Why “The Biggest Loser” in Government Is Actually The Biggest Winner

The Federal Times covers today’s Gallup event announcing the results of a survey they did this summer on citizens’ perceptions of the federal government.

I was fortunate to be there today when Gallup released the important findings and hosted an equally vital discussion about them. It was a rare opportunity to hear directly from an impressive panel of thought leaders, including Jim Clifton, the CEO of Gallup; the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, Frank Newport (who was instantly recognizable from his presence on CNN), the president of the Partnership for Public Service, Max Stier; and Patricia McGinnis, a Georgetown professor who is also a White House advisor. The head of the Gallup Government Practice, Bernadine Karunaratne, led and moderated the event and was also very well-spoken.

It was also nice to be among other dedicated federal employees at this event. Their questions showed a great deal of genuine commitment and an obvious desire to improve how their agencies work. Americans should be proud that people like this are serving them every day.

Now, I’m going to complain just a little. Then I’ll offer some key takeaways and possible next steps for agencies who want to improve their standing with the public.

I. More transparency would have been nice

I was a bit disappointed by the lack of full transparency on the survey results that were publicly released. True, aggregate information was provided that allowed some comparison between one major agency and another. But in the current political climate, with a presidential directive telling federal agencies to become more transparent and right away, I would have expected more in terms of subcomponent agency data, even if it were only provided on a very general question. And I would have liked to see that data released on the Gallup website.

It’s not that Gallup is holding back the information – they offered to talk to subcomponents privately and for free about how survey respondents rated them in particular – but it was disappointing that we didn’t see more data at a “granular” level.

It’s not clear to me whether this is a marketing strategy to draw agencies into a potential client engagement through the use of a “teaser,” or whether there was some reluctance about releasing more from the survey due to the fear of potentially embarrassing (and thus losing) potential federal agency clients.

Maybe it’s asking too much for full transparency, especially since Gallup is not a government agency, but wouldn’t it be amazing if the public had access to a database of statistically rich survey information – from 42,000 citizens across the United States – comparing satisfaction with the federal government in many different ways? That would be an excellent reference point to stimulate public dialogue, to enrich academic products, to promote genuinely useful mashups and crowdsourcing about ways to improve government functioning, and overall to give the American taxpayer a sense of where people feel the public’s money is best being spent.

Perhaps the federal government could undertake this kind of transparency on its own, initiating a public satisfaction dashboard similar to the federal IT project spending dashboard, with both of these initiatives including information at the subcomponent level as well as the overall agency level. (Right now as far as I can see, the IT spending website is confined to the overall agency level.)

II. Well-meaning advice – but a little theoretical

I also would have liked to see more familiarity with government from the experts. It’s easy to preach from the outside, and everybody knows that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” but after that, nobody seemed to articulate exactly, specifically, what federal employees could do to improve their agencies’ standing with the public. Again, it’s not that the experts weren’t smart – they were, and their advice was sensible – but they didn’t seem to be informed enough about agency culture, and even the law, to provide truly actionable recommendations.

The most prominent example of this was when federal agencies were advised to market themselves better. While actually improving the quality of customer interactions was the primary recommendation, this one was also strongly emphasized.

Now, I have said repeatedly that I am a marketer by nature and by trade, and I know that there are serious operational reasons for marketing an agency’s mission and key initiatives. For example, if you are instituting a new regulation, and nobody knows about it, the compliance rate will be unduly low, causing the agency to pay more to ensure that people follow the rule.

However, the experts were not really talking from an operational perspective. Rather, they seemed to be operating from a private-sector model in which the public is the customer and it is the agency’s job to “sell” them on the merits of the “brand.” The one exception, and it’s a good point, was Pat McGinnis’s argument that public confidence in agencies (a.k.a. a strong brand) provides the “political capital” that government needs to make tough but necessary decisions.

Whatever, but if the experts were pushing marketing, they should have talked about the fact that there are real and also perceived legal issues surrounding “propagandizing” that can easily get in the way of agencies making their missions clearer to the public. (The one exception, of course, being recruiting, which everyone acknowledges is a legitimate reason for marketing one’s agency.)

For those who are not familiar with the “domestic propaganda” issue, a Congressional Research Service report from 2005 explains the issue well and is worth skimming through if you have the time. Basically, what it says is that agencies aren’t supposed to use taxpayer money to promote themselves, but that nobody has really enforced that prohibition except in extreme cases.

Specifically, the report notes that that although “‘appropriations law ‘publicity and propaganda’ clauses restrict the use of funds for puffery of an agency, purely partisan communications, and covert propaganda,’” it is also true that “no federal entity is required to monitor agency compliance with the publicity and propaganda statutes” and “the terms “publicity,” “propaganda,” and “publicity expert” have been interpreted to forbid a very limited number of activities.”

III. Key takeaways

Overall, despite whatever flaws there were in the presentation of the research, the Gallup survey is extremely important. This is primarily because it demonstrates a shift in terms of how government is viewing the public. The old-fashioned way, and I know this is an extreme characterization, is to see citizens as sort of hapless victims, who sort of have to take whatever the government dishes out, because the government is a monopoly and they have no alternative provider to its services. The new paradigm is to see the public as a set of customers who have the power to get rid of you if you do a bad job. The fact that they even did this survey means that they see a potential market in agencies whose way of thinking is changing, and that is great.

Secondly, the survey demonstrates the power of measurement to wake organizations up and generate significant behavioral change. To that end, Gallup’s Karunaratne talked about asking “smart questions,” the kind you need to drive change, not things that are just “nice to ask.” And Newport talked about using a number, any number (even one that generates “pushback”) as a yardstick to get a discussion going about what measures of performance matter and how well or badly the agency is doing on those. I think that as time goes on and as transparency becomes more and more the norm, we are going to see reams of data made public on government performance, on every imaginable measure, and that data is going to be used to drive tangible improvement. So it is all about the numbers, and transparency combined with numbers is probably the way to go if you’re looking at a way to start the change process.

Finally, when it comes to marketing, I go back again to Pat McGinnis’s comments, when she talked about sharing information about agencies’ performance on the things they are measuring. In today’s environment, where people don’t trust “spin” of any kind, that is the very best kind of marketing – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is what people want to hear, it is news, and the more agencies share it, the more the public trusts them and wants to hear from and interact with them.

From my perspective, I think the real issue here is transparency and the inevitable pain that goes along with it, at least at the beginning. As somebody pointed out to me today, it’s like that TV show “The Biggest Loser.” One wonders who has the courage to get up in front of so many people and actually weigh themselves every week. And yet they do, and that’s what people find fascinating, and it’s also what engenders change and growth. Once an agency or any organization gets used to the fact that they have to get up on the scale and get measured, in front of their constituents, they are well on the way to realizing the vision that the President has for all of government to be fully accountable for the way it stewards the public trust – and the funds that go along with them.