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Building The Government Enterprise: What's Missing Is The Brand

Screenshot of the 9 recommendations from PPS modified by me to ask a key question: Where's the brand?

Yesterday I stumbled upon a C-Span program of intense interest. It aired August 8, 2013 and featured a presentation of recommendations in in a joint report by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton: "Building the Enterprise: Nine Strategies for a More Integrated, Effective Government."

The report has the usual common-sense recommendations that taxpayers normally agree to (i.e. combined purchase of janitorial supplies to keep prices low) and that Washingtonian civil servants typically roll their eyeballs at ("Yeah right, sounds good but we've tried all that before and it will never happen here.")

As if to anticipate the myriad objections their report might generate, Speakers Lara Shane (PPS) and Ronald Sanders (BAH) said some things of a supposedly calming nature. No we are not saying to centralize everything. No we are not trying to add new requirements to your already onerous workload. 

Let me say that the audience did not look all that worked up. I have a friend from New York who always calls me to make fun of the fact that I live in D.C. She thinks it's very humorous to say things like, I was watching C-Span the other day...not a very lively crowd.

I have to agree with her. Washington does indeed seem fairly anemic, especially when you consider the amount of power and money that changes hands here.

From my perspective, the problem is not that Beltway folks are dull. Rather, the inhabitants of this town are bound together, yet driven by opposing needs -- almost like the destructive, co-dependent couple Eminem described in "Love the Way You Lie": we are "what happens when a tornado meets a volcano."

The Partnership for Public Service issued a reasoned and visually appealing report that makes a lot of sense. But in their vision of a federal-wide enterprise that is more than just a "holding company," they're missing something vital -- the vision of a corporate brand.

Corporate branding is more than just a logo. It is the process of adding meaning to the activities you pursue in unison. The federal civil service, if it is ever to adopt an enterprise-wide approach, must embrace the concept of the U.S. government-wide brand.

As Sanders pointed out in the talk, working as an enterprise does not mean eliminating its parts in favor of a mothership-like Headquarters that pulls the strings. It does mean intelligent coordination. The first step in this process, however, should not be identifying dollars and cents savings. That's been done a million times before, and it's never gotten off the ground.

Rather, we should start by winning the hearts and minds of the federal civil servants who contribute to this envisioned enterprise. We should show them what it is we're going after - the meaning of it all - and how they can have a place in the new system rather than be elbowed aside.

As usual when business plans are introduced, the communicators tend to get forgotten and left back. But brand-based communication, together with a solid change management and organizational development plan, is the only thing that can make this effort really work.

In the end, government is a business, and every business begins and ends with a brand.

* As always all opinions are my own.

An Open Data Model For Talent Management


Over the years I've been blessed with some brilliant managers. They had varying levels of technical skill but an outstanding ability to understand and harness human capital. And one of the things they always had in common was this:

They never held people back.

These managers understood the true inner logic of talent management, which is:

Find out what people do well and then let them do it.

Unfortunately some managers think they're supposed to "retain" people at all costs. But if there is a poor fit between employee and role, the organization only suffers from their demoralized and disengaged presence. Think about a married couple that can't stop fighting, and then put that into the workplace -- who does this model serve?

Instead of retaining the wrong people, help them find another position where their talents will be well-utilized.

Other managers have a traditional (old-fashioned) view of the employer-employee relationship that says, we hire people for life. But why? Again to use the marriage analogy, if two people make that commitment and it does not work out, isn't it better for them to walk away on good terms? Rather than be unhappy and toxic to others till the end of days?

The open data model says that we share information freely and take what we need for the purpose that suits us uniquely. The same model should go for talent management:

Open the door to the organization so that people with the right skills can help you get results. 

Open the door between departments so that people can join groups that appreciate them.

Open the door between projects so that people can jump in and help out at will.

How do we do this? Take a deep breath for some of them:

Internal talent registries - what skills do our people have that we didn't know about?

Aggregated, anonymous rating tools - what is it like to work in that department?

Aggregated, anonymous 360 degree feedback tools - what is it like to work with that person? 


Often managers feel that they do not have control over their workers' productivity, even though others think they do. They are caught between leadership and sometimes irrational dictates at the top, and the difficulties employees face in actually executing on tasks with effectiveness and engagement.

The open data model improves the manager's lot with its strict yet friendly logic. It's impersonal but fair, just the way that data is.

A manager's real job is to identify and harness talent, and for moving or removing employees who are not contributing sufficiently. 

The employee is responsible for contributing real value according to organizationally defined results.

The sophisticated organization establishes an infrastructure that makes it possible for manager and employees to take responsibility for these roles.

It does this by defining itself not as an end in itself, but rather as a talent management platform that abides by the rules of the brand (thinking of brand as the organizing principle of the business).

This requires that three things be in place, written down, and actually lived (see "Internal Branding: Three Documents You'll Need): 

1) Culture, or the basic belief system about what is important, meaningful, and why we're here
2) Consistency, or the strategic plan - a set of priorities that is consistently espoused and followed throughout the organization
3) Communication, or rules for expressing what the organization is about

Management is a critically important job in any workplace. It is the manager who works directly with an employee to ensure they are on the right track -- not only delivering value but also thriving. 

An open data model for talent management supports the manager. It facilitates the correctly aligned and engaged workforce. It makes the most of the organization's investment in people. And it cuts to the quick unnecessary costs associated with employing the wrong people, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Thinking About The Bezos Acquisition Of The Washington Post: What Does It Mean For Federal Communicators?

When you consider that 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the United States it becomes clear that we have entered an entirely new world of communication. For government communicators, here are three consequences of this consolidation:
  • There are no isolated stories about the agency but rather there is an overarching narrative and every story feeds into it. So within the agency it is not OK to have one group working on Initiative A and another group on Initiative B and they are connected in the public's mind yet internally the people are not talking to one another. Public Affairs has to be that connecting linchpin working between Groups A and B to insist that the narrative be made whole.
  • Similarly there are no isolated news outlets or platforms on which news is delivered but rather one always connects to the other. So it is impossible to say, we'll do a press release but avoid social media; or we don't want to get involved in mobile now; because the reality is, your content is going everywhere. The people responsible for sending out content to the public must be working across platforms to comprehensively assess and then report back on the impact of particular stories and on the general tone of coverage across traditional and new media.
  • Finally in the Bezos model as in the Huffington post model, the user is king and so there has to be much more respect for and engagement with the unfiltered and uncensored comments from the public. It's no longer enough to say "whoa, that's astroturfing and I'm not going to respond" - you have to get in there, roll your sleeves up and talk to people. (Of course you have to identify yourself as an Agency representative.)
This relates to my post yesterday on branding the platform, which talks about Amazon at some length.

On a related note I think it is important to point out as I try to do periodically that no matter what communication outlet we use, it is illegal to use appropriated funds for propaganda. 

The law does not specifically say what that word means but over the years, it has been interpreted pretty clearly and the Legal Information Institute at Cornell offers a brief guide. Essentially Agencies:
  • Can: "inform the public about its activities and programs, explain its policies and priorities, and defend its policies, priorities, and point of view"
  • Can't: 1) engage in “self-aggrandizement" 1) engage in “self-aggrandizement" (also known as "puffery" or promotional talk that "no 'reasonable person' would take literally" and that can't be verified for accuracy - e.g. a sales pitch 2) promote a political party or candidate - e.g. communicate for “purely partisan purposes,” and 3) issue “covert propaganda” - meaning Agency materials issued to a non-government outlet without disclosing who made them.
On the concept of journalistic objectivity, or any objectivity, I am of the school of thought that says it is impossible, although striving for accuracy is not. As Glenn Greenwald (the reporter who broke Edward Snowden's story) states:"The reality is that, as desperately as they try, virtually no journalists are driven by this type of objectivity. They are, instead, awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective."

To counter the problem of objectivity, it is helpful to offer raw data along with context and then invite third parties to analyze it, break it down and communicate about it their own way. Check out this template for a Social Media Press Release.

(Note - all opinions my own as always.)

Implications of Platforming for Government

For government, the challenge of the trend toward branding the platform is the trust factor. According to 2013 research by Rasmussen, only 24% of Americans trust the federal government. That means 3 out of 4 people don't! Think about that for a second. The government is most importantly a platform upon which the rest of society functions. If trust is critical to a platform brands, and the federal government loses that trust beyond what Gladwell called "the tipping point," other platforms will arise to take its place. This is not an impossible scenario especially given all the divisive and sometimes extremist rhetoric we are seeing in public fora today.

If government does not regain the public's trust there is a significant risk from a business perspective that the brand will be discredited and the platform will be undermined and "disintermediated." Not only will people to go other platforms to get government information and services (which is already happening, and sometimes at an unnecessary cost), but they may also disregard accurate government information itself and trust only alternative sources. Far from the original data and the people generating it, biased with mistrust, those sources are inevitably going to be skewed.

All of this is why regaining the public trust is the #1 job of government right now.


* As always all opinions are my own.

Platform or Die

This week one of the top presentations on SlideShare is Jeremiah Owyang's presentation "What Companies Must Do When Customers Share – Rather Than Buy," with nearly 32,000 views.

Owyang is a partner at Altimeter Group, which helps companies deal with and profit from disruptive change and this presentation accomplishes exactly that. It's essentially a free and in-depth primer on the collaboration economy, bringing together trends that I first began following in 2000 working for futurist/trend spotter Marian Salzman, president at Young & Rubicam's The Intelligence Factory.

Salzman has spent at least a decade working through the consequences of "prosumption" for marketers. Her work begins with futurist Alvin Toffler's concept of the prosumer, or proactive consumer (1980), which was rapidly adopted and promulgated by mainstream marketers, such as Philip Kotler.

Beginning in roughly the late '90s, the new generation of consumer didn't just buy what marketers dreamt up but actually began to play a role in producing what they consume (pro + sumer). This could be through providing feedback (e.g. writing a book review on a blog) or by actually creating them (e.g. Etsy.com). I continue to be fascinated by her efforts to show how prosumers continue to influence the marketplace.

Several outgrowths of prosumption take the original concept further and in different directions. One is "brand hijacking." From a marketing perspective this means marketers embed the brand in customers' lives (hijack their lives, hijack the traditional marketing process) as "alternatives" to corporate America (e.g. Napster). It also means customers authentically taking over a brand and making it their own, e.g. creating their own versions of Barbie dolls (no, Mattel was not happy). A third is when a corporate brand injects itself into the narrative of a separate popular brand to gain traction.

A related trend to prosumption is brand curation, or assembling many different voices into one. One example is The Huffington Post, comprised of many different bloggers yet the tone of the entire offering remains consistent. What's important about this is that the independent voices remain consistent (e.g. they are not blandified into a singular corporate image) but they are at the same time promoting a larger profit-making venture.

We tend to forget that customers are also workers and in a service economy, their engagement with their employers' brand and consequently the customer is critical and dependent on a well-run workplace. The "people" factor was recognized in marketing as the "Fifth P" back in 2001 by Gallup (along with product, place, promotion and price) but unfortunately remains deeply under-leveraged even today. Global research released in 2013 by talent consultancy Aon Hewitt shows that around the world, "4 out of 10 employees are still not engaged."

A critical aspect of crowd-based branding is trust in the underlying platform upon which the brand is built. We could also call this trend "branding the platform." Amazon.com, founded in 1994, is the prototypical platform brand. I remember way back when, approximately 2001, when we brand consultants argued over the viability of competing with yourself. How could Amazon offered books but let other vendors offer the same books cheaper? But it was not about the books, right? It was about the vision of becoming a trusted platform for all the things you want to buy.

Not incidentally, Amazon also mainstreamed the unfiltered customer rating system and accompanying in-depth reviews. They did it before it was cool, because they understood that unless the customer is completely empowered to share their experience with other customers, the trust factor is lacking.

Also not incidentally, Amazon customers have their own stores on the platform.

So the trend is toward individual customers becoming not just marketers but entrepreneurs who compete with corporations. They are helped in this by cloud computing where you essentially rent what you used to have to own, from platforms such as Amazon (yep) and Google, not incidentally top brands themselves. Cloud computing requires a tremendous level of trust. Instead of buying a car to get around, I'm joining a car service so that I can get "wheels when I need them" -- actually, that's the successful Zipcar car-sharing model.

In an extremely challenging job market where "a record number of U.S. millennials are forced to live at home" (36 percent or 21.6 million, according to 2013 research by Pew); employers are "cautious" about hiring; and newly created jobs are "disproportionately low-pay or part-time," young people have every reason to start their own businesses. The room-letting service Airbnb is a perfect example.

In the future, making things and buying things are going to be one and the same thing. Owyang's 79-slide deck is a primer on the collaboration economy -- what it is and how to survive and even thrive. The short version is this: The most powerful and wealthy companies of the future will not corner the market on any product or service. Rather they will be the trusted platforms (like crowdfunding venture Kickstarter.com) upon which those products and services are sold -- the ones people turn to when they want to start their own business, and most likely out of the room they grew up in as a kid.