Civils and Politicals

We already had a YouTube channel. That was launched quietly with no fanfare, in 2007 I believe.

A group of us interagency folks got together. We started the Federal Social Media Subcouncil, a lot of us civil servants in a room. That was about year later.

Around that time I spent a long time doing research. It was hard to figure out what the rules were. I was worried about how we kept records, mirroring. If we did a Tweet we had to have copies on our site, right? How would that work?

Terms of service...Section 508...freedom of speech...ethics rules. Codes of conduct.

We met with the lawyers. Gray they said. A lot of it was still gray.

One day we had a meeting with the lawyer in charge. He did not know what social media was. We talked about analogies like op-eds in The Washington Post, or talking to friends at cocktail parties. How would traditional principles work with a new media world?

Eventually after lots of research and too many meetings I came up with a chart. Things to consider as we moved ahead. That chart became a binder with many pages.

Civil servants live by rules. Engagement. Incrementalism. Consensus. We do everything in task forces.

Sometimes we do "workarounds" because the mountain will not move.

Sometimes we don't move.

The temporary head of Public Affairs was a civil servant. He didn't know what blogs were, what Twitter was, or that Facebook did anything other than give recipes to his wife via her friends.

But he was able to make a decision.

"Just do it. Now get out of my office."


So I was doing social media. His wife was on Facebook. All was good. I added it to our little roster, along with Twitter.

Ask me how I started the Twitter account.

The previous boss was a political. He was not into the bureaucracy. He liked to get things done, easily and quickly and was fairly on top of the trends.

I wasn't supposed to speak to this person as the informal rules of civil service are: Shut up when in the vicinity of someone more than one rung above you. (Normally senior leaders will always talk to you because that is leadership. But senior executive managers will not.)

One day I saw the boss in the hallway. I was literally walking down the hallway, and the boss was walking towards me from the other direction.

Just do it, I thought to myself. Courage.

"Sir - good morning.  I hear Twitter is popular nowadays."

"Great, get it going."

"Yes sir, thank you sir."

Yahoo! Aha! Excited!

Because the problem was we were tangled up in knots. There were no answers back then. You just had to hold your breath and pray.

And so, with completely limited knowledge and with the cover of this political's approval, I started the Twitter account, now with tens of thousands of followers who use it to get news and information, stay close and interact with the agency that demands compliance from them.

The civil servants, with a few exceptions, did not know what Twitter was at that time. They called it "Twittering" or they made jokes about saying "Twitter is for telling people you're going to brush your teeth now, hahaha."

My supervisor knew what it was. She was brilliant. She told me to keep going.

Every day I checked social media too, for negative or positive blog mentions.

But they did not take that seriously. "Why would you bother checking the blogs?" they said. "Those are just a bunch of crazies."

Politicals, back then, knew social media, knew how to check a blog and knew the power of Twitter.

One day - it was a sunny, beautiful day I remember - I went to another one of our buildings to answer questions about social media.

Some civil servants wanted to know if they could join online communities of practice. That's what they called them. Not "social media" which had a dangerous ring. "Best practice."

Our office didn't have an official policy yet, and I was a civil servant, so I didn't really know what to say. I had research. I had a task force. I had in my head the results of meetings with subject matter experts, lawyers and IT inside and outside the Agency. I could at least take questions.

Someone showed me to the back. The office was confusing. I couldn't tell one cube from the other. Everything was beige.

They had a little circular table near the window, tucked by a plastic plant. It felt friendly and warm and collegial.

I sat down on the chair and saw a piece of paper on the desk. Stray paper I guessed. It had memorandum stuff at the top. It was upside down.

"Have you seen this?" one of the attendees asked me. She flipped it over.

"What?" I said.

I looked at the paper and felt my face turning red. It was a memo from my own office, a memo about social media, a memo from the political.


The memo had my own words in there...weren't those my words? I couldn't think.

"Excuse me, please - I have to make a call."

I stepped outside and called my boss, and she told me. "Yes, that's our memo and the political took our words. I don't know what to tell you."

The walk back to HQ only took a few blocks, but those few blocks felt like forever. I realized how much could change with the politicals involved. How they could melt ice, shatter bricks, turn concrete into harmless sludge, then mud then muddy water you can power away with a garden hose.

Today I do not know how I feel, completely. I know that civil servants get stuck and politicals move very fast. Is is a creative tension that produces progress? Or are we Mars and Venus, just talking past each other in the hall?

*As always, all opinions my own.