Don't Rock The Boat

I may have shared this previously but a colleague (in government) once warned me that "they only hire people they can control."

At the time I was so much more naive than I am now, and I'll be honest, the words went into my head but they didn't really register.

My thought as she spoke was something like, Maybe she is telling me the truth, but that sounds absolutely crazy.

As it turned out this friend had a lot to share after many years of civil service. In her weary brilliance, cynicism and relentless positivity despite all the obstacles thrown her way she was one of the gems. But I meet fewer and fewer people like her.

One thing she said sticks out in my mind, and this was around the time the Obama administration was starting up. She said that we were looking at the "invasion of the pod people," and when I looked at her like "what are you talking about?" as I did not know who the "pod people were" she said, "The Stepford Wives, you know?"

I didn't. I really didn't.

But there was no mistaking the peppy, glassy-eyed stare of the new political appointees. Again, I was younger and much more inexperienced and I didn't know what I was looking at. From my vantage point, we were looking at the incoming "most transparent Administration in American history" and I couldn't have been happier as I waved that Executive Order around.

Smart people, with-it people, dedicated people, public affairs-savvy people, social media people. I had a vague feeling that something was kind of off, but I couldn't really nail down what it was. And frankly--given that new media techniques were so slow to be accepted at my agency--I was hoping they'd usher in a whole new era of communication best practices.

I am embarrassed to say that we started our social media accounts rather informally, although it was true we had provided reams and reams of research to back up their importance and worthiness.

As time went on there were some other oddities. For example when it came to internal communication I was told that "there are a few people who know what's going on" and that the internal communicators were not among that group.

In visiting or talking to my colleagues I would hear sometimes that "things have become politicized" but I did not know what that meant.

I kept my mouth shut, kept it shut, but from my little corner of the world it was clear that the civil servants were working extremely hard, as they say, "to protect the politicals from themselves," from the effects of their own ignorance or desire to engage in workarounds or even simple recklessness.

There's nothing new here. This is how the tension between political and civil works. Another colleague told me about a hilarious TV show from Britain called "Yes, Prime Minister" and I watched a few clips and doubled over.

It could have been transplanted, word for accented word, from the U.S.

But there is a bigger question here, a more troubling one.

When do we rock the boat? When don't we?

Often leaders ask about employee engagement. They want to know how to motivate people, how to get them to speak up, how to harness the innovation they already have in the office.

My reaction most times is to be pretty much incredulous at these types of questions. Because when you look around the typical office environment it is very much like the typical school. Highly regimented, highly hierarchical, deeply stovepiped and conflict-averse, and perhaps most importantly for the question of employee engagement--the nail that sticks out gets hammered.

When I talked with someone about the seeming hush that had fallen over free communication under the Obama Administration, they said it was no different under President Bush (I and II). Except that President Obama was more sophisticated about controlling the message: Bush just didn't say anything.

I look back to something Vice President Al Gore did, within his role in the Clinton Administration, which was to set up the National Partnership for Reinventing Government and the associated Hammer Awards. Whatever you think of either politician, there is no question among civil servants about the importance of this effort. Decades later, you will see in agencies across D.C. Hammer Awards proudly displayed for the achievements civil servants made in cutting costs and increasing efficient service to the public.

Alongside those operational achievements was a tremendous emphasis on communication. NPR pulled in civil servants from across the federal government, on details paid by the home agencies, to pool their efforts and get the common word out.

NPR is how the Federal Communicators Network--which I used to co-chair and am still a proud member of--got launched out of the White House 20 years ago. It still offers free best practice training and networking today.

In today's tumultuous political times, in an economy that feels unstable, in a social environment where shouting is more often heard than a polite exchange of differing views, it's easy to feel discouraged about the prospects of rocking the boat.

But NPR was successful. And although it did not last beyond the Clinton Administration, it proved that shaking things up, for the betterment of all, is always worth the time and effort.


All opinions my own.