President Obama began his term as President with the announcement that the Federal Government would be more transparent and open, better known as the Open Government Initiative. Most of us assumed that this would mean we would have better access to information, plans, and people. But, is this really the case? Let’s look at one aspect of openness – direct access to Federal employees.
I have been interacting with the Federal Government for 35 years. I have had the opportunity to deal with agencies in every branch, as well as related organizations, such as NATO, and associations. I began before we had electronic communications and a plethora of options for communications. We did not even have reliable voice mail! It may seem that we should have been at a disadvantage, but this could not be further from the truth. I could pick up the phone and call just about any Federal employee and have a meaningful discussion about what they did, what we could do, and upcoming acquisitions. Just about any of them would give me 30-60 minutes in person to meet and talk.
Now, with e-mail, voice mail, instant messaging, social media, blogs, web sites, videos, and many more options, I find that the ability to meet with Federal employees and have a discussion of merit is nearly impossible. I attribute this trend to the following factors:
#1 – Conflicting policies: Despite the Open Government Initiative, every agency seems to have its own policies. Some have a “send everything to Contracts” policy or a “we communicate to everyone equally, so cannot hold individual discussions unless we do so with everyone”. I realize that some of this is to maintain consistency and a sense of fairness, but it does stifle information exchange and the ability to offer innovative solutions. Nothing in the Federal Acquisition Register (FAR) prohibits one-on-one conversations prior to a solicitation. So, why do Federal officials insist on creating this barrier? I do participate in many workshops with the Federal Government that acknowledge the need for more one-on-one discussions, but do no see any progress. I think the true answer lies in some of the following factors.
#2 – Impressions that pushing information is sufficient: The current trend is the proliferation of web sites, webinars, industry days, social media, and other channels. I call these “push” channels because the Government gets to push their data to us, with little or no feedback channel. The belief is that everyone is receiving the same information, but the result is that it is a one-way communications, even when questions and comments are permitted. Companies with great ideas and innovations want their audience with the client to explain what they have – this cannot be accomplished in an open forum.
#3 – Too many channels – not enough resources: As stated in factor #2, there are many channels of communications. Perhaps there are too many. The Federal Government is no longer the leader technology, as it was prior to 1982 (the introduction of the PC). Although the Government realizes that is must communicate with its citizens and other constituents using their preferred channel, they are not equipped to manage all these channels consistently. The need to maintain web sites, contact centers, e-mail, social media, blogs, etc. drain the available resources. Combined with the push to shrink the Federal workforce, decisions must be made regarding priority. It is easy to understand the desire to apply resources where they reach the most people.
#4 – Increased workload: We have all read in the press that agencies have been ordered to reduce their workforce. At the same time, these agencies have been subject to “unfunded mandates” that require them to “do more with less“. The result is that the most qualified employees leave, either to take early retirement or for better paying private sector jobs. Those who stay are asked to perform the duties of several persons, increasing their stress and workload. New hires are difficult and there is no one to train the new hires. I do not subscribe to the belief that Federal workers have it easy – they work hard and long hours. However, there is a limit to what they can do. As a result, discussions with contractors is low on their list and they look for mechanisms to divert these request.
#5 – Flexible work schedules: The increase in Telework and Alternative Work Schedules (AWS) reduces the office time available for meetings, and precious office time is required for internal meetings. This is understandable and I am not sure how time can be manufactured.
I could go on, but I decided to limit myself to what I think are the top five factors inhibiting communications. As you can see, they are interlinked and there is not quick cure. As a result, the public receives information through too many channels and the burden of filtering is now on them. This results in misunderstood messages and erroneous conclusions.
I suggest that each Federal agency look at communications as a total package to determine its impact on the public. A coördinated effort using all channels with a trained and informed workforce is the only way to get the message out effectively and accurately. This does not mean setting up a Public Relations office that must review every communication. It does mean that communications be categorized by their impact and intent, and that the workforce be trained to understand what they can publicly state and encourages to work within this focus.
Please let me know your experience and any suggestions you might have.