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"Freedom to Call the President an Idiot"

It was a cold winter afternoon and we were sitting at one of those elegant, traditional restaurants in Washington, D.C. where you can get a fish and chips and a beer while craning your neck to hear both journalists and diplomats.

Oh, how I hate these forced social gatherings, I thought to myself. Maybe it will come and go quickly.

The occasion was a birthday celebration for a colleague. I didn't know why we had to do these kinds of things, really, but then again socializing at work was never my strong suit. Dutifully I listened to the various remarks, the "hear hears," the heroic tales about muddling through the trenches of red tape, turf battles and general inanity.

It was time for dessert. Mercifully there are no more speeches, I thought but sure enough just then my boss stood up and rattled her thick glass mug with a spoon. "Just one more speech," she said, grinning widely. "Try to tough it out, and maybe I'll release you guys from the staff meeting tomorrow."

Well that sounds good to me, and I almost genuflected with relief and delight that we could be spared yet one more senseless time-wasting session.

My colleague stood up to speak.

"I have only one thing to say," he began. "I hope you don't mind if I speak with candor."

And we grew quiet. The good cheer and the jokes turned into something somber, as we received the fact that something important was coming.

"I am grateful that you all came here to celebrate with me today. There are no better people in the world than those who work for the federal government."

We were even more alert around the table now. That sounded like a run-up to something very significant.

"I will be leaving this agency soon," he said. "I'm getting older now. Florida is calling my name. The wife is ready - and I know you all saw it coming."

We nodded; this was true.

A brief pause, and then he continued, his voice growing louder.

"But that's not my main point. What I really want to say, as someone who has lived on this planet for sixty-three years, is that we live in the finest country in the world."

And then the volume went way up. Now it was lightning and thunder.
"I am so proud to live in a country where every man has the right to call the President an idiot."

Not sure about everybody else, but at this one I let out a little gasp. It's been eight years of Obama this and Obama that, the forced political correctness, the quiet agreement not to say anything, or, if we did say something we would close the door and quietly say to one another, oops they did it again, those arrogant politicals.

My colleague said a little bit more about freedom of speech, how he valued being a citizen of this country and how he appreciated that the federal government protected his rights as an employee.

We walked back in the frigid cold. Nobody went to the staff meeting.

I think about all the federal employees I know, the ones who will give you an earful about how things are worse than ever and the ones who claim it was much, much worse if you remember how it was way back when. The ones who clearly have drunk the Kool-Aid, the ones who have checked out; the ones who laugh and say "Oh, goodness, what are you getting so worked up about?"

The self-help guru Tony Robbins says you should spend three minutes every day being grateful for what you have. Remembering that party, and thinking of the wit and wisdom of my colleagues, makes me so.


All opinions my own. Photo via american-flag_4245_1 atFlickr (Creative Commons).

Authentic Tweeting Without The Mask

It's a question that comes up a lot when companies decide how to use social media: "How should we present our identity to the public?"

Here are the typical options, along with the pros and cons:
  • A single organizational account where you don't know who is talking (a.k.a. "The Wizard of Oz"): The benefit of this approach is that the organization does not risk its brand on the reputation of any one individual. On the other hand, obviously social media is all about individuality and authenticity, so having an unnamed entity issuing messages is jarring to say the least. 
  • A single organizational account explicitly populated by a staff, with messages identified by name: This approach is helpful in that it humanizes the brand, but at the same time there is a lack of consistency in terms of "voice."
  • An individual account in the corporate name where the person is identified as a brand representative: This approach can be extremely successful, but a problem comes in if a popular social media representative leaves the team and that unique individuality is suddenly absent.
  • An individual communicating as themselves, who is understood to be synonymous with the organization: This is typically the scenario when a senior executive communicates, and that person is so identified with their organization that the public understands they are "on duty" at all times. The problem of course is that we are all human, we all have private and public selves and it is unworkable in the long-term to expect any person to suppress their real selves for the sake of the organization.
An alternative approach is for the organization to create and re-create the brand in dialogue with its audience 24/7.

This means that there is no official social media presence for the brand. Rather, the company allows the public to have its own, authentic, original conversation about the brand without attempting to interfere.
In this scenario, the company assumes that its own employees will participate in the conversation, but they will do so of their own volition, in their own voices, expressing themselves naturally and authentically without having to get approval for their messages first.

I realize that this is an unusual way to think about social media but I think that it would address one of the most significant reasons that the public distrusts institutions, which is that they attempt to participate in communication in a manner that is forced and artificial.

By putting employees and other stakeholders on a level playing field, and essentially vacating any "official" stance on what should be a fully individualized set of platforms, the organization shows that it understands the inherent nature of this type of communication channel.
An organization's website is the only place it should anonymously provide official data and statements of position. These items belong to the corporate body, and no name need be attached to them. The focus should be on providing comprehensive information that is accessible, rich, and easy to navigate.

As with everything in life, the most important thing is to think before you do. Just because "everybody" has a social media account does not mean your organization needs to copy them.


All opinions my own. Photo by Valis Iscari0t via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A comment on "5 Trends In Government Technology We'll See In 2017"

(Here's the original post:

This is an important post but I am not sure I agree with its premise or all of its points.

For one thing, per #3, it appears the assumption is that Hillary Clinton will win. Why does the post assume this? To strategize means to play out both scenarios. Trump vs. Clinton will bring us two dramatically different approaches to government technology. Under Trump, expect his team to take out their calculators and basically slash and burn everything that isn't immediately and obviously justifiable from a *business* (not a government) point of view. Under Clinton, expect an incremental approach to change and a willingness to continue spending even on technology initiatives whose worth is not yet immediately clear.

Regarding #5, I think the private sector is well ahead of the public sector in understanding what outcome-based engagement is. This relates to point #1, data. My sense (although I cannot prove it) is that state and local governments are ahead of the federal government in terms of using data to drive decision-making about outreach. In contrast, I am hard-pressed to think of examples in the federal government where outreach strategies were developed based on integrated, mission-critical desired outcomes, assessed for performance based on data, and modified according to the results of that data. Even when they want to obtain this data -- and they do, because data is a way to justify leadership decisionmaking -- there is red tape surrounding surveying the public for feedback. Whoever wins the election, I really hope that the feedback process opens up and becomes easy so that we can immediately pulse people as to whether our initiatives make sense and are working.

As far as cybersecurity and FEDRAMP (#4), it seems to me a no-brainer that the government should continue to establish and market secure cloud spaces within which federal agencies can do their business without a lot of hassle. It should be extremely easy for agencies to determine what type of service they need; look up what type of platform will support the service (e.g. a cloud-based environment with the right level of security); and order it through an interagency agreement, with a customer service representative walking them through the entire process and available to answer questions and troubleshoot. This is not so much a matter of growth in utilization of FEDRAMP but an internal customer service issue from government to government. Again, regardless of who wins the election it will be up to the feds themselves to create clarity among the service offerings available and educate the incoming political appointees about what is on offer. This requires not only an understanding of technology, but also an understanding of contracting, government funding mechanisms, mission and infrastructure within and across agencies, and the mechanics of establishing points of contact within agencies effectively. Too often, there is a lot of good stuff going on but the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.

One last point I think Steve could have included here is the growth of internal collaboration, workflow management and social networking within agencies, which I would expect to explode by 2018 if not 2017. As the government becomes more familiar with the way millennials work (millennials being the future of government even if they hate how it works right now), there will be a recognition that constant contact and collaboration, including honest discussion, is simply required for productivity and it is not going to go away. Steve's 2009 brainchild, GovLoop, was revolutionary in that it created a space for government employees to have those conversations with one another, albeit in a public space.

As the government grows more and more savvy about this, such conversations will be encouraged and they will be linked with document collaboration, review and approval in a way that's very easy to manage, very secure, and very easy to track in terms of who approved (or altered, or commented on), which text. At the same time, the government will need to establish a set of standard operating procedures in conformance with the law that enable free flowing conversation while also ensuring preservation of documents and discussions for later examination by the public (e.g. FOIA).

If vendors could come up with a way to increase productivity and reduce duplication of effort through a combination of internal social networking, document management, and potentially even the integration of external customer service (such that I can answer your inquiry on Twitter in a manner trackable to an internal discussion, with a ticket number, referencing a public law or guidance document), I think it would literally transform the way government does business forever.

Of course all opinions are always my own. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

Finding Strength in Surrendering Control

So they sent me to a training class in advanced communications, specifically managing conflict through difficult conversations.

As it happens this trainer was better than most, and I found myself listening closely. You've heard of the book Critical Conversations and although the class was not specifically centered on that book, it was all about getting into and out of difficult discussions without ruining your relationships.

Sitting there I marveled at the trainer's composure. She was calm, respectful but firm, and had a line for seemingly every persistent problem. For example, many of us (me included) find it difficult to say "No," and so here is the alternative phrase: "Here's what I can do."

When you're giving someone negative feedback about their performance, you're supposed to state your intention: "I want you to be successful, and in that spirit there is something I feel I need to make you aware of." (Then state the facts.)

In yeshiva I learned that you should never just take in information without challenging it. So I picked the rules apart, looking for situations where it did not apply. "How are we to do this in a federal government environment?" I asked. "What do you do when the other person has a hidden agenda?" "How are you to handle gender politics?"

The teacher tried as hard as she could to handle these difficult questions, and my fellow students gamely offered their insights as well. But eventually I think we all realized that in some situations, no matter how skilled you are, the level of problems is not only beyond your control, but crushing.

It occurred to me as well that even in a perfect world, I bring a lot of baggage to the table. I was on my own from a young age, I was trained that people should handle things by themselves as much as possible, and the idea of trusting other people to come through for the team remains somewhat foreign.

I guess the bottom line is, I grasped in that day of training how truly little we control. Sure, we can make the effort to choose the right career, to increase our skills, and to manage our emotional limitations. But at the end of the day, most of what matters is completely out of our hands. It's been said a million times before and I still have trouble internalizing this, but at a certain point you just have to surrender that need for control.

Maybe you don't have to believe in G-d per se, but I think it makes a lot of sense to simply let go once you've done everything you can. You have called out to the Universe. It's up to the Universe to return the message.


All opinions my own.

Thank you to my top 10 international audiences

Hi everyone,
  1. United States
  2. Ukraine
  3. Russia
  4. France
  5. Germany
  6. China
  7. United Kingdom
  8. Bulgaria
  9. Canada
  10. Poland
I appreciate that you take the time to read my blog.

Best wishes,



Image credit: The original uploader was Augiasstallputzer at [[::| Wikimedia Commons]] - Own work, based on shoreline data from GSHHS ("crude" level), a public-domain source, Public Domain,

Communicating to a Cynical Workforce

We don't need to debate this, do we? People are mostly checked-out at work; they don't take the time to read your carefully crafted Intranet messages very carefully, if they read them at all; they can barely be bothered to take the all-employee survey with its detailed questions and response choices.
And if you tell me that employees work for their managers, not the company, and so they mostly want to hear from the boss who's giving them a performance evaluation at the end of the year - point taken. But are employees really engaged with the information they receive from their managers? Maybe the information is timely and relevant to their jobs, but does it have that higher ring of truth and meaning?
Consider the fact that at any given moment a substantial percentage of employees are angry. They don't like the way they're being treated, or they don't feel valued on the job, or someone at work is harassing them, maybe even the boss. Perhaps they are underpaid or their job title is inappropriate for the amount of work that they do. They are very likely "keeping their eyes open" for another, better job; or maybe they're actively looking.
If they've been in the organization for any length of time, they've seen senior leaders come and go and with these executives the grand initiatives that were supposed to fix everything.
It is hard to imagine what kind of internal communication could break through the clutter, the spoil and the noise and truly get people to open up and work together.
Some might say that the answer is "radical honesty," or "openness" or some version of transparency combined with emotional intelligence. I call bullshit on that answer because it leaves the broken system largely intact.
The way to communicate effectively with cynical employees is, first, for the people who run the organization (the company, the nonprofit, the agency) to secure, in writing, an ironclad commitment to justice -- starting now.
Justice means that the people who have previously survived through unethical means are eliminated from the system. This includes the bullies, the cheats, the liars, the incompetent and those who simply refuse to do their fair share. All of them are bound to new rules of behavior, and those rules are written to benefit customers and employees alike, without doing anything to hurt the surrounding community or environment.
The proclamation of justice should be posted in a public place, and the organizational changes should then commence immediately, carried out by a governance board comprised of employee representatives of all types and levels.
Depending on the type of organization one is dealing with, the specifics of this will differ.
After the detritus of the organization has been removed, decisions must be made concerning fair and appropriate compensation. Again, how this is done will necessarily vary, and I am not an economist, an accountant or a budgeting officer. But most people can understand that the greater the risk, the greater the reward and conversely that nobody's labor should be exploited, either.
So now we are left with a pool of reasonable people, ready and willing and able to work, comfortable with the compensation scheme.
At this point decisions must be made about business strategy, and how it is going to change to conform to the new, i.e. just and fair and open, environment. How will the organization make money or otherwise return value to its stakeholders?
Again, this is where representatives of the employee community come in, to think through the key issues and return with sensible decisions. Somebody has to be in charge of reviewing them and making the final call; most people understand that a certain amount of authority in the organization is inevitable and necessary.
Throughout this entire process, and the unfolding drama of events that is the day-to-day life of the organization, communication has to be freely flowing. It has to be, in order for the organization to work. If it's not, and people are hiding things or holding information to themselves to gain an advantage, the company itself stands to ruin. 
Here's the bottom line: Internal communication is not the equivalent of icing on the cake. Rather it is the main course of the dinner. It has to be connected to the fundamental decisions that are made every single day about how the organization will function. It has to be connected to a set of values to which all adhere, or are shown the door. It has to be inextricably linked to a sense of justice, the belief that all are accountable for the things they do and that accountability is not just the basis for membership in the organization but fundamental to its profit model.
If you're still somehow thinking that you can ignore this kind of reality, the result will be a continuation of the same-old, same-old status quo. Checked-out, complaining, complacent employees who are happy to take a paycheck, but not so happy to show up at work and do their jobs. Talented individuals who care and who have a lot of qualifications to contribute to your enterprise, but who for survival reasons have decided not to buy in to anything you say, because they know you aren't really invested in them.
All opinions my own. Photo by Martijn van Exel via Flickr (Creative Commons)