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"Corrosive Culture" at VA: 10 Lessons for the Rest Of Us

It is easy to point fingers when others screw up. In reality the problems at Veterans Affairs are fairly common, and the employees are highly dedicated and delivering a high quality of care. This presentation extracts 10 themes from the report prepared by President Obama's Deputy Chief of Staff about excessive wait times, in a way that enables consideration of similar themes by other agencies and organizations.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Will Transparency Take Away Your Job?

Many years ago my daughter did not speak.

She was three years old and I took her to the town pediatrician - these were the days before the Internet - and he told me, the way a revered, patrician, paternalistic doctor has talked to me many times, as though I were ignorant - "Mrs. Blumenthal, she's fine. Lots of kids don't talk before they're three. My own kids didn't talk until late."

We moved to the Washington, D.C. area soon after and I took her to a local doctor who I'm pretty sure has made every issue of Washingtonian since the magazine first started coming out. He is an ear, nose and throat doctor with a hearing problem. There is a gigantic fish tank, with large beautiful fish, at the entrance. A large framed prayer hangs over it, something about "helping everyone who walks through these doors."

The doctor is not patrician, or pedantic, or paternalistic or patronizing. He is elderly and kind and he takes one look at my daughter and rushes her to the emergency room.

It's midnight and I'm sitting there, sitting over her bed. I'm working in the hospital just after her surgery, because I work all the time, because raising kids is a full-time job and we need a dual income, and G-d has blessed me with income that I can earn long-distance between D.C. and Madison Avenue. And so I work.

The pressure is on me to generate a large amount of work. My boss knows when I've produced it. There is nothing for me to hide - it's either done or it isn't, and I am paid handsomely by the piece.

As far as the doctor goes, I had no way of knowing whether he was right or the other one was. Equally their opinions held sway in my mind, because there was no Internet to check them against. Had I had the Internet I would have gone to Google and looked up "When is it normal for a kid to start speaking?" or some such thing and gotten some answers.

Had I had the Internet, I would have "fired" (stopped going to) the first doctor and given him a bad review on Yelp, or whatever review sites there are for doctors specifically - - and given a five-star review to the second. I'd rate them both on Angie's List.

So here's another story. When I started working for the government one of my big ideas was to have employees rate the articles in the employee newsletter. I tend to repeat my stories, so if you've heard this one already, forgive me, but I just love it. 

What happened was, they hired me for internal communications, and so of course I ended up with the employee newsletter, which of course nobody wanted to write for and we had to drag them kicking and screaming to do the most basic and boring articles. You know these kinds of articles, they're the ones you like to laugh at, like "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" by another title, "We Went To A Meeting" and stuff like that.

So we used to lay it out one way, for print, and I said to my boss, something like "Gee wouldn't it be great to have the newsletter online." And "Oh sure." was the response, because who is going to say no to that?

Quietly I program it to show articles with anywhere from one-star to four-star ratings in Lotus Notes - I don't even remember what Lotus Notes is, only that I used it and liked it a lot. And I remember the look on my boss's face, my boss who was maybe two years from retirement. "Oh no you don't!" and she shut it down right quick.

If her face could talk it would have said, "Are you kidding? We're not going to rate the articles! Nobody would ever write for us again."

But there was another meeting at that agency, and they did let me make it visible to all employees. It was a town hall on the subject of reorganization, and the Chief of Staff at the time let me do it. Is it surprising that this person used to say things like, "People worry that if they share information the pie will get smaller. But actually the pie just gets bigger." 

He understood that transparency leads to more productivity, and more productivity benefits everyone. You cannot get screwed if you focus on contributing your best.

Last story. At that agency I was the intrepid reporter who covered a very special event. The subject was predatory lending, and the speaker was one Elizabeth Warren. I confess to being a mostly ignorant person when it comes to detailed subject matter, but my instincts and emotions are sharp and finely tuned. And when she walked into the room and started talking, it was electrifying. 

Warren urged us to stop the national banks from deceptive practices in marketing tricky, too-good-to-be-true credit products to consumers. And the audience, a room full of loan examiners (you may think this is a snooze but consider that loans are what pay for houses and cars) did not make a move or a sound.

Years later Warren's brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, came into being and - judging at least from the people who show up at various federal communications meetings - it is staffed by some of the smartest people in town. What Warren managed to achieve, that few get to do in their lifetimes, is quiet but revolutionary social change. For the first time in my lifetime that I can recall, a government agency was specifically established as an activist tool on behalf of the citizenry, to go behind the curtain and blow away the smoke and mirrors and show people the consequences of living on cheap promises and bad credit.

Transparency won't take away your job, if you want to do a good job. Good workers will always find something to do. It will take away your job if you're a liar, and you're trying to run from or hide the truth.

* All opinions my own.


Game Your Training to Get Results

At the recent GSummit in San Francisco there was a presentation on the simple principles behind gamification and why it works so well.

The speaker was Monica Cornetti, and the focus of her talk was something like "how corporate trainers can get funding for training." Nevertheless there were ideas that anyone could incorporate into any training session. She is very dynamic, funny and knowledgeable and I would highly recommend actually watching the talk, to learn about these ideas, because you can't really get it from a blog. But this is just a taste:

1) The purpose of training is to produce enhanced results, not to transmit information. (I believe that is a quote.)

2) Turn training into a story with characters, an adventure, a journey, a destination, a challenge. She used the example of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in talking about HR training in a back-office environment. You want to train Snow White to deal with Dopey (the boss's kid :-), Grumpy, etc.

3) Show consequences of behavior. She had a great image of a crane falling down due to operator error. (This is real life, folks, not a joke.) Talk, talk, talk and then quiz is old fashioned and doesn't work.

4) Start small, show measurable results and then add the bells and whistles. This is perhaps the best tip of all. You have to see Cornetti standing there, rubbing her fingers together and going, "You like it? Well if you want more, you'll have to pay."

I loved how Cornetti talked about the way to approach an executive with data. She said to remember that the most important currency for a C-suite leader is time. Do not waste their time. Show them the metrics, show them the demonstrated results, and you'll make your case - whether it's for better training or an investment in other stuff.

As far as gaming your training, we sat down afterward and talked about these principles in our world. It turned out that our Ethics folks had already done Lord of the Rings installments for Hatch Act training and it was a big hit. So Cornetti was right on the money on that one.

We talked about how to add some sizzle to web training and I think we will be focusing most on #3, consequences of behavior, but not in a negative way. Rather, we will be putting the tools and the assignments in front of the user and asking them to complete the task, sort of like people who take a cooking class and they get the ingredients and an oven and get to bake a cake with a teacher around.

We'll see how it goes. Either way it was a great training and the lessons were well learned, even if she did show slides of pot and we had to close the door because we didn't want it to look like we endorsed drug dealing, which we don't. We don't!

* All opinions my own. 

10 Tips from Jack Bauer's Leadership Playbook

"Bauer" is of course the main character on "24":

1. Gains permission to make difficult decisions in a respectful but effective way: "Sir, just let me do what I know how to do."

2. Throws terrorists out the window without listening to their nonsense propaganda, because they are dangerous killers and not good or moral.

3. Respects marriage between the love of his life and another man, because he respects that marriage is sacred.

4. Always takes a phone call from people he cares about even when it distracts him from his work. He just keeps it brief.

5. Knows a rat when he smells one, even if the rat seems unconnected to the present infestation.

6. Nevertheless he doesn't act without evidence.

7. Maintains highly qualified and trustworthy friends who help him, and vice versa.

8. Delegates work to the experts - doesn't pretend to know or do it all. Nevertheless, keeps a good working knowledge of the subject matter.

9. Goes it alone when he has to.

10. Serves a higher mission than his own greed, lust or thirst for power. He would die for it.

* All opinions my own.

Whose fault is it if public service leaves you feeling stifled?

Sharing a comment I posted on GovLoop today, because it feels important.


If an individual employee feels stifled in government, it is up to that employee to manage the situation effectively by finding ways to make a positive difference. Having official boss approval is only one of those ways. Other ways include...well lots of things that you have seen suggested many times no doubt.

What is the boss's job? Not to pretend that every idea, or even every good idea, is going to be considered. That is not "good management" rather it is a pat on the head and it is really condescending and insulting. Or worse, it is dangerous when management just goes "oh sure" and does not give any direction that would rein in some of the kookier concepts that people come up with and actually implement when one is looking the other way. I could name a few but it's better that I don't.

What is the boss's job, from a positive perspective? I would say that it's to teach the employee "how to fish," meaning how to get things done in the system as it actually exists, and then to build on that incrementally and make improvements.

Of course most bosses are not oriented to doing that and so good people either leave or they do something radical in order to make change happen, taking the risk on themselves. Both of those scenarios are bad for government. Move the ship slowly, steadily and together and we can get it done.

My two cents.