Thursday, September 22, 2016

When The Public Wants Information, Resistance Is Futile

In my nuclear family we never talked about controversial stuff. Basically, we handled conflict either by my mother saying "shhh" or my grandmother saying "shhh."

If unfortunately it would happen that a fight broke out, we simply didn't talk to one another. Three days was the minimum, a few months was the max. It was never clear how we would start talking again, because nobody believed in apologizing. But just as it began, it would be over and talking about whatever the fight was about was simply not allowed.


Joining the government more than a decade ago, I rapidly felt right at home.

"There is a problem with this program that the public should know about."


"Someone is selling a service we provide for free, and charging $250."


"Our technology is on eBay."


"I have a Tweet I would like you to consider for your approval."

"I don't know what that is. Let me see the briefing book."

Once a boss once even warned me that "they might even question your loyalty if you continue to push them to talk."


I programmed the electronic newsletter so that readers could give articles 1-5 star ratings.


They made me take it down.

Elsewhere, I said to the boss: "I still have no idea how your business model works, and if you can't explain it to me how can I possibly explain it to the world?"


Maybe its' me. Maybe Gen Xers make everything into too big of a deal.

For Millennials and Generation Z are totally online, all the time. In fact they don't seem to have any concept of personal privacy, taboo topics, or whatever. For them, it's all part of the same newsfeed.

And so I have to believe that for those who seek information from the government going forward, there will be this kind of attitude like "of course you owe me all the information."

It won't be deferential like in the past. The public won't be saying, "Oh, it's okay, I heard you before when you said 'shhh.'"

Information is expected. The kids, and more and more their parents, demand nothing less.

This is nothing short of a revolution.

We will see the public insist that government provide the highest levels of customer service, transparency, and yes, return on investment based on metrics.

It will be common for us to answer questions by Tweet, text, chat, customer service, email, telephone call, and even those little avatars that jump around the screen and anticipate what is wanted.

Times have changed. There is no such thing as avoiding the public because we don't like the questions or the expectations they are bringing us.

In a world where Google is a verb and not a noun, "shhh" just doesn't work anymore as a default answer from the government.


Photo via Wikipedia. All opinions my own.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

5 Distorted Ideas About Communication That Destroy Americans' Trust In Government

I've been a government communicator for a long time. In 13 years of doing this job at half a dozen federal agencies, I see the same problems over and over again. They lead people to think that the government can't be trusted, when the problem really is that we allow a bunch of messed-up ideas to govern the way we talk to people.
  • Messed up idea #1: Make them look for it: Typically the government keeps its mouth shut about things unless it absolutely has to communicate. The faulty reasoning behind this notion is that communicating with the public will inevitably lead to misunderstanding at best and public opposition at worst. As any journalist will tell you, just the opposite is true. The more you keep the public informed of your activities and the output of your operations, the greater their trust in you. The policy should be to overcommunicate, overcommunicate, overcommunicate, and overcommunicate some more. (In very plain and accessible English, which by the way is also the law.)
  • Messed up idea #2: People read paragraphs. The year now is 2016. You can barely get people to read a Tweet. Why would you continue to offer them any written communication where the words are bunched up like a legal contract? Do you know what happens when people read legal contracts? They call their lawyers, because it looks like someone is trying to fool them. The more you write for comprehension, the greater your audience's trust in you. Aim for short, 2-3 sentence paragraphs, with lists broken up into bullets, and offer a link to more detailed information should the person desire it.
  • Messed up idea #3: We're talking to a bunch of Ph.Ds. Let's be honest, in Washington we tend to have our heads in our intestines quite a bit when it comes to writing things for the public. Do you know how hard it is to qualify for a government job, how many degrees people have over here? It's not uncommon for someone to have two master's degrees and a Ph.D., or a Ph.D. and a J.D., or even a J.D. and an M.D. You might think this is great news since you've got a lot of "smart" people running the country, but the problem is that most people don't have multiple advanced degrees. It is not our job to pass judgment on what people should understand. It is our job to talk to people in a way that makes sense to them. We tend to forget that they are the ones that pay the bills.
  • Messed up idea #4: Less is more in a crisis. As a private citizen I watch the news of bombs in New York City with horror. I see bomb threats at my local public school and shudder. And I look for information from the government. Where is it? Nowhere! Because the government is much too conservative about sharing information with the public. Even if there is nothing to say, the government should put a point person in charge of crisis communication and that person should provide constant updates, meaning literally every half an hour. If this doesn't happen, the public automatically believes everybody else and is prone to assume that there is a coverup.
  • Messed up idea #5: Your opinion is as good as mine. This cognitive bias is nothing new to government communicators or even communicators in the private sector. The fact of the matter is that telling people things in a way that informs and engages is extremely difficult. You can be in communication your whole career and never figure it out, not just because it's a difficult skillset but also because the nature of your audience and their information environment is constantly changing over time. So when amateurs think that they know better than a communicator how to get the words out, that is frankly nothing less than shocking. If you're paying someone to deliver words, trust them to do their job and take their advice unless you have a good reason not to.


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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016

How Bad People Rise To The Top

If I had a list of Top 10 topics that people like to talk about in life, this one would undoubtedly be on it. In his book of the same name, Harold Kushner asked Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People and this is sort of the same thing.

How is it that jerks always seem to get ahead while "nice guys finish last?"

Based on my observations of evil, awful, corrupt leaders over the past fifteen years or so, here are a few suggestions:

1) They have infinite ambition. You and I want to go home at the end of the day. We want to have a life, go to the movies, make art. We feel bad when our work commitments cut into our family time. But to a corrupt leader, the only thing that matters is getting the position they're after.

2) They lack emotional intelligence.
You and I feel bad when we see somebody crying. But the corrupt leader either doesn't notice or doesn't know why they should care. They don't relate to other people.

3) They feel fundamentally deprived of something they perceive as owed to them. You and I say to ourselves, we have to work for stuff in order to get it. And when we work hard and bad things happen, we maybe don't understand it, but we don't feel entitled either. But the corrupt leader perceives differently. They've worked for it, or they should have had it all along, and if they don't get it the nice way then they're just going to take it.

4) They have no conscience. You and I feel bad when we do something wrong. But to a corrupt leader, the only thing that is "wrong" is something or someone that gets in their way.

5) They don't believe in universal justice. This is by no means a potshot at atheists, although I know it's going to sound like it. But the opposite of corruption is the belief that some sort of system of justice exists well outside of yourself. It doesn't mean that you "feel" a sense of right or wrong (this is conscience) but rather that you intellectually comprehend and appreciate even the possibility that everything we do has a consequence. Corrupt leaders don't believe in this type of logic at all, not faith-based and not any rational argument that makes the case for karma. Rather, they see the world as essentially meaningless: They make the law, and if you don't like it, then you'll have to come and pry their winnings away yourself and prove it.

If you think about this for any length of time, you might come to the conclusion that natural law favors the corrupt. However true this may be, it also appears that social norms are taking us in the opposite direction, to favor "prosocial" behavior. This is because we have more and more metrics showing that helpfulness is not only a predictor of success later in life, but also demonstrably increases team productivity.

You've heard the saying "every dog has his day." Well I think this is true when it comes to corruption as well. It may seem like we live in an era where justice is unobtainable. But I like to think that a new day is dawning, and soon.


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

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How Not To Be Anonymous On Social Media

One of the things people worry about, when it comes to their behavior on social media, is how much of their personal opinion can be shared.

And they should worry. Putting the legal discussion of rights and responsibilities aside, we exist in a social context. People judge us by what we say, and also how we say it.

For my part I think that you should be yourself online, just like in real life. If other people don't like it then you probably shouldn't associate with them.

But there is a problem with my position. And it has to do with the continuum along which "being yourself" turns into "sharing my views that are very offensive to you."

At work, in person, we know to keep strong opinions to ourselves. But online, we are becoming more and more conditioned to say exactly what we think, and the reaction of others be damned. And unless you're expressing your views in a way that is fully anonymous, someone can easily take offense to you -- someone you work with, someone you love, someone or some group you associate with on a regular if casual basis.

So a lot of people go out there and comment anonymously -- or, at least they try. The problem is that many times these people make mistakes as they do so. In an effort to help these people protect their personal brands, I thought I would list some typical mistakes that let me know who you are, even if you think you're shielding your identity:
  • Using your name, or a portion thereof, as your handle. You may not realize that your name is very unique, and that your online activities can be traced to you if you provide other distinct identifying information as part of your commentary.
  • Visiting multiple forums under the same handle. It has been my observation that people who do this tend to reveal some sort of identifying information. It is also my observation that people who do this tend to make very extreme comments.
  • Complaining about your job, either generally or with reference to a particular person. You may keep your name offline, but if you make comments so specific that they can be traced back to you, you aren't really anonymous.
  • Providing your telephone number or address. You may not realize that many discussion forums that seem private are actually public, and that "conversations" you're having online are open to casual readers who can trace your number back to you.
  • Focusing your comments on your own involvement in an activity. If you provide enough of a description, your anonymity becomes less assured.

Again, I want to stress that there are many legal issues involved here, and that this is not a substitute for legal advice. Rather, it is a cautionary note. If you're going "the safe route" and venting anonymously online, understand somewhere in the back of your head that your anonymity is never truly assured -- especially if some hacker decides to release all the usernames and emails associated with the sites you visit and make use of.


All opinions my own. Photo by Richard King via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Friday, September 9, 2016

In Honor of Star Trek's 50th Anniversary: Captain Picard's 10 Best Quotes

Did you know that September 8, 2016 marked exactly 50 years since the first episode of Star Trek was aired? In my world this is a very big deal, not just because I'm a fan but also because Captain Jean-Luc Picard is one of my leadership "gurus."
In honor of this momentous occasion, here are some of the Captain's most well-known and inspiring lines about leadership, humanity and life:
  1. "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity."
  2. "What we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived."
  3. "It is possible to commit no errors and still lose. That is not a weakness...that is life."
  4. "If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we really are."
  5. "The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably."
  6. "There are times, Sir, when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders."
  7. "There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute."
  8. "I have never subscribed to the theory that political power flows from the barrel of a gun."
  9. "Villains who twirl their mustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well-camouflaged."
  10. "I will have as much tea as I damn well please."
All opinions my own. Photo via Wikipedia.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

"Time Out"

The Washington Post has an article out about the pompous nature of over-workers. Yes, Silicon Valley startups, the lot of you are awesome. But the rest of us need to shower and sleep without buying an app to tell us how.
The truth is, it's good to be somewhat aimless half the time. As a kid I was always encouraged to be creative, and that "undiscipline" came precisely from wandering strange roads, exploring the county courthouse on the weekend, invading the library, constructing makeshift tents out of dining room chairs, stuffing swaths of old fabric with cotton, cutting off the hair of my dolls, running away from home and running back, and writing, writing, writing.
At summer camp nobody knew from insurance and liability. We had a schedule, sure, but the truth of it was that we were basically free to do drama club and Color War and tetherball and pottery. Of course, I ran around, broke my fingers one after the other, got dirty and ate blueberries right off the bushes they had growing wild by the woods.
It was heaven.
As an adult, and I don't know exactly how or when this happened, the downtime got less and less, and the requirement to account for every second of every moment of every day increased accordingly.
On a job interview for a pretty good job the guy said to me, "What's your favorite book?"
And I answered without thinking, "I don't read books."
We both realized how bad that sounded.
I beat myself up all the way home, but the truth was I knew I couldn't lay claim to that kind of uninterrupted time anymore. That time was over.
As my mind wanders back in time I really miss the good old days before the Internet in particular. We had one book and one book report to do at a pretty slow pace every month, so you had enough time to absorb it. The teacher would grade you briefly and insightfully, not with a mechanical rubric that drilled down to the littlest and frankly most irrelevant detail: "B-. You can do better - argument is superficial."
I feel pretty spoiled nowadays, too, by this idea that every weekend has to be entertaining. As a kid we didn't do anything. I mean by this that we slept late, read the cartoons and clipped coupons from the Sunday paper, went to visit the family, and maybe went to the mall.
It was considered your business and your problem what you did with your own time, and this was true from the youngest age. As an eight year old I got into a huge fight with this girl named George (!) on the playground. She punched me right in the face and knocked me out.
Somehow my father appeared and dragged me home, but after wiping the blood off and the snot I was left to go out there once again. That wasn't news.
Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to romanticize child neglect or to ignore the risks of minimal structure. But I do feel confident in saying that today we have definitely gone too far the other way. Because now, there is a bias against being alone at all - and without solitude your mind cannot develop properly.

  • In the work environment, many are expected to function totally out in the open - to concentrate with many other people around, with their noise. I don't know about you, but it is absolutely impossible for me to think under these circumstances unless my brains are covered in white noise.

  • As a parent, you are expected to engage your children constantly in some form of social play or learning activity. This pressure starts in the womb as the doctors tell you to play classical music, and continues and continues even into the college years.

  • You go to college to learn things, but the roster of campus activities is expected to be overflowing, and you as the student are supposed to be partying every Friday night and Saturday night (let alone dorming) or else you're somehow "isolated from the experience."

  • Outside of work, Facebook-worthy shares basically consist of social moments -- anything that looks good when anywhere between two and six happy people are smiling into a camera.

 Which reminds me of a moment just before last weekend. It was Friday afternoon.
"Any plans for the weekend?" I asked my colleague in the elevator.
The gentleman, about two generations older than myself, answered slowly.
"I'm going to sit on my porch with my dog," he said. "In my chair. I am going to do nothing."
Message delivered. This guy knew how to take a chill pill, and he knew that he could be ridiculed for saying so openly.
But I wasn't ridiculing him in my mind. The truth is, I was jealous.
So this is what I'm thinking, after a week of feeling blocked and then re-starting the creative process after some floundering. That "doing nothing" can in fact be a deliberate act of creativity.
For watering the soil doesn't make a flower show up right away. But it does set the stage for a rosebud to appear.

Later on, suddenly.
Almost as if by magic.
All opinions my own. Clip art by Jonathan357 via

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Branding to Transform Government Customer Service

The September 2, 2016 edition of NextGov ran a story on the 2016 edition of Forrester Research's Customer Experience Index. The report will cost you $499 to purchase but the article highlights what for me is the main point:
"The federal government finished dead last among 21 major industries, and had five of the eight worst scores of the 319 brands, leading Forrester to note that government has a “near monopoly on the worst experiences.”
Before saying anything about this study it should be noted that we don't have a clear sense of what its methodology was. Superficially we know that there were 122,500 adult respondents polled within the past year, asked for input on 319 brands covering 21 major industries. But when you drill down a little deeper, it's important to ask: What exactly were the questions? How were they asked? Was there an opportunity for respondents to expand on their answer? Why this odd number of brands? What constitutes a "major industry?"

Not just that: What is the definition of "customer service" when you're talking about the federal government as versus a private, for-profit company? Not at all the same thing, although the features of it may be similar in some ways. The principal difference of course is that the government is charged with both enforcing the law and serving the public, and so customer service in a government context means helping people to navigate a complicated system. The customer is bound to the government; it isn't a voluntary relationship. That person also may be responsible for paying money to the government or otherwise giving something up; it's not a situation where the consumer enters into a voluntary agreement to exchange funds for services.

One more caveat. There are many perspectives you can bring to any situation when you're looking at ways to improve it. A CIO, for example, will argue for better technology. A human resources professional will argue for better staffing and training. We can go down the list and name a range of professional support services that can offer best-practice expertise (public or private-sector) to improve customer service: All of them can be right.

But complexity messes up headlines. Obviously government and private industry are not directly comparable; obviously there are lots of ways to make things better. I want to offer just a few ideas about what branding can do, because I think this discipline is for some strange reason both deeply misunderstood and utterly neglected in the government, no matter how much money has been thrown at it.
  1. First, a definition. Branding is the professional practice of managing others' perceptions of you. It is not reducible to the specific things one does to try and create those perceptions—a name, a brand, a tagline.
  2. Second, a key point of confusion—a paradox. You produce a thing and call it your "brand." Valid. But the customer also has a perception and that perception is your "brand," too. 
  3. Third, the point of branding. You want to align whatever it is that you've created, to the customers's perception of you.
In my mind branding is not really rocket science. It simply requires you to think objectively about how to improve your customers' perceptions of you. It shouldn't cost a lot of money, either: any agency "tiger team" can reorient itself for improvement by asking these types of questions:
  • How does customer service fit into our identity? Are we a Wal-Mart type agency that everybody recognizes, and so we would do well by copying private-sector mass-market customer service practices? Are we mostly government-to-government and deal with other agencies? Businesspeople? Lawyers? How will we communicate our identity in every interaction such that they understand who we are and what we can do for them in that capacity?
  • Who are our customer segments? There will inevitably be at least the following: Internal leaders, employees at large, Congress, the media, and the public. But if we drill down further, who do we really need to satisfy? What is the spoken (legal) or unspoken (implicit) "brand promise" we make by virtue of existence?
  • What does "delivery" of the customer service promise mean? Is it that we've answered a question? Clarified a rule? Does the customer know what they can expect from us?
  • What is the preferred method of communication on the part of our customers with us? Do they want a formal letter, a quick email, or might they even be happy to interact via Twitter and Facebook? Do they expect us to be active on social media, or more quiet?
  • What entity does the customer perceive us to be a part of? Do we need to emphasize our own unique identity, or should we fold into something larger and simpler for them to recognize?
Of course this is not an exhaustive list.

The point is that branding forces you to think from an "outside-in" perspective, rather than solely "inside-out." This is helpful as government agencies tend to suffer from an extreme form of myopia, with not only the agency but also its individual parts and subparts thinking of things very much from a narrow perspective.

Branding, with its emphasis on cognizance of the perceptions of others, is a powerful way to reverse that dynamic.

All opinions my own. Photo by Torbein Rønning via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Saturday, September 3, 2016

"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).

Thursday, September 1, 2016

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)

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