Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How To Restore Public Trust In Government - Without Paying A Single Cent

More than 3 out of 4 Americans don't trust the federal government. 

In 2014, only 24% of Americans said they trusted the government to do what's right "always or most of the time."
Sixty years ago, in 1964, that figure was more than 50 percentage points higher - 77%. (Source: Pew Research Center, 2014)

Government leaders know that communication is a vital government function.

Recognizing this, nearly 20 years ago, in 1996, U.S. Vice President Al Gore formed the Federal Communicators Network.
"The Vice President's vision was to reach federal workers with important reinvention messages, promote a climate in which reinvention can flourish, and create a grass-roots demand to break down agency barriers to reinvention." (Source: National Partnership for Reinventing Government archive via University of North Texas Libraries and the Government Printing Office.)

Unfortunately, however, the Vice President's vision was not realized.

In 2013, only 50.3% of the federal workforce was satisfied with the communication they receive from their leaders (Partnership for Public Service analysis). They don't feel like they get enough information about:
  • Goals and priorities
  • News about the agency generally
  • Information about what's happening outside their immediate sphere of work
See this table from the PPS showing the decline in employee satisfaction with leadership communication over just the past few years.
For good employee communication to happen, says the PPS, it has to be a priority; it has to take place through a number of channels simultaneously; it has to be open and honest; and employee suggestions have to be taken into account.
The private sector is better than the government at this, says the PPS.
And not knowing what's going on obviously leaves people frustrated and unable to contribute fully to the mission.
It goes without saying, but is worth saying anyway, that
There is a statistically significant correlation between effective workplace communication and employee job satisfaction, but communicating effectively and motivating employees is a challenge for many leaders. (Deloitte Consulting LLP, “Silencing the static: Engaging employees in an unsettled environment,” July 2014, via Partnership for Public Service

In an environment where internal transparency is scarce, effective external communication is more than challenging. It's impossible.

One might argue that we shouldn't rely on federal communicators: "Let the data speak for itself."
But that approach isn't working either. In 2015, 10 out of 12 (83.3%) federal agencies most frequently receiving FOIA requests failed to provide adequate access to government information. Again, it's not because federal employees are incompetent. Rather, according to the Center for Effective Government, the function is insufficiently funded, staffed, planned for and automated. 

Poor communication and perceived corruption go hand-in-hand.

In 2014, the United States ranked #17 out of 100 on the perceived corruption index published by Transparency International. A score of 0 means "highly corrupt," vs. 100 means "very clean." According to TI:
A poor score is likely a sign of widespread bribery, lack of punishment for corruption and public institutions that don’t respond to citizens’ needs.

There is hope in the form of improved compliance with the Plain Language Act of 2010.

Earlier this year, the Center for Plain Language released its report card of federal agencies' compliance with the law requiring them to speak in language that most people can understand.

On the whole, agencies have gotten better: 86% are in compliance with the law's requirements - up from only 54% just one year ago.

Improved readability not a small feat for agencies to have achieved. In an interview with Federal News Radio, government communications veteran and plain language volunteer Annetta Cheek said:

“The result looks easy, but getting there is not so easy. Writing bureaucratically is much easier.”

As someone who has worked in the federal government for more than a decade, I have observed firsthand the tendency to lean on bureaucratic writing as way out of dealing with uncomfortable, confusing, complex, and sensitive topic matter.
And have seen how the resulting confusion on the part of the public leads to the automatic assumption that the government must be doing something wrong; must be hiding the truth, because "they can't just come out and say what's going on."
It's also obvious to anyone who reads social media that a lack of ready access to information creates fertile soil for conspiracy theorists.

We can fix this problem by giving federal employees - not just communicators but all employees - significantly more information. 

Federal employees are trustworthy, and they are trusted by the public.
According to The Pew Research Center, 62% of the public have a "favorable" view of federal employees, even as their trust in the government as a whole has plummeted. 
I have also observed in my personal life that people frequently tell me positive stories about their one-on-one interactions with feds.

To improve trust in government, and to improve workplace productivity, agencies should arm employees with information and encourage them to communicate freely - anything that is not confidential.

Social media is effective as a communication tool precisely because of the power of uncensored word-of-mouth. Even when the news is bad, people trust the messenger who gives it to them straight.

Who better to share information through regular media and social media than the federal employee who is deeply familiar with their own workplace environment? 

Fears that employees cannot be trusted with meaningful information are unfounded. Study after study shows that federal employees are extraordinarily dedicated, regardless of the trying circumstances.
As the Office of Personnel Management noted with regard to the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which included 392,752 employees from 82 agencies:
The vast majority of Federal employees believe their work is important, put in extra effort to get their jobs done and actively look for ways to do their jobs better. Seventy percent of respondents said that their work gives them a feeling of personal accomplishment.
Indeed, The Washington Post ran a story last December about Department of Homeland Security employees who said they'd stay on the job even if they had to work without a paycheck.

The government invests no special effort to turn ordinary federal employees into brand ambassadors. And they don't have to.

The integrity of individual federal employees already acts as a kind of "reputation insurance" for the apparatus of government as a whole.
The only thing that needs to happen is removal of artificial barriers to communication with the public.

The path to increased return on investment for civil service salaries is clear and straightforward:

1. Boost communication with individual federal employees.

2. Encourage individual federal employees to communicate with the public about what they know, as long as it's not confidential.

3. Watch the workplace satisfaction of feds increase.

4. See their productivity increase accordingly.

5. Notice significantly improved public perceptions of the federal government as a whole.

Photo of report card by by amboo who?. Photo of man by Rob. Photo of pit by Washington State Department of Transportation. All photos via Flickr Creative Commons. Trust in government graphic via Pew Research Center. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

When Hiring Tech Doesn't Solve The Problem

I read with great interest this month's Fast Company cover story "Inside Obama's Stealth Startup," which is available free online in its entirety.
The article is about the new and promising U.S. Digital Service out of innovation hub 18F in Washington, DC. The President's idea is to hire private-sector, Silicon-Valley type tech talent into the government and then deploy it across agencies to solve urgent technology problems blocking excellent customer service.
Think of the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov and you get the idea immediately.
The President is on the right track with this one. This is not a political statement, but rather the result of having worked in government for upwards of a decade and watching stovepiped and overpriced individual tech departments at individual government agencies squander millions, probably billions of dollars while the rest of the organization sat by and helplessly watched.
Instead of leaving every agency to flail on its own, the government as a whole would do well to provide some form of centralized support for critical back-office functions. This is true for acquisitions, it is true for human resources, it is true for information technology and guess what? It's true for all manner of communication services as well.
We'd save money, for one thing. And we'd start to think from a much bigger-picture perspective than we have in the past. Moving us toward a state in which the federal government is viewed internally as it is externally: As a single, unified brand with specialized functions.
I have long believed that the government should be run like a lean, efficient business and have also long believed that we should function as one brand with a single brand strategy and architecture. But believe me when I tell you, I've been on the receiving end of fairly harsh criticism for just as long a time. Because consolidating functions means only one thing to those on the inside: a reduction in power. Fewer people to control, a reduced budget, and a much smaller span of control than they are used to.
The official objections sound something like this: "Our agency is too specialized to share services with others. You just don't understand how highly unique our subject matter is."
But the real sentiment, the one you hear behind closed doors, is more like the following: "Nobody's gonna tell me what to do with my money."
So President Obama is on the right track with hiring private sector, and incorporating that talent into the turgid bureaucracy that is Washington, D.C. In the end it will save a ton of money, reduce inefficiencies based in snarling power plays and impossible-to-arrive-at collaboration fantasies. 
He's right in the same way Vice President Al Gore was back in the '90s, when his "Reinventing Government" initiative birthed the Federal Communicators Network, now nearly 20 years old and still going strong.
But there's only one flaw in his thinking. It's a common one in today's society which is so technology-obsessed.
Technology alone is just a tool.
It is great to hire people with skills. But do you know what? I can reach into ten different agencies right now and pull out people with firecracker skills you wouldn't believe.
It's not about the tech. Not at all.
It is about hiring people who can lead, and then backing them up when they make tough decisions.
The U.S. Digital Service can potentially transform the entire way government does business. It can be the disruptive transformational tool that the President envisions.
But it won't do anything worth a damn unless the President insists on hiring leaders, and then putting them at the helm with lots of leeway. The distribution of talent should look something like this:
  • 20% Strategy (GS14 and above)
  • 20% Consulting (GS13-14)
  • 30% Tech (GS13-14)
  • 30% Writers (GS13-14)
You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out. It's as simple as knowing how organizations function, and dysfunction.
  1. Start with a decision to create this force for change.
  2. Back it with a charter that's a call to arms, for a better and more efficient way of doing government.
  3. Budget for it sufficiently - don't try to do this on the cheap.
  4. Institutionalize it across government and within agencies.
  5. Establish metrics for its success, and measure at regular intervals.
  6. Engage the public in providing regular feedback and a transparent view of what's going on.
  7. Brand it in a way that makes sense to the public.
  8. Establish customer service from the get-go.
  9. Collaborate with academia to draw in new talent, so that people work in government for a lifetime.
  10. And communicate openly and transparently how it's going - the progress toward real change.

We can make government lean, mean, and people-centric. It isn't an impossibility, not at all.
All it takes is a decision, and the determination on all our parts to back it up with action.
Photo by Karola Riegler via Flickr Creative Commons. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The #1 Dysfunction Preventing Wise Investment In Employee Engagement

You SAY you are bothered by the fact that employees are "checked-out."
You CLAIM you want them to innovate.
You DISCUSS over and over the fact that they just seem to sit there, taking up space, not doing nearly as much as they could or should.
But what, exactly, are you DOING about it?
The fact of the matter is that at any given time, most of the people working for you are doing exactly what you're worried they're doing: sitting there, underutilized and under-motivated, thinking about how soon they can log out, go home and get their sanity back.
You know this. You don't need to see yet another survey confirming this fact, do you?
And you say you want to do something about it. Maybe you really do, who knows: You're willing to consider their requests for a training class, after all.
But it's not clear to me that you REALLY want to motivate your staff, after all.
Because if you did, you would ACTUALLY do something about it.
You don't do anything, even though you know - or you should know - that employees are more than your greatest asset. In reality, they are your ONLY asset.
The reason you hang back, to be honest, is fear. You don't want to know what would happen if they did actually get engaged.
Maybe they'd end up firing me and taking over.
That is a very scary thought, right there. And you can't admit that you're afraid. Of course!
That's why fear is a HIDDEN dysfunction.
So you make up the most logical business reason of all to keep your staff from succeeding: money.
  • "We can't afford for you to take that class."
  • "We can't afford for you to be out of the office."
  • "We can't afford for you to stop doing all the other stuff you're doing and learn something not 100% related to your current job."

What I want to tell you, if you're even remotely in a position to help employees get engaged, is that these fears are not only unfounded.
They're actually KEEPING you, the supervisor, from progressing ahead in your career.
Consider this: A manager who helps employees gain developmental opportunities is BELOVED by them.
That means your staff are LOYAL to you, SUPPORTIVE of you, in SYNC with you, ENGAGED with the work they're doing for you, and most importantly of all, they TRUST you.
That's the first thing to know.
The second is that there are PLENTY of ways they can gain experience at absolutely zero cost to you. If that is truly what you're afraid of. They can:
  1. Get a mentor, inside or outside the organization.
  2. Be a mentor themselves.
  3. Do a rotation somewhere else in the company or agency.
  4. Do a detail outside the agency, part-time or temporarily.
  5. Join a working group.
  6. Attend class at a community college.
  7. Take on a leadership position in a related organization.
  8. Engage in low-cost online training.
  9. Teach themselves material with which to train other employees.
  10. And if you're brave - you can delegate some work to them that they are naturally talented at, but which they lack the skills to complete on their own.
Think about it: People have a natural survival instinct. Instead of fearing it, and trying to smash it down and destroy it, why don't you work with it instead?
Believe me, the stuff I'm telling you here - I didn't make it up on my own. Not at all.
I learned it from brilliant managers, the ones I've had who really understood the way to get the most out of their team.
The philosophy can be summed up in a single sentence, uttered more than a decade ago by one such individual, a chief of staff at an agency within the U.S. Department of the Treasury:
"The pie gets bigger the more you share it."
Consider the source: This is a person who should naturally say the opposite. After all, how can you split a dollar in half?
But he understood that power, like wealth, is never actually in limited supply. That in fact, these things exist not only in substance but in the mind.
And that generosity from the one has an actual physical effect on the other.
That oddly, giving away has an additive effect (or even multiplying) rather than subtracting.
That in the end, helping OTHER PEOPLE to succeed is the best way to boost your career after all.
Photo by TaxRebate.org.uk via Flickr Creative Commons. All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

5 Services Every Federal Communicator Ought To Know About

This is a photo collage of the FDA TV Studios.
Below is Proxy, their dummy, which they "rescued from a dumpster" and which is used when they need to block out a shot with a human being but don't have one available.
(If you ever get out there, ask them about the time a delivery person actually thought that Proxy was human and got offended when it didn't say "good morning.")
Proxy is one of those characters you only meet when you physically visit an off-the-beaten-track-type-of-place like FDA TV. If you're a federal employee working in any communications capacity, you will definitely want to know about them and the professional television production services they offer.
Don't be put off by the name. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration owns this facility, but any agency can make use of their services. It's #1 on my list of helpful resources for federal communicators that most probably never even heard of.
Here is #2: the Government Publishing Office, which also serves the federal community with services ranging from web design to logo development as well as the e-publishing for which it's already known.
In my current job, I work with both these entities and here are five things I appreciate about them:
  1. High quality work
  2. High level of customer service
  3. Turns the government into a revenue center rather than a cost center, because when you use these services it's the government paying itself
  4. Reduces wasteful spending and increases accountability because because you're only using the services you need, one task order at a time, rather than "spending against budget"
  5. Promotes development of human capital within the government by eliminating reliance on outside vendors 
Service #3, which is also relatively unknown and completely free (don't ask me why, because I think they could and should charge for it) is Sites by the U.S. General Services Administration. Any federal agency can request a website that is secure and reliably hosted. I am also in the process of transitioning two websites to this service.
Of course there is always the issue of how to to get human help. For this there is service #4 on my list, Open Opportunities, a program from the U.S. General Services Administration that allows federal employees to sign up for any number of short-term tasks with supervisory approval.
As someone who learns by doing and not reading, and also as someone who appreciates the importance of constant training, I can't think of a more win-win solution to the problem of highly motivated but underutilized employees with time on their hands whose skills are not up to date.
(Here's a blog post I wrote about my own use of the program as well as a video endorsing it.)
Not to mention that working with other feds has helped me to grow my own skills in communication, remote collaboration, management, leadership, and so on. Or that the program has led to the development of an interagency community of practice around my program in particular.
My own professional network serves to amplify and reinforce the ones that already exist in multiple areas of expertise. These are also free to federal communicators, and their offerings include:
  • Challenges and Prizes
  • Government Contact Center Council
  • Mobile Gov Community of Practice
  • Multilingual Digital Group
  • Social Media Community of Practice
  • User Experience Community
  • Web Content Manager’s Forum
Feds can sign up any of the above here. Or check out another free resource for professional networking: the Federal Communicator's Network. (There is also the National Association of Government Communicators, for which membership rates are reasonable.)
Back to services: #5 on my list, another little-known channel through which federal agencies can obtain free support while engaging the public in their missions, is the U.S. State Department's Virtual Student Foreign Service program. It allows college students to participate in any number of federal government initiatives from remote locations.
I began using VSFS while at USAID, and wound up with seven remote interns, who produced everything from reference websites to new recruit training videos and a heck of a lot more.
It should be noted that these employee development programs are inherently creative and focused on mentoring people. A lot of what you get will stay on the cutting room floor.
But that's still good for the government as far as I am concerned, because morale goes up, engagement goes up and the knowledge and skill level of all participants goes up as well. And when you do get something good, it's explosively and extraordinarily good - something you could never have thought of on your own.
And you get to see your colleagues go on to success and leadership roles in their own right. Which is beautiful.
I could go on and on for days; there is literally is so much more available only for the asking. DigitalGov, for example, has tons of free training available at any given time. The limit is really only your desire to learn.
As a brand person I understand that a lot of people are skeptical. They've been taught that government is inherently inefficient. And they believe that anything free must inherently be of inferior quality.
But as any venture capitalist will tell you, there is equity in buying and then promoting undervalued properties.
This short post is my way of shining a spotlight on what works about the government. So that in five years, shared interagency services and a cadre of highly-trained, nimble and strategic cross-agency communication providers have become the normal way of doing our business. And people routinely remark to one other: "I don't know how we ever got anything done before."

All opinions my own. This post is not written on behalf of any agency or the federal government as a whole. Photos by me. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Decoding "Mad Max: Fury Road" - A Radical Feminist Vision

It feels important to establish that Mad Max: Fury Road is indeed a radical feminist vision. Because there's so much debate going on right now about what feminism is, and whether we actually need it or not, and even whether feminists are nothing more than a gang of extremist, man-hating fools.

For the sake of clarity, a brief clarification of terms:
  • Feminists believe in the empowerment of women and corresponding end of any inequality based on sex, gender or sexuality:
    • "Sex" - biological identity - whether you're physically a male or female.
    • "Gender" - who you identify with - the socially determined traits of "masculinity" or "femininity"
    • "Sexuality" - whether you want to sleep with men, women, both or neither.
  • There are three basic theories associates with feminism. These are ideas about what strategy will help women to become more equal, or empowered:
    • "Liberal" - adopt the traits associated with maleness and masculinity (the "Hillary Clinton" approach).
    • "Cultural" - celebrate the traits associated with femaleness and femininity (the "Sarah Palin" approach, or think of Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde).
    • "Radical" - destroy the social infrastructures that uphold male superiority and replace them with one that will facilitate an equal partnership between the sexes. 

Mad Max: Fury Road is a rare find: a mainstream social text that portrays radical feminism accurately. Usually this approach is offered up as a kind of women's colony, with a lesbian or seemingly asexual woman in charge, where men are kept inferior; e.g. as on Syfy's Z Nation series.

If you haven't seen the movie, the plot is fairly straightforward: a post-nuclear world where a male dictator has taken over and imprisoned the women, forcing them to serve as "breeders." They get impregnated against their will; they are hooked up to machines to produce breast milk to feed the fighters. (I couldn't help but think of ISIS as I watched.)

One of these women, played by (the totally awesome) Charlize Theron, has attained a position of power, and she uses it to try and help other women escape. Along the way she encounters Max, and together they fight the dictator.

Radical feminism is so thoroughly woven throughout the film that it's hard to pick out specific examples. But the messages matter. Without spoiling the show, here are some basic ideas:

1. Men are not the enemy - oppression of women is the enemy: In the show, women and men-who-treat-women-well work hand-in-hand. When one of the fighters reforms himself, the women take him in and work with him.

2. Women must fight for their own equality, on every level: Obviously they fight with guns. But they also fight "false consciousness," meaning the belief in male superiority and the consequential deference to them. The film shows the women working together to "wake up" one of their peers who can't get over her cultural brainwashing. In a nice touch, they also literally spit in the dictator's face.

3. Liberating nature is linked with liberating women: The movie shows women as natural resources, literally, for breast milk. They're natural resources for the birthing of children as well. A recurring question in the movie is "who killed Earth?" It's not just about surviving, it's about respecting the sources of life as holy - not just using them for what you can get.

4. Trying to control another human being is always wrong: One of the rebel women literally says this to the dictator in the movie. It might seem obvious but some people who call themselves religious try to control the behavior of others in the name of "saving" them. This is always unethical.

5. The meaning of life is helping other people: In the beginning of the movie Max is all about survival. By the end, he's dedicated himself to helping other people survive even if it's not in his own interest. Selflessness and generosity and the feminist ethos go hand in hand. This is the essence of motherhood.

All opinions my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Screenshot via the Mad Max: Fury Road official website.

Your Brand As A Moral Decision Filter

"Why are we here? TO WORSHIP ME." -comedienne Judy Tenuta (photo via her website)
Every other year, the National Science Foundation does the General Social Survey to discover how Americans are thinking and feeling. The combination of quantitative and qualitative methods easily makes this survey "the gold standard" of sociological research in America, as Tobin Grant puts it. And the NSF is carefully attuned to the methodology it uses.
The 2014 interview panels alone included 30 randomly selected national samples totaling 59,599 respondents and 5,900 variables.
A 2015 research paper by Michael Hout (New York University and the social science research center NORC) and Tom W. Smith (NORC) analyzed trends in religious belief, drawing on the most recent NSS dataset.
For the past 20 years or so, the relative percentage of believers hasn't changed much.(Normally a change of 10 percentage points is considered statistically significant.) A majority, 58%, believe definitively that a Creator exists, down only 6% from 1991. See screenshot of table from their study.
At the same time, there is a significant rise in the percentage of Americans claiming "no religious preference" Between 1972-2014, that figure more than quadrupled, from 5% to 21%.
In the last two years alone (2012-2014), according to an NSS analysis by Tobin Grant, 7.5 million Americans "left religion" altogether.
It seems that people are willing to believe in G-d, but they are increasingly disenchanted with religion.
Obviously, religion involves people, and where there are people there is disagreement.
A classic Jewish joke (here, slightly abridged; via Wikipedia) illustrates this well:
A man is rescued from a desert island after 20 years. He is interviewed by reporters. "How did you survive? How did you keep sane?" 
"I had my faith. My faith as a Jew kept me strong. Come." He shows them a synagogue he's built. "This took me five years."
"Amazing! And what did you do for the next fifteen years?"
He shows them another synagogue, on the other side of the island. "This one took me twelve years."
"Why did you build two temples?"
"This is the temple I attend. That other place? Hah! I wouldn't set foot in that other temple if you PAID me!"  
I've never met a person who wants to be bad.
So perhaps where religion has failed, brand can succeed.
Think about it: your brand is a kind of moral decision filter.
The mid-1900s sociologist Erving Goffman built an entire framework of thinking about social interaction around the idea of dramaturgy -- more specifically "front stage/backstage" --the idea that we act one way in public and another in private because we care about what others will say about us.
In a sense, he argued, we we use the judgments of other people as a means of stopping ourselves from "sinning," at least as we each individually understand that concept. Because we don't want to be shamed (or worse).
More than half a century later it's getting hard to find any personal space at all. With the multiple invasions of social media into our personal space, the plethora of Big Data tools to track our buying behaviors, the growth of corresponding data analytics capabilities, and the explosion of the surveillance state, you are pretty much a known quantity if you are located anywhere on the grid.
The result is we're all living in the equivalent of glass houses. And behavior that was formerly hidden from view is more than ever likely to become public. 
Goffman's theory has become impossible.
In this kind of situation, it is inevitable that you'll be asked to justify your personal choices on more than one occasion that would have been totally unthinkable before.
To give just one simple example, I read a recent Facebook interchange between a religious rights activist and a civil rights activist. The civil rights activist was outraged because the religious rights activist had ignored the Charleston shooting altogether.
While from a certain perspective it seems crazy to question what someone posts on Facebook, from another it makes perfect sense: it's about brand.
People think about you, your company, and most organizations from the perspective of the messages you send every day. If you consistently talk about human rights from any point of view, you'll be attacked for failing to uphold that standard.
In a way this kind of environment is heavy and oppressive. But from another point of view, it is actually very liberating.
We are all free to choose our brand affiliation. We can buy what we want, work where we want, love who we want, and believe what we want as well.
When it comes to morality, more than ever the choice is your own.
The key to being credible is to stick with it.
All opinions my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Kevin Dooley via Flickr.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Crowdsource Me

Giving a talk on radical humanism next Friday. "Where's the ROI?"
Dial in information is here.
Here are my slides. They're a work in progress.
Do you believe the future = breaking down the walls?
I invite the community to edit.
- D
All opinions my own and not those of my agency or the federal government. Photo by Sreejith K via Flickr.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Branding Advanced Manufacturing: 5 Lessons For Practitioners

Since November 2014, I've been working to brand a public-private government initiative called the National Network For Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI).

The NNMI is a collection of advanced manufacturing technology R&D institutes, each focused on a particular technology.

(The term "advanced manufacturing" means new and improved materials, made in new and improved ways, i.e. connected to the Internet.)


These institutes matter because the USA has been slowly losing the know-how to manufacture its own inventions for the past 15 years.

Flat-screen TVs and lithium-ion batteries are just two examples.

And very often, as with robots, the means to make a thing can also become a product in and of itself. The industrial robot that assembled a car can also be the sex robot that serves as a personal companion. 

These technologies, when successful, have enormously wide-ranging capabilities. 3D printing, for example, is a means to produce everything from the aforementioned cars to prosthetic limbs. Intelligent fabric can make a bulletproof T-shirt or a bikini that tells you when you're about to suffer a sunburn.

The Vision

Freedom. "Make it here, sell it everywhere."

It's easy to depend on buying cheap foreign-made products on-demand. And that's exactly what has happened to many American consumers, as well as the businesses who need to get their products made.

We want to ensure the long-term freedom of our nation by shoring up the internal capacity to make what we sell and use.

Presenting Problem

It's risky and expensive to invest in figuring out how to make a thing. But it's important to have the ability. That's why other countries have been pumping massive amounts of money into this kind of activity for decades. 

In this country, we put the emphasis on private-sector priorities and private-sector incentives. So to launch an institute, the government chips in half the seed money and the private sector chips in the other. 

Each center has to become profitable within 5 years or they go under.

Innovation Required

Given the limited window of time to become profitable, the effort to brand these institutes is time-sensitive. 

This gives the job some urgency.

But it's taking place in a startup environment, as specifics regarding operations are being hashed out all the time.

There are also very limited funds available with which to do the job. 

Plus, it's an interagency effort. So there's a need to coordinate activity not only within one bureaucracy, but half a dozen.


Before you do a thing you ought to know what your goal is. Mine are very simple because they connect directly with return on investment:

1. Inform the public about what their money is being spent on. (This is similar to any government branding effort.)

2. Connect our institutes with each other and the public so as to spark an ongoing conversation that helps people find well-paying jobs in manufacturing, and that helps employers manufacture things cheaply and efficiently right here in the USA.

3. Help our individual institutes become financially sustainable, relatively quickly.


"Pressure is the only way to make a diamond." It's true: Even with all I've experienced, observed and read about branding, the methods I've ended up using are unusual. 

While it's too soon to tell if the effort will ultimately be successful, I think I'm ready to begin documenting  my methods for the sake of other brand practitioners.

1.Tell your spouse or significant other

My husband has known me for nearly 25 years. If I'm spouting nonsense he's very comfortable telling me so. You can't convince the world if you can't convince your spouse.

2. Find your audience on Twitter

Twitter is highly sensitive to what people want to talk about urgently. Your tweets are a great indicator of whether the public cares about what you have to say, and more specifically, who in the public cares.

3. Talk about it on Facebook

Brands are built one person at a time. They are built not in a vacuum, but in conversation. They are personal. This is why Facebook is the perfect place to engage in brand-building activity. You can talk about your experience building the brand, or you can share interesting popular new stories that relate, along with a comment.

4. Get help from as many people as possible rather than a select few

When you are building a brand, it makes sense to engage as many people as you can along the way. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, you encounter talent that can take your browned in a completely different direction, in ways you could not have anticipated. Second, these small audiences can double as brand testers, as well as brand-amplifiers. Whether you are talking about staff, colleagues, potential partners, or even the media, the conversational interchange between you and the other person leads to actual publicity as well as new ideas about which aspects of your message have the most impact.

5. Test and iterate in public 

Normally one thinks of branding as a private, protected activity that is kept away from the public until a logo or tagline is ready to be unveiled. But if you take the opposite approach, and involve the public and what you are doing, a sort of bond develops between you and the people you are trying to reach. Even if you fail, you succeed - sort of like committing to lose weight in public.  It is also cost-effective to pilot many outreach ideas simultaneously and drop the ones that don't work relatively quickly.

Undoubtedly there is a lot more ground to cover. But these are some of the essential things I've done over the past half-year or so. Further updates to follow.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Can A Song Take Down ISIS?

A few months ago the New York Times ran an article about the USA's struggle to combat ISIS as a brand. It emphasized the failure to coordinate communication effectively, but I didn't see that either as the problem or the cure.
To me it's a matter of military strategy, and policy.
I would blow their freaking heads off.
There was a lot of debate in the comments section. Some people blamed the U.S. for creating the problem in the first place. Others thought the communication actually did play a role. Here's what one person had to say (excerpt):
The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications would do best to contract with small groups of nimble marketers and hackers: recent college grads who wear baseball caps and hoodies and who are perpetually two steps ahead of social media.
It is precisely such American young people, who watch and intelligently criticize "Girls" for its waning significance, that can take down the incompetent goons of ISIS Public Relations. I'd match the wits of our motley band of digitally-obsessed American youth, with their coffee and pizza, against the motley stooges called ISIS any day.
Perhaps coincidentally, today the Drudge Report had a headline about this anti-ISIS anthem, "Revolution," from Kurdish pop singer Helly Luv. I watched the video and thought to myself - "Blumenthal, maybe you're wrong after all!!"
Maybe communication can be the beginning of the answer, even if it's not the answer in and of itself.
The AFP reports that Luv is "the most popular cheerleader for the Iraqi Kurds' war against jihadists."
Her music video is powerful because it "hits on many themes that the peshmerga have sought to emphasise since the anti-IS conflict began last June, showing them as the brave, secular defenders of the innocent threatened by jihadist brutality."
Her message is simple: End war.
I had never heard of this singer, but her video and lyrics sure inspired me. She shows in stark terms how these violent animals are invading the lives of peaceful people and destroying them. Her words are stirring, and she repeats them over and over to drive the message home:
Stand up, we are united
Together we can survive it
Darkness will never take us
Long live to every nation
Rise up cause we're so much stronger as one
Breaking the silence as loud as a gun
Brothers and sisters we all come from one
Different religions we share the same blood.
Here are some screenshots from her video, via Vevo.
These are two people enjoying a cup of tea, before ISIS invades.
This is a young boy screaming when the bombing breaks out, the ISIS trucks roll in and they start shooting.
This is the singer standing before a bombed-out scene, in front of a car spray-painted with the word "peace."
Here she imagines herself leading an army to defeat these killers.
She visualizes the nations of the world uniting to do what is right.
I hope that you will watch the song and help bring views to 3 billion -- the number of people in the world with an Internet connection.
Maybe this would help us all gain some strategic clarity about the need to eliminate these villains -- wherever they came from, no matter whose fault it is --  from the face of Planet Earth.
All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo of Helly Luv visiting Kurdish Peshmerga troops in Dohuk, July 5, 2014 via Wikimedia (Creative Commons). Photo credit: G2musicgroup.

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