Chief Conversationalist: Why Federal Agencies Still Shy Away From Real Engagement

Moat & bank
It is better to be the river than the moat. Photo by Colin via Flickr.

Recently I read that people trust federal employees, but they don't trust the federal government as a whole. According to survey after survey, trust in this institution is at an "all time low."

From a common sense point of view, it's not really hard to know why. The public regularly depends on our huge infrastructure to function. But of course it doesn't always do that, or people disagree about...well just about everything.

But then agencies make a neutral-to-bad situation worse - by being notoriously closemouthed about responding to criticism.

(There are some exceptions, like the Transportation Safety Administration, probably because they have an unpleasant but necessary job involving so many customers every single day. This story about their partnership with a hotel chain to reduce tension at checkpoints is a must-read.)

It's not that they don't know what people are saying. They do, at least to some extent. But that fact alone does not solve everything:
  • Budget cuts have led to homemade news clips, which are dominated by traditional media, selectively chosen and don't tell you whether most coverage is positive or negative, or why.
  • Social media news clips are unsophisticated or there is a perception that social media is "not real" or populated by extremists, e.g. "crazy people."
  • Providing negative feedback can get you in trouble - I have actually had someone caution me, "Be careful that people don't think you are disloyal for sharing this stuff." (And I've also seen myself quoted on a public message board with the insinuation that I'm a government propagandist.)
  • Some tend to shrug off valid criticism as "just more or the same" or "ignorance."
All of this is really just denial that listening is important, and that what our stakeholders think of us matters, and that we cannot control it. The denial comes from defensiveness - fear.

Agencies tend to equate listening to criticism, acknowledging it, and talking about it as equivalent to admitting they have done something wrong. It seems like a strange phenomenon, especially when you consider that government leaders and ordinary employees are extraordinarily dedicated to and passionate about helping the public.

But unfortunately, the fear is based in reality, as feds are regularly bashed in public and confronted by a lot of red tape as well. Former Harvard University president Larry Summers has commented about the daunting nature of public service as a career (of course, this as a political's perspective):

"The fact that it takes so long to be confirmed by the Senate, the fact that you have to go through the financial equivalent of a colonoscopy to enter government . . . The fact that there are so many rules and restrictions and bits of hostility towards those who are in government."

Conversely, the public does not understand the nature of federal government communication.
  • For one thing, Agency officials and their representatives are very careful about what they say. They cannot talk "off the cuff." Words have weight, the weight of history and official record. And there are many consultations about the way that speech is made.
  • There is also coordination across agencies, and between civil servants and political appointees, to coordinate and keep Agency speech consistent.
All of this is why Open Government is so critically important to digital engagement, and communication. 
  • Simply releasing high-value data in a usable format bolsters trust and credibility in and of itself. 
  • On this front, my experience has been that (contrary to popular stereotypes) the "politicals" want agencies to move forward, get the data out there, share as much as possible, now.
  • It's not just words, but absolute credo among every person I've seen speak, or spoken with directly.
I'm not saying bad things never happen - scandals. Of course they do. But the reality I see is much more banal.

You know what people say to me, when they hear what I do?
  • "Tell your agency to make records management a more logical process." 
  • "Tell me how I can find these images you have in the catalog, that only have a description of a location, but no actual JPEG attached."
  • "I visited NARA one time, I was looking for information on my grandfather."
There it is...and what happened? Some is good, some is bad, and nobody is going to die. Engagement, feedback, interaction, and dialogue have to be a normal thing. Criticism doesn't bite. We have to get used to hearing it and dealing with it in a way that's productive.

Within the Agency, there is also a key distinction to be made between related activities, and a critical realization to be made.

  • Digital engagement is not communication in and of itself. It is the act of facilitating communication across online channels, broadening access to all interested parties.
  • You can judge the quality of digital engagement by the number of conversations, the substantive quality of those conversations, and how well they filter into the agency and back out to the public.
  • Failure to listen, engage and "conversate" creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Silence or awkward, stuttering responses create assumptions - incompetence or a great big conspiracy to control the world.
Any fear-based strategy doesn't work. 

With respect to engagement and communication, it only leads to this kind of thinking as a trigger-fire response: "Don't add fuel to the fire."

The downstream consequence is "outreach" and "digital engagement" that shies away from substantive issues and toward non-controversial education. Sophisticated technology - flashy social media tools, the latest and greatest mobile apps, multimedia presentations - become a substitute for the real conversation the public wants. A waste of time if it doesn't move the needle.

So actually, the best thing a government engagement specialist can do is to be a channel for what people are saying - both on the outside and on the inside.

This "chief conversationalist" (digital engagement lead or director) listens, connects, validates that the sentiments are real - thus bringing inflamed emotions down, and facilitating a rational dialogue. This person does not have to be a subject matter expert - in fact it is better if they are not - because the goal is to hear what other people are saying without personal bias as to whether it is relevant.

Great engagement yields improvement in the way agencies work, better-served citizens, and more efficient and effective government as a whole.

* All opinions my own.

My Top 10 Principles for Federal Digital Engagement, FY2014

Like Swiss cheese, real transparency is open and engaging (well, to most people). Photo via Flickr.

I'm the Director of Digital Engagement for a Federal Agency, the National Archives and Records Administration.

We're talking about how we evolve our social media plan into something bigger, broader, and more like what we have implemented on the ground. And then to give that thing more of a name.

Personally I tend to like the informal approach. Whatever you are doing, it's an animal that's moving in time. It's already got an energy. But every now and then it's good to give things a name, a structure, to articulate the method.

Let's start with what I absolutely abhor:

1. We do not, cannot, and should never be doing propaganda, because we're not Coca-Cola and we're not allowed to do it. It is not about pushing a story that makes us look good.

2. We should not be wasting taxpayer money on pointless babble. Even if we aren't killing a tree, it is a misappropriation of taxpayer dollars.

So what is digital engagement then? What are the factors that make an approach "great"? Here are my top 10:

1. It clearly promotes the mission. At NARA, providing access to the holdings of the Agency is a primary part of our job. Not only do we do so through the Web and social media, we also actively seek out opportunities to have the public add to our holdings and partner with us, through such tools as the Citizen Archivist Dashboard and having an in-house expert help us contribute to Wikipedia (transparently, of course).

2. It saves the Agency money. We favor lower-cost, higher-impact tools that get our holdings before the public (and employees) in places they tend to congregate. We start at the pilot level, keep what works and discard what doesn't. We welcome opportunities to work with partners who can share and display content, as well as opportunities to talk with people who may be writing stories that have a historical aspect to them.

3. It provides a window into Agency operations.  The public has a right to know what we're doing. Great engagement facilitates the flow of information about the agency from within, to without. This can take the form of sharing open data sets, providing narrative that contextualizes Agency decisions, or both.

4. It gets people looking, sharing and talking, online and off. We start meaningful conversations, and join them as the real human beings that we are - not as phony abstractions. And we make information available in the Town Square - in places where people are congregating - so that they talk about it on their own time. Nothing is ever forced.

5. Its goals are method-agnostic. We are not enamored with this tool or that. We don't care if engagement happens using this social media tool or that. We're happy to cross-pollinate with TV, newspapers, radio, or any medium.

6. It bridges the internal and the external. We promote conversations within the Agency itself, and between the Agency and the outside world. We believe that the more conversation takes place, the smarter we become and the more effective at doing our jobs.

7. It broadens the roster of speakers to include everyone. Our approach is decentralized. We don't designate one or two people and restrict the tools to them. We make clear when we're speaking as part of the Agency, and when we're sharing our own opinions. The goal is to get information out there, to make sure that those who would benefit from it have it.

8. It is feedback-hungry. Of course not everything can be shared. But we don't shy away from discussion, debate, complexity and even controversy. Rather, we constructively support a wide-ranging conversation that respects appropriate bounds of confidentiality.

9. It is predicated on supporting creativity and innovation by all. Nobody knows what the next big tool will be, or how it will impact our efforts. We support our employees in trying new things, we congratulate noble failures instead of bashing them, and we partner openly to get the best result possible.

10. It evolves from close collaboration with Agency counsel.  Digital engagement requires careful and close examination of communication methodology, especially in the early stand-up phase. We engage counsel early and collaboratively so that we are working in a framework that complies with law, regulation and guidance.

What else should a federal digital engagement strategy include? What are your thoughts on this? Looking forward to reading your comments.

* All opinions my own, at least until we publish some form of this as official :-)

Focus: It Is Always A Problem Of Leadership

Sherlock Holmes has focus.

“What are we trying to achieve here?”

It’s such a simple question. But for a messed-up organization, the answer is impossible. They’re divided against each other on the inside, fighting to look good on the outside, and afraid to stand behind a priority that isn’t the flavor of the day.

So you listen to their words, and try to make sense of stuff like this:
  • Idealism versus profit: “We want to change the world, and hopefully earn a living at the same time.”
  • Pie-in-the-sky revenue models: “Our concept is unlike any other. We’ve got to spread the word. Our brand will do the talking for us, and eventually we’ll sell this thing for billions.” 
  • All-over-the-place goals: “It’s all about investing in the next big thing, but we can’t forget efficiency and customer service.”
If you can’t understand what a government agency, business, hospital, school, religious organization, etc., is doing, it is always a leadership problem.

Most leaders would say they agree with you - but that it's other leaders' fault. (It may be helpful to know that there is a preponderance of narcissistic personality disorder among executives.) 

Though criticism is rare, and gets rarer the higher you go, they tend to react to negative feedback angrily, defensively and with “proof” that the accuser is wrong:

“It’s not my fault. I set clear priorities in my speech the other week. I wrote a blog post about this too. Plus we have a written strategy. And I tell people what I want. I even promote those who share and can implement the agenda.”

But the leader’s job is not only to talk, dictate, act. That’s activity, not result.

The leader's job is to focus, and to focus on the right thing rather than the popular one. All people like unlimited options – there’s always another trend – and leaders do not want to be wrong. So they try to do everything, or at least all the things they need to do to “not get into trouble.”

But they are in trouble. Because the customer (public) does not value a discombobulated brand. Who are you? They want to know. Very simply – what do you offer?

Employees are the same. They want to know who they’re working for, but too often they don't really know. Not only are the articulated priorities confusing, there is normally a yawning gap between rhetoric and reality.

Leaders should understand this about the people they employ: 
  • They get hired without knowing the full picture, and it takes years of familiarity to really figure that out. Often they leave the organization in disappointment, before they have a chance to find out at least what the partial picture is.
  • They rise up the ranks watching leaders go in and out. Priorities come, priorities go. What mattered yesterday or last year, suddenly doesn’t count. This has a dulling effect on the senses, especially for people who are deeply committed to and invested in a single organization or very focused field of work. 
  • They see technology changing pretty rapidly, so that skills valued only 2-3 years ago are becoming automated and obsolete. After awhile, they may stop trying to adapt - it seems impossible.
Leaders can turn the ship around. These kinds of actions make a concrete difference:
  • Use executive communication better - talk about the problems that the organization faces, the adaptive choices, and why we’re going this way instead of that. (Preferably, engage employees in formulating the strategy.) Along the way, accept criticism, even welcome it  - and be willing to change course in terms of strategy, as long as the end goal is achieved.
  • Portray a narrative that offers continuity from one leader to the next – how does each represent a chapter in history? Employees and external stakeholders want to understand how the organization’s activities are really “one.” It is helpful to acknowledge the temporary nature of leadership, and how one’s activities really are about a stewardship model rather than a monarchy. 
  • Once a strategic direction is chosen, stick with it over the long haul. Engage employees in making it work, and working through the problems that get in the way. Eliminate from the organization or sideline those who undermine its direction, or its executive team. (This includes other executives.) “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
  • In a changing environment, eliminate unnecessary work and praising successful efforts to adapt - often. In a constantly shifting environment, priorities must often be changed on the fly. It’s important to remove work as often as one adds it, to avoid overloading people with a confusing pile of assignments they can’t prioritize.
  • Promote “boundary-less” collaboration - and make an example of infighters. Limited resources do not permit an organization to puff up unnecessary stovepipes. Energy must be pooled for a common cause. People who can't get along with each other are toxic to organizational culture.
  • Training, training, training - rinse and repeat. You can have a great workforce, but without the necessary skills their value decreases. Training is not expensive - make it happen on work time. Make it happen through on the job training. This includes not only technical skills but also critical thinking, project management, customer service, and more. Training is the prerequisite for adapting to the future.
Tried-and-true tactics are still useful. Be a dictator when you have to be (sorry, but it's true). Deploy the right people to the right mission. Focus on achievable, low-hanging fruit first. Engage the staff in spreading the word for you - make them your voluntary brand ambassadors.
There are so many things a leader can do. But they’re only means to a goal, which is to accurately identify the priority that is most important, shift most resources to that, and eliminate everything that does not contribute.

This activity is in its essence the distillation of the brand. It is what you promise to do extraordinarily well, better than your competition, enough to fund you more than a generic with no reputation.

Great brands have focus. They deliver both a superior product or service, and a great emotional experience.

It follows, then, that leadership is really about brand-building.

This is true externally – selling TVs, providing government services, giving patients chemotherapy, teaching high schoolers history.

It is also, and more fundamentally, a must-have internally. 

Leadership at its core is recruiting and retaining employees to achieve focused, tangible results that the customer will appreciate.

* All opinions my own.

Collaboration, Or Have You Been Played?

Hook, Line, Sinker (How I fell for a phishing scam) 

"I am not your Governor." That great line from The Walking Dead rang in my ears as I watched the latest episode, where the bad guy pretends to be reformed and then shows his true colors. 

As a leader, this character takes it right out of the nastiest playbook around. His method of "teaming up" consists of murdering his enemies, then flattering and then intimidating a set of minions into doing what he wants. 

A true Machiavellian.

In contrast, on this fictional survival show that has a very realistic vibe, good guy leader "Rick" doesn't like doing mean things. He will kill if he has to, but Rick established his leadership position by empowering people and working as a team. 

Here's another example, because this plot line is a staple.

Remember Melrose Place? That quintessential '90s show gave us Heather Locklear in rare form as the scheming ad agency exec "Amanda" - a lying, scheming, manipulative but well-dressed ad exec who always got her way.

Meanwhile, arch-rival "Alison," who represented goodness, could only stand around and watch.

In the movies and in real life, there are people who pretend to collaborate with you, but their idea of teaming up is sociopathic. 

Their mindset is: "I win-you lose."

You can tell when you're around these types, because you feel really bad afterward. It's almost as if you've been poisoned.

And the worst part of it is, you can't get away from helping them, right?

After all, we're in a service economy.

Your job ultimately depends on how well you provide information, move the project forward, and generally add value to achieve a desired result.

So how do you deal with the schemers of this world? How do you prevent them from using you, and walking away with all the credit?

Here are a couple of thoughts:

1. Practice "preventive networking." Build relationships with people in advance, so that they know who really has the expertise.

2. Trust your instincts. While it's noble to believe that people are really good at heart, remember that not everyone is as enlightened as you. Don't be afraid to discuss your concerns with a trusted colleague if someone appears to be milking you for information. (Personally I have found that most people want to collaborate in a genuine way, as long as their part is acknowledged. But the bad apples are very bad, and silently poisonous.)

3. Check your self-esteem. Some people have issues around the concept of being self-promotional, and they think that taking credit for good work means that they are "bad." Not at all. It's a simple factual statement - here's what I do, here's how it helps, how can I help you?

4. Know when to let it go. There are many times when the success of a project depends on dispersion of credit, or assignment to someone other than the person who had the original idea. This is just the way of the world. If you focus on results and support the team, people will actually appreciate you more because the truth tends to become apparent despite attempts to distort or mischaracterize it.

5. Keep a record. It is really as simple as sending yourself an email, saving documents you've worked on, notes you've scribbled, presentations you've made. If you were part of a team, being in on the meetings counts a lot! Write down what you did, what you said, how it mattered. The truth is that you are judged on the quality of the projects you've executed, so these notes can help you with your resume down the road. 

At the end of the day collaboration is important. But it only works well when everybody comes to the table in good faith. 

Otherwise, sure, you can get a project done. In the short-term. 

In the long-term, people just don't want to get baited again. And that bad, rusty taste lingers in the mouth, of when you bit the bait and go taken, hook line and sinker.

* All opinions my own.

Open Government, Branding & The Fishbowl


In today's "open," social media-dominated times, private sector branding and government branding are completely different animals.

  • Private sector branding is about making money through the construction of an image that adds a premium to the real value of the product. Given the raging demand for authenticity, the strategy is to establish an illusion of transparency while maintaining strict control over what appears on the outside.
  • Public sector, i.e. government branding is about actually getting the public involved in what the government is doing, for a lot of reasons. Compliance reduces enforcement expenditure. Partnerships reduce costs, increase efficiency and allow subject matter experts to focus on what they do best. (This is not to mention that the government is not supposed to be an entity distinct from the people but rather one and the same, accountable to them.) The communication imperative therefore is to drive actual transparency, not the illusion of same. The actual water, the real fish and no fishbowl, although from a certain perspective it looks the same.

I'm going to talk about this and more in "Digital Disruption In Government," an upcoming panel discussion in DC on open government, its challenges and its future. Here is the roster of speakers, moderator and at the background of the event organizer.

Here is a bit of a drilldown into my portion of the talk (you can see all the key takeaways here). Note that in one of those weird-isms that is modern social media life, I'll be talking about personal opinions, but will also mention things that we're doing at the National Archives, and the philosophy of open government and social media through which I operate.
  • Life in the trenches of government over the past decade - riding the wave of branding, social media, and now open government
  • The uniquely decentralized and collaborative approach that the National Archives is taking to open government and social media, which we call "unconventional engagement," and its impact on day-to-day outreach activities
  • How cultural differences have a huge impact on the day-to-day perception and implementation of open government within the agency
  • The neglected critical factor in open government adoption - middle management
  • Jockeying for power and how it helps and hurts the open government cause
  • The difference between good and bad failure, and the conversations around them
  • The "neglected stepchild" of corporate communications, internal communication, and how it absolutely drives open government
If you have the time and won't flake out at the last minute, join us on December 10. Registration is complementary, but there are only a few seats left.

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