Effective communication with Congress, partners, financial backers, and stakeholders is critical to the organizational success of Federal agencies. We have developed several blogs about communicating your value and the web is full of tips for communicating with stakeholders and tools for effective communication to achieve your mission. But what if your ability to communicate effectively is stymied by forces beyond your control?
In today’s Federal climate interagency collaboration is a key strategy to cut costs and minimize redundancy. Agencies often work together to solve a problem or support a shared stakeholder. However, bureaucracy both within and outside your agency can be the biggest roadblock to effective communication. Each agency has its own bureaucratic structure and therefore its own system of vetting and approving information for release. If your organization must collaborate with outside partners and must communicate with stakeholders you are probably familiar with the following challenges:
- Keeping Secrets – There is a lag between when you know something and when you can provide that information to those who need it
- The rumor mill – Lack of information leads to misinformation
- Are we there yet? – Stakeholders ask the same question over and over
All of these challenges can have serious consequences, including informational leaks, anger over widespread bad information, and frustration for those asking and answering the same questions over and over.
Here are three tips for overcoming the challenges caused by communication roadblocks.
1. Manage Expectations
Hey, the Federal government moves slowly. That is a fact. You can say it. Your stakeholders might forget that the Federal government may not be able to provide information at the same speed as local government, and especially not as fast as private industry. Once you call out that fact you have “named it and claimed it.” Your stakeholders will know what to expect and can start to work within your limitations accordingly.
2. Stick to the 3 “Cs” – Clear, Consistent, and Concise
When information is hard to get out, it is important that what does get out is clear, consistent, and concise. Every person involved in delivering your message should speak with one voice, so that there is no confusion. When your stakeholders get together to compare notes, you want them to say, “Yeah, I heard that too.” If not, they will come back to you over and over for clarification, or worse, rumors will spread and your credibility will be called into question.
3. Stop Talking
In the absence of information, it is not uncommon for people to talk in circles to fill the void. This can create confusion and frustration on the part of the listener. Just stop talking. Let your stakeholders tell you what they need and why they are frustrated. All you have to say is, “I understand and I will give you more information as soon as I am able.” Your stakeholders will probably keep asking you for more information, but they will feel confident that you are working to get it for them.
Tell us—how does your organization overcome bureaucratic challenges to getting information out?
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It’s official: the morale of the Federal workforce is the worst it’s been since they first started measuring.  Each year, the Partnership for Public Service conducts the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) across all agencies and departments. The FEVS can be one of the single-greatest pain points for federal leaders. Some are resigned to thinking that much of the government is just doomed to have low morale—but that doesn’t have to be the case. And now it looks like the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is going to work to incorporate those measures in senior executives performance evaluations. Figuring out how to engage your employees and boost your scores is more important than ever. There are a variety of things leaders can do to boost morale (and their FEVS ranking) if they are willing.
1. Monitor Progress Constantly
The FEVS is conducted once a year so progress is made slowly over time. Make sure you are constantly tracking progress with regard to morale and employee engagement. Moreover, to show that you are taking this seriously, make the progress (or lack there of) public knowledge across your organization. Even if things are not progressing as quickly as desired, you will get more insight by having the conversations about why you’re not before the next survey. You should also be willing to solicit feedback about how you’re doing—it may feel uncomfortable but wouldn’t you rather know when you have the ability to do something about it. If you show you’re receptive to feedback, employees will feel like you are willing to change and that you value them enough to seek their input.
2. Give a darn
Nothing demotivates staff more than feeling like their leaders are either not listening or they don’t really care about making things better. To show you do care and you are in fact listening, make yourself available for dialogue. One-on-ones, focus groups, all hands meetings, and supplemental feedback are key to really understanding what is at the root of many morale issues. By the way, for those who don’t give a darn, think about this: low morale has real consequences. The effects of low morale can include decreased productivity, absenteeism, and poor customer service.  Is that the type of organization you want to lead?
3. Embrace life in a fishbowl
When you are a leader, you are living life in a proverbial fishbowl. Whether you realize it or not, you are constantly being observed by everyone around you—your employees see what is going on inside the fishbowl but because they don’t have all the facts it is highly subject to perceptions and assessments. This can often lead to misunderstandings and sometimes ill will and feelings of resentment. Transparency and open communication are vital to fostering a sense of understanding and connection between leadership and worker bees. It is crucial to communicate often about priorities and the decisions you make—after all, it affects more than just you.
4. Show that change is possible
One of the things I’ve heard from many federal leaders about morale is that “things will never really change.” When people say that, I tell them: “You’re right.” When you are predisposed against change, it will not happen. The onus is on Federal leaders to prove that change is not only possible, it’s paramount to the continued vitality of any organization. Don’t focus on the things you cannot control—the Federal budget, your parent organization, etc.—consider what you can influence and spend your time on those things. It’s guaranteed to be a better use of your time.
5. Engage others and share the responsibility
Leaders often feel extreme pressure that the fate of their organization and their staff’s morale rests solely on their shoulders. This leads to a dangerous downward spiral. The leader realizes there is a problem or there’s room for some positive change and embarks on a journey to single-handedly fix it. When the desired results are not achieved, the energy dedicated to positive change then becomes frustration and negativity. To avoid this, don’t just include others in the process of exploring how to boost morale but have them co-create the process. Having others feel ownership for the effort will strengthen the cause greatly and take the weight of the world off your shoulders.
If you’re serious about boosting your organization’s FEVS ranking, enhancing productivity, and just generally making your work environment more positive, there’s no time like the present.
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December not only heralds the onset of holiday busy-ness in our personal lives, but also the end-of-the-year closeout activities that make our professional lives extremely hectic. In the government, there is often a mad rush to finish projects that absolutely must get done before the end of the year or before people leave town on their use-it or lose-it vacation. This real or imagined urgency leaves little room for taking a break to evaluate successes, flops, and priorities on the personal and organizational level. However, it is often during the busiest times that taking a strategic pause can be the most beneficial to organizations.
At first, it seems counterintuitive to strategically “pause” during the busiest time of the year. However, spending time reflecting on what has worked for your organization, what should be retooled, and what is truly important to you and your organization will help you focus your energy in the right direction. Here are some signs you might be ready to take a strategic pause:
1. You’re drinking from the fire hose. We’ve all been there – you check one item off your list, and three other tasks appear in its place. It’s easy to let some things that don’t seem as urgent at the time slip through the cracks, which all too often comes back to bite us later.
2. You’re burnt out. Project fatigue is all too common and can creep up when you least expect it. Nip it in the bud before it leaves you exhausted, unmotivated, and uninspired.
3. Your resources have changed. Maybe you’re getting some additional contractor support, or maybe your budget was cut in half. When your resources shift, your ability to carry out your mission shifts as well. Take a pause to make a plan for navigating the changes.
4. You just finished a big project. Whether it went exactly as you expected, or whether it crashed and burned, you and your colleagues could use some time to examine lessons learned and potential new ways forward.
5. You are starting a new project. Maybe your organization is heading in a new direction, or maybe you’re charting a familiar course. Either way, your project kickoff is a great time to pause and think about how this project fits into your organization’s overall mission or goals.
6. You’ve been working on a project for a while, and it’s time for a refresh. While the above scenarios are important, this one might be the most crucial. While established strategies contribute to your project’s sustainability, too much emphasis on process can stamp out creativity. This might be a great opportunity to bring in someone outside your organization to provide a fresh perspective. This outside perspective could be a consultant, a stakeholder, or a key partner. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh set of eyes and ears to help you see what you could do better and identify your most tangible successes. Moreover, an outside assessment of your organization can help you see how well you are connecting with your stakeholder base – you may think your mission is clearly articulated, but your stakeholders might be totally missing your message.
While the end of the year often pressures us to go full-steam ahead, sometimes the best thing for an organization is not to just do something, but to stand there, take a metaphorical (or literal) deep breath, and evaluate.
What insights has your organization gained from taking a strategic pause?
It’s amazing to think the Corner Alliance Government Leaders Blog has been in existence for over a year and a half now! However, after all this time, we are still learning new way to engage our audience. I recently listened to Trent Dysmid, of the Bright Ideas podcast, interview Amanda Nelson, the Director of Marketing at RingLead about tips she had for blogging. Nelson was previously involved with content marketing at salesforce.com. In the interview, she discusses some of the best tips she has learned to manage a successful blog. Her points were in line with many of the practices used in the Government Leaders Blog but what struck a chord with me was her suggestion to invite other experts to write for your blog. Having other voices in your market write for your blog will expand your reach and improve your authority within the community.
With a lot of inspiration from the interview and our own experience, here are eight tips Corner Alliance recommends to Government Leaders managing their own blogs. What tips hit home for you? Our leader Alan Pentz chose these four as his favorite tips in this short video.
Featured image via www.adherecreative.com
After participating in several stakeholder events with federal government leaders this past year, the one consistent theme that has emerged is the need to increase awareness of the goals and priorities of their organizations-the priorities on which those organizations are currently investing serious time and resources. Many federal organizations struggle to communicate the value of what they are doing and to build important partnerships. Make a New Year’s Resolution to make 2015 the year you get your message out effectively.
This takes time, so what steps can you take now, knowing 2015 is fast approaching and planning must begin? Here are five steps you can begin addressing today:
- Set Priorities: Before you do anything else take a moment to map out the different milestones, events, and deliverables you wish to achieve in 2015.You’ll want to showcase your work by leveraging all of your outreach capabilities. Highlight the impacts you’re making in the field and the progress your making with your strategic goals.
- State Your Goals Clearly: Make the goals of your organization clearly accessible and indicate how your customers can fit into the different planning processes within your organization. You can test this concept by asking a friend to visit your website and to see if he or she understands your mission, priorities, and how he or she can get more involved.
- Encourage Two Way Communication: Make it clear on your website, social media channels, and select outreach materials who the point(s) of contact are for directing questions. Effective communication requires platforms for having two-way conversations, so meet with your web and social media colleagues to increase the awareness and information sharing around how customers can do business with your organization.
- Promote Partnerships: Partnerships play an important role in getting your message out. Partners are crucial in helping to amplify what you are doing through social media platforms, webinars, external speaking engagements, videos, and blog testimonies. Partnerships extend your reach and reaffirm your value. Without partnerships, your organization’s value can get lost or even misrepresented, which in this age of social media will directly impact your credibility and trust.
- Update Your Brand: Consider incorporating new graphics and photos onto your outreach platforms. When preparing speaking engagements and exhibit outreach, add video and prepare take-away flyers that look different from standard letter-size papers. Incorporate your brand across all your platforms, including your website, exhibit and media backdrops, social media platforms, and even email signature lines. This consistency will remind your customers of your organization’s mission and service offerings. Consider the types of information you want to develop to support your outreach schedule. This includes website updates, exhibits and speaking engagements, talking points, videos, graphics, updates for relevant trade publications and association newsletters, and media interviews.
If your organization is clear about what it stands for, who to contact for more information, and what opportunities exist for future collaboration, you will improve your organization’s trust and credibility. Your customers will know who you are, and serve as partners that help drive messaging.
We’d like to hear from you about what has worked for your organization. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on our blog. Until next time, I hope your value is on the rise.
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On November 13, the FCC opened the bidding for valuable AWS-3 spectrum. This is the second of three auctions whose proceeds will go towards funding FirstNet (the First Responder Network Authority), deficit reduction, and other public safety broadband communications efforts like next generation 911 and public safety research and development projects. The auction is happening as we speak, but the story started long ago.
In 2008 the FCC attempted to auction the “D Block” with the intent of a wireless carrier buying the rights to the spectrum under the condition of supporting a public safety broadband network (the D Block is adjacent to a chunk of spectrum already allocated for public safety use). No participants were willing to bid enough to hit the reserve price set by the FCC and so the auction (and hopes for a public safety network) failed.
Public safety then rallied to lobby Congress to re-allocate the D Block to public safety to give them a contiguous 10×10 block of 700MHz spectrum to host a dedicated public safety broadband network and also legislate a funding mechanism. In 2012 the Middle Class Tax Relief and Jobs Creation Act did just that. In addition to allocating the D Block to public safety, the legislation mandated a series of spectrum auctions that would fund the build out of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) and created FirstNet to be responsible for the deployment and management of the network. The revenue from the auctions is to be placed into a “Public Safety Trust Fund” after re-location costs are recovered for the Federal agencies that will have to be re-located to free up the spectrum being auctioned.
Auction Progress to Date
After 29 rounds, the AWS-3 auction has topped $35B. The FCC had set the reserve price for this spectrum at $10 Billion, which means that proceeds are going to far surpass the reserve price and meet all requirements for FirstNet funding and other critical public safety broadband communications efforts at NTIA, NIST, and Next Gen 911.
The 600 MHz auction (aka the incentive auctions), originally slated to occur in late 2014 has now been pushed to 2016 and will generate even more revenue for the Public Safety Trust Fund and deficit reduction.
While there are still logistical hurdles to jump through, the future is looking bright for FirstNet and the public safety community.
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Many problems in government are best solved collaboratively working across multiple agencies. Unfortunately this can be a frustrating and unproductive experience for many government leaders. Sometimes your partners aren’t as interested in the goals as you are. In other cases they don’t want to give up the territory by sharing efforts and then there’s the simple fact that many of the people you are working with are just plain busy and distracted.
If your mission depends on working collaboratively across agencies there are at least 6 things you can do to improve your chances of success:
1. Think about your strategic planning process as a recruiting process. Your chances of getting full support and participation increase greatly when you involve your partners in the development of your strategy. Interview and/or survey them on what their priorities are. If at all possible, pull them into your prioritization process. If they have input on what initiatives or projects get prioritized, they are more likely to contribute resources and provide support for them. Everyone likes a deal they were a part of making.
2. Make your partners’ customers, your allies. Knowing your partners’ customer is one of the best ways to get their attention. If you are able to access information on the needs, requirements, and motivations of that customer and relate it to your effort, you are well on your way to building a successful partnership.
3. Brand your effort. Giving your effort a brand helps to build support. A branded project feels more significant and helps to tell a story about why what you are doing matters. It gives something for people to rally around.
4. Communicate your progress. Many cross-agency projects fail because the participants don’t have a clear sense that progress is being made. As the lynchpin of a collaborative project, you need to continuously tell the story and show forward movement. You need to find interesting ways to communicate that information like infographics, blogs, and/or video to engage your partners.
5. Make quick wins an explicit part of your planning process. I’ve seen many government leaders come out of a strategy session raring to go. They have an ambitious agenda, but once the reality of their day-to-day demands reemerges, the new initiatives can feel overwhelming. Inevitably the overall project peters out soon after this. It is crucial to first pick off some low hanging fruit to show what you can implement. Success breeds success. Find initiatives that require little effort to declare victory and that have the potential to build follow on activities.
6. Resource the strategy. If you take one thing from this whole blog it should be this point. Most strategies fail because they aren’t resourced. Leaders go into a room and come up with a bunch of great ideas and then assign them to team members as add-ons. If you want something done, you have to have someone who focuses on it. That means hiring new people, contractors, or ending other projects to shift resources. It won’t happen magically. You need to talk with your partners and your organization at the beginning about how you are going to resource any outcomes.
Now it’s your turn. What do you think the key elements of cross-agency projects are?
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Government innovators face a unique set of challenges when exploring new ways to deliver on their agency’s mission. Creative thinkers can be hesitant to introduce challenging ideas in a culture that too often rewards the status quo and lacks clear avenues for communicating ingenuity up to leadership. Institutional oversight, risk aversion, and authority limitations help government entities run reliably (most of the time…), but these realities inhibit their ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions or dedicate funding to long-term research & development efforts (R&D).
That being said, it’s not impossible to strike a balance between traditional governance and entrepreneurial curiosity. Agencies like the Department of Defense and NASA have a long, well-documented history of driving green-field R&D that has provided tremendous economic and social benefits to citizens. In fact the Congressional Budget Office reported that the federal government invested $55 billion in R&D unrelated to national defense in 2012. In these non-classified settings, government agencies have begun to embrace an open and collaborative approach to innovation. For example, an agency might award grants to universities pursuing applied chemistry research or sponsor tech transfer between a private firm and federal scientists in a government lab.
Today’s top areas of federal nondefense R&D investment include healthcare, space science, technology, energy, and the environment. To highlight some recent success stories, here are 3 of the most innovative federal R&D programs:
1. Advanced Manufacturing Partnership — $2.2 Billion FY13
President Obama chartered this interdisciplinary consortium in 2011 to “enhance America’s global competitiveness” in next generation manufacturing areas like robotics, sustainable industry and supply chain innovation. The National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), the Department of Energy, NASA and a cadre of Academic thought leaders make up a portion of AMP’s diverse membership. To prioritize areas of investment, AMP evaluates opportunities against criteria such as leveragability across industry sectors and encouraging American workforce demographics.
2. Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA – E) – $265 Million FY13
Born out of the success of DARPA, this Department of Energy venture takes a rapid, iterative approach to modernizing energy production and consumption. Current priority areas include improving energy storage – something that often blocks the critical path to mobile device innovation – and converting natural gas to transportation fuel. ARPA – E also shows a commitment to delivering lab research to consumers through its Tech-to-Market program (which helps explain how the agency parlayed $70 million of initial investment into $450 million of private sector follow on last year.)
3.Networking and Information Technology Research & Development Program (NITRD) — $1.1 Billion FY13
This program brings together the National Science Foundation, NIH, DARPA, NIST and other heavy hitters you’d expect to be tackling today’s highest profile buzzword – Big Data. About half of NITRD’s projects go to foundational research like data management, mining and machine learning to uncover tactics of broad applicability across government data centers. They also dedicate funding to the development of more sophisticated applications, algorithms and cyber infrastructure necessary to support domain-specific data challenges (i.e. hurricane prediction modeling at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). This two-pronged approach brings welcomed sensibility and a real chance of success to a discipline that has seen too many well-intentioned working groups come and go as of late.
What other federal R&D programs have you seen creating impact lately? Where other areas of R&D investment should government innovators prioritize?
Image via Huffington Post.