What Is It, You Would Say, You Do Here?

The title of this post is obviously the classic line from the 1999 flick, Office Space, and has come to define so much of how we understand what happens in industries that we don’t understand. We gaze over the tops of rows upon rows of light gray cubicles in back offices in office parks in suburbs from sea to shining sea, and wonder how many of these people are actually working. How many contribute to the bottom line and, conversely, how many get paid to take orders from the customers and pass them to the organization’s doers?

In private industry, we dispassionate observers can forgive some of the organization’s “people persons” taking up space because the company is still making money (or else, we’re told, they would quickly be out of business). We don’t know exactly what it is they do, but somebody in charge has a need for them, and in the black box of business, that’s acceptable.

But, what about in government? Remember, in government, they work for us, we pay their salaries, dammit! So when we peer over the slightly (or not-so-slightly) out-of-date light gray cubicles full of government workers, is our reaction as forgiving? Are we as dispassionate as observers? What the hell are they all doing?

Okay, sure, I’m not talking about the cops or the firefighters. Or the DEA, or the nurses, or the letter carriers, or the drivers, we get their jobs. They are government widget-makers. They do an easily definable thing that has an input (salary and benefits) and an output (criminals in jail, mail delivered, fires extinguished).

c/o https://www.learyfirefighters.org/

But, the rest of you, you government workers. What is your job about? How much solitaire have you played today? If you’re all done screwing up healthcare.gov, why haven’t you started providing the rest of us with an easily quantifiable, tangible thing that we can point to and say, “Your job is productive, you may stay.”

As a government worker with a very ill-defined job in the very poorly-understood field of public health, I’ve been promised that when the pitchfork-wielding anti-government head hunters come calling, my office is near the top of their itinerary. I’m no nurse or doctor, my car doesn’t have flashing lights or sirens, there aren’t really any concrete answers to the problems that I work on. Squishy is how I define my job. Relativistic.

But. It’s important work. And so is all of the work that my colleagues do. The accountants and human resources folks. The epidemiologists and sanitarians. The record keepers and front-line office staff. And it’s not just in public health, the same bias of assuming that government office workers are somehow less acceptable than private industry office workers permeates us all.

After all, they work for us, and what they do isn’t easily understood. Isn’t tangible. Every time a news story comes out about government, it’s about hours wasted online, loads of laundry done, work NOT done.

Where are all the stories about what’s gone right? The stories about the kids who don’t have asthma because we’ve cleaned up the air? The stories about the disease outbreaks that never get started because everyone is vaccinated? The stories about the restaurants that are closed before a single person spends two days moaning, a vomitous mess, on their bathroom floor?

Where are the stories that detail the epidemiologist seeing disease trends shift to a new zip code, which prompts the department to shift their condom giveaway program and six months later sees the incidence of those STDs drop back to normal?

They don’t exist. This isn’t to say that positive government stories don’t exist, they do. But they are overwhelmingly about some fancy new initiative. And if you can interview a twenty-something-year-old who’s applying private industry techniques to government work, it’s that much easier. But nothing about the day-to-day slog. Nothing to combat the negative stereotypes that so many of us hold.

So, this means that if government workers want their story told, they need to realize that no one but themselves will do it. The only chance to fight against negative stereotypes and work toward rebuilding their image lies in doing it themselves. Because thy’re government and they can’t count on some fancy PR firm to come in and spruce things up. (Unlike private companies can.)

This is an image rehab that won’t be conducted with a slick mass media marketing blitz, but instead will be successful only if one person sees the value in the work being done, and helps convince a friend. It will be done slowly, and at no cost, and not consistently, and often not well. But it will be done. It will be done, or those lactation consultants won’t be around much longer to ease new mothers fears, and those inspectors won’t be there to make sure the public pool is clean enough to swim in (if there even is a pool still).

So, what about you? Are you that person that sees value in the work that faceless, nameless government automatons do? Have you said anything to your friends about how they’ve kept you safe? Or are you just waiting for it to get really bad before you start helping?


Rethinking Government Communications

Communicating today is tough for anyone trying to do it. It used to be easy. Craft a message in a pre-approved format (inverted pyramid, anyone?), then give it to pre-approved people, then Miller Time. Today? Not so much.

Lots of us still do it that way, though. And in lots of cases, it’s not because we don’t want to do more. Or be more targeted. Or take advantage of all of the new avenues of communication. It’s just that we already have full time jobs, and inadequate staff, and not enough money. (Welcome to government, my friend.)

Adding Facebook to our portfolio was a tough enough sell. Now you’re telling me that Medium is another thing to add, and I need a Meerkat, too? And I’m going to sell the idea of a live-streaming rodent to my bosses exactly how? It sucks, no doubt.

The real problem, though, isn’t that we aren’t doing these things. We’re providing the level of output that we’ve always done, and have done successfully. No, the real problem is that others are doing these things, going the extra mile.

You think I’m joking about Obama? Hardly. He really is the problem. At least for overworked government communicators. The White House today is setting the stage for how government can communicate, and pretty soon, the rest of us will be expected to do the same.

With that in mind, you can see the looming conflict between government capacity and public expectation. We will be seen as failing our constituents for simply doing what we’ve always done, even though we haven’t been given the capacity to meet those increased expectations.

The solution is easy to see; it is harder to do. It is basically us adopting this new worldview and adapting our work to the expectations of the public. How I imagine it will happen will look like a diffusion of innovation curve.

Our innovators are the folks on the CDC social media team, at the White House, and at NASA. Early adopters are just now starting to learn how best to create media. The rest of us, though, while we’re usually perfectly happy to be part of the early or late majority, are in danger of falling out of step with the public. If we haven’t already.

What’s needed, then, is a radical reimagining of how small, traditionally underfunded government agencies present themselves to the world. That S-curve up there won’t help. The how, again, is perplexing. How do you change everything in a field that is almost completely hesitant to change?

How about this: if you can’t change the end result, instead consider changing the process. If we can’t expand dedicated communications staff to meet the expanded communications burden, why not expand the definition of our communications staff? Why not decentralize a lot of the day-to-day social media work to those best placed to tell those stories? Yes, let regular employees get online and tweet and livestream and give the public a view into what goes on in their agencies’ work.

Scary? Absolutely! But, given the choice between being completely out of touch with our audiences, and having non-communications people talk about what they do everyday… Well, which is really worse in the long run? The details and rules and training definitely need to be worked out, but given how quickly we can lose the ear — and trust — of the public, isn’t it worth the risk?