions broadcast who they are:

--Want an expert in ---? Choose me.

--Want a good team member? Choose me.

--Want a professional with good judgment? Me again.

But the most important thing they do is broadcast good intentions.

I don't want to work with crooks, liars or creeps - who does?

More important than anything else I look for trustworthiness. If someone consistently demonstrates that, they are a brand I prefer to invite to the table.

“Change Agents Wanted!”

A paradox: The companies whose feet are most stuck in the late 1970s are most likely to want the biggest, baddest change agents ever to join the team.

Of course “change agents” have some strange inner need to take on the thankless task of standing before the mountain that is congealed bureaucracy, pushing and pushing to move it forward.

I remember my first job in government, my boss liked all the creativity on my resume. “Innovation, wow! Creativity, wow! Branding, let’s go!”

It was not three months thereafter that I sat in her office, watching her type emails and take personal phone calls, giggle with her friends and make trips to the restroom and back. Sometimes I actually had to accompany her.

It is extremely embarrassing to stand there in the restroom while your boss is giving you instructions from within a stall.

The way we innovated in that job was the “sneak attack.” When her boss was on vacation we threw in the new newsletter. Of course it had no marketing research or focus testing behind it – because it was innovative, we couldn’t freak anyone out by showing it to them.

Um, when that didn’t work I had to innovate on my own. So I came up with a rating system for the newsletter online. The point was to combat those deadly boring articles, e.g. “Breakfast With Our Leader” or “How To Secure Your Notebook Computer.”

Yes! We had those!

At the next job interview they loved the branding stuff. Loved it, loved it, loved it. “Wow, your work is so CREATIVE,” they said, oohing and aahing over the portfolio. “Advertorials in the employee newsletter, that’s terrific.” (That one went over big in the previous job.)

What they don’t tell you is that there are much larger forces at play than little you.

“What should we call the new campaign?” they ask you.

“Anything but an acronym, nobody can remember them and the last one was the name of a Spanish terrorist group as ___ recently pointed out.”

One month later. “Guess what our new campaign is called? Our brand?”

“No, what?”

“It’s a great acronym – it stands for the legislation itself! And look we have lots of money to put behind it for the rollout.”

Hands clapping over eyes. Hands clapping over eyes.

Someone came up to me the other day and said, “Yeah, I can never remember the name of that law, and it hits me in the face all the time.”

The one thing senior leaders have mastered, in all their senior leadership experience and training, is clearly innovation.

They speak it well.

They know what they want to do.

They tell their management to go do it.

Yet change on the ground in a mammoth organization that has changed very little in fifty years, or even a hundred, never, never happens easily.

Because we get frustrated at the slow pace of change, we often bring in the person who seems to represent that restless need to break through the walls.

The practice is delusional, self-destructive, and unfair to all parties concerned.

What we need in a broken system is not a change agent to serve as the spokesperson and lightning rod for some cause that is perceived as “outside.”

Rather the task is to master the art of change management itself – to equip and empower the organization to grow from within.

Growth is very hard for all of us. Believe it or not it may even be harder for change agents. Because we’re so used to fighting an irrational system that we neglect to question ourselves enough.

Research has shown that breaking successfully from a dysfunctional past requires concerted effort not by a single individual or visionary leader. But by a group of people who share a vision and are united in their resolve to achieve it.

At the end of the day there is no quick fix for organizational change. Things get the way they are for a reason. The cure can sometimes even be worse than the original problem.

In the modern enterprise, it is incumbent upon each person to be responsible for their part. It’s not about change for change’s sake but rather about good health. Being in touch with external and internal requirements, and the gaps between those and current practice, and closing them.

The Jewish holiday of Passover is coming soon. For us, Passover symbolizes freedom from slavery. The worst kind of slavery is on the inside, when you are not able to see yourself, to change, to break from the past and your own bad habits.

Here’s to getting over ourselves, and making our organizations great – as great as we can make them, together.