Being vulnerable is terrifying. Trust me, I know. I’ve spent the last six months attending multiple 1.5-hour seminars each week while struggling to share my experiences, opinions, and half-baked thoughts openly and comfortably.
Coming from a military background and a fairly private family, this goes against every instinct of my being. So it’s a wonder, really, that I have the desire and chutzpah to be writing to you and the rest of the open internet now.
Now, scale that up to the organizational level — especially for government agencies — and you face a nearly immovable force dead-set on remaining in a safe, comfy bubble of heavily restricted communications.
It pays to work in the open.
This critical practice has and continues to propel organizations like the UK Digital Service to tackle massive digital transformation projects and deliver valuable services to citizens. It’s time for others to do the same.
Brené Brown is Onto Something
Regardless of whether you’re focused on the individual or organizational level, human emotions play a significant role in our behavior and our ability to learn, grow, and address challenges we face.
According to Brené Brown in Col. DeDe Halfhill’s talk at AFWERX Fusion 2020:
“Vulnerability is the feeling we experience when we are in uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure.”
It’s no wonder, then, that organizations safeguard information and resist sharing progress before they’re 100% ready. Why would you want to announce something without a detailed and fully fleshed-out plan for how the project will go?
The key here is to shift the perspective from “making announcements” to “thinking out loud” and avoiding the urge to put a PR-spin on every piece of public information.
A Press Releases Isn’t A Blog.
In all my years in marketing and communications, about 8 of those were spent writing press releases and similar articles in what felt like a never ending cycle. Though my title in the Air Force was “photojournalist,” my role didn’t exist to report on happenings in the military like an independent journalist would.
Take a gander at some highlights:
- Amidst accident aftermath: 1st HS executes F-16 pilot evacuation
- FLOTUS visits military children
- Love for the job fuels crew chief’s passion to fix jets
While these were a blast to write, I couldn’t ever shake the feeling of inconsequentiality being the official mouthpiece of a small office in a VERY large federal organization. I ended up catering to stakeholder demands and filling in the blanks with guesses around audience perceptions and needs. It was a downer, really.
I ended up spending roughly 50% of my time producing content that mostly went the way of the abyss, and the other 50% on preventing others from producing content that may have had a real impact.
This speaks to a reality so many organizations face with traditional methods of project communication. As Chris Fleming wrote in a blog titled “What does “working in the open” mean?”, this typically looks one-way comms that are tightly controlled, PR-oriented, and limited to senior leadership representation.
It’s no wonder that having some degree of creative freedom at AFWERX (which I owe to leaders like Tina Parker and Beam Maue) drew me to writing blogs on how Airmen could better engage with Public Affairs and providing a platform for others to write their own on the InnovativeAF publication.
I barely scratched the surface on this experience while in the Air Force, but it’s stuck with me as an avenue for empowerment and continuous learning. Now, almost four years later, I’m advocating for taking this a few steps further.
Becoming a Learning Organisation
From upholding values that align with concepts such as open government to accelerating learning through easy-to-access documentation and insights, there are real benefits to be gained from adopting these behaviors across government.
To drop some academic references on you for good measure, it’s worth sharing the features of a learning organization (Garvin, 1993, in Gilson et al. 2009):
- “Systematic problem solving;
- Experimentation and the testing of new knowledge;
- Learning from experience;
- Learning from others;
- Shared knowledge and knowledge-spreading mechanisms.”
Not to mention governments are more receptive to info generated internally (Leeuw et al., 1994, in Gilson et al, 2009), so why not capitalize on this and create feedback loops for shared learning?
One early and promising example of this is the U.S. Learning Agenda Questions Dashboard on evaluation.gov, which showcases shared learning goals for federal departments in the form of guiding questions. It’s magnificent!
Underlying Principles of Guiding Open Government
If the basic benefits of shared learning aren’t convincing enough, we must recognize the broader societal implications of adopting (or not adopting) this approach. Lagging trust in government and strained government capacity for addressing challenges are all symptoms of failed or nonexistent feedback systems which contribute to continuous learning.
Especially now, in the digital age, when agencies become their website (Dunleavy et al., 2006, p. 480), they must evolve to meet citizen needs and expectations. This is where establishing principles to a government’s practices become critically important and must be documented, then infused in the being of modern-day bureaucracies to drive this behavior.
Government should honor and recognize the importance of publishing and then leaving up online documentation to be learned from and built upon, not torn down according to a new commander’s will.
Now, some may resist these practices entirely claiming risks to national security (in the case of defense organizations)… or risk of public backlash (in the case of most government organizations)… or risks of competitors stealing your ideas (in the case of businesses). As far as I’m concerned, these are all excuses rooted in fear rather than the vast benefits
There’s certainly information that shouldn’t be shared due to classification level or risks to personal safety, but the benefits of making this approach the default in other scenarios far outweigh the potential downsides.
Get Started Exercising These Muscles
As for where to begin on “working in the open,” start documenting your work and why you’re doing it in blogs (without attempting to sell it), then post them publicly.
You could also engage in internal, but “show your work-esque” activities such as writing weeknotes and hosting “show and tell” sessions that team members could benefit from.
For more, check out the resources below to go down the rabbit hole:
- What does “working in the open” mean? by Chris Fleming at Public Digital
- How to work in the open in government by Ben Holliday
- Doing the hard work to make things open by Paul Smith
- Open working toolkit from gitbook
Now…tell me why this won’t work!