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Are Government and Passion Mutually Exclusive?

This is not intended to be a cliffhanger post, so I’ll tell you what I think right up front: NO!

I think government and passion often co-exist (it’s not an oxymoron) and I have been around long enough to have experienced this first hand. But I can say this with certitude only because I have had the privilege of working inside the Beltway for almost two decades. All you have to do is spend some time on GovLoop (for instance) and you realize that there are many outstanding individuals working in government who are committed, understand and believe in the mission of their agency and are totally passionate about what they do. All you have to do is talk to a few YGL members and you’ll feel the commitment that they bring to the table, not only for the important work that they perform day in and day out, but also because they are committed to attracting some of the best and brightest of their peers to the public sector. Ditto for the Partnership for Public Service and the Collaboration Project (under the auspices of the National Academy of Public Administration).

Now before I go too far, take a moment to reflect on the organizations that I chose to mention. Now set that aside for a moment.

What does government look like nowadays (and by that I mean federal government agencies) if you’re on the outside looking in? Well, I don’ think that I have to spend much time elaborating on the fact that it’s not looking very good. In fact, to a lot of people it’s looking worse than ever. Unresponsive, uncaring and inefficient. And that’s too bad because I think that there is a solution that can be implemented and it’s not a difficult or complicated one. I can’t say that it would solve everything but it would certainly go a long way. Unfortunately, I DO think that its implementation is very little understood within the power structure of most government agencies.

Let’s go back to the organizations that I mentioned at the opening for just a minute. There’s something curious about them and it’s something that makes them different from most federal agencies, or at least what they look like to the outside (that is, if many people outside the Beltway knew about them, but that’s fodder for another post). Their passion is more obvious and transparent because they AREN’T the agencies. Isn’t that interesting? The organizations I’ve mentioned, especially GovLoop, have embraced the collaborative nature of social media and have allowed the passion of many who WORK in the public sector to show through…in an environment that is NOT where they work but that allows them to talk about the work that they do. By and large, the conversation, posts, commentary, participation and plain fun are obvious…and it’s passionate. Folks on GovLoop don’t have to SAY that they are passionate, it’s obvious that they ARE!

And that’s about all there is to it. Give people a forum for true self expression and their passion will show. And that’s the best of what social media brings to the table. When the The Cluetrain Manifesto stated that the internet allowed people to “communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking.” And that “the human voice is unmistakably genuine,” that “it can’t be faked,” they were talking about passion. Passion is the secret sauce that makes social media work. Passion is what motivates people to Crush It! as Gary Vaynerchuk would say (and I don’t think I need to explain what he means).

If agencies could wake up to the fact that they need to add a human voice to their communication efforts (some of them are starting to) — especially when choosing to communicate via Facebook, Twitter or their web sites — then pretty soon they would find that their public face would show different and feel different (in a good way) to the very people those agencies are supposed to serve. People NOT intimately familiar with federal agencies would be able to grasp that there are some very caring and passionate folks working on their behalf because their passion would show. That is, if it was allowed to.

And if the public could see that passion, and feel it, I think that their opinion of government would definitely start to shift in a more positive direction…however slowly.

What do you think?

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Candace Riddle

Cool Post! I agree. As a National Board Member for YGL, I’m curious. How do we let those outside the beltway know that organizations like YGL, GovLoop etc. exist? And better yet how to we effectively engage the average citizen? Easier said than done. A social media movement to communicate with the public takes a lot of love before it hits its tipping point and takes off like GovLoop. Should agencies dedicate a FTE or a few FTE’s to such efforts?

Terri Jones

I agree. And, I think that passion for your agency and for public service is critical as a coping and survival strategy. Government is often slow-moving and incremental, but being inspired by your constituent service helps to sustain you.

Chris Ammon

I’m all about the plain language movement (http://www.plainlanguage.gov/), but you’re right that it’s also about adding humanity to the communications that come from the government. We’ve had fed clients rewrite content to purposely be passive or to delete pronouns like “you” in favor of “one”. Arg.

It’s easy to blast a faceless agency compared to, say, Alice who writes for the DOE blog, for example (I made her up). And the same for content coming from the agencies. If they have to think they’re talking to a bunch of “ones” then how can they write with humanity or passion? I compare it to how aggressively people can drive when the metal surrounding them buffers them from each other. Do we hear about aggressive grocery shopping? Not too often. Because we are forced to see each other and interact as humans. It’s not always pretty but at least its more personal.

Aldo Bello


Candace…it took me a while to get back to you because you are asking some tough questions. I believe that putting some people on the case is a step in the right direction but I also believe that the problem I’m talking about is systemic…almost any kind of agency comm has to go through endless reviews…PA, legal, senior staff and by the time it’s ready to emerge form the gauntlet, it’s either late or it is so watered down that it’s irrelevant. If you agree that the problem is systemic, then there’s very little that a few full-time employees are going to be able to do…because social media is a completely different animal and should function differently than as a repository for, let’s say, the latest PR release on an agency’s FB Page.

As for GovLoop and YGL…that’s a whole different animal and if YGL and GovLoop want to go in that direction they have a lot more freedom to do so…and their success is more likely. Question: Do YGL and GovLoop wish to engage the public or should they continue to build their base within the govsphere…said another way, is there an advantage to the energy and time expenditure necessary to reach out to the public?

Jenyfer Johnson

Fantastic blog and very true! We know our passion and the passion with which our co-workers perform their jobs, but unfortunately much of the public doesn’t see this. Sometimes I wish we could all shout it from our rooftops (if I thought it would help, I would).

It’s called civil service for a reason…because we are SERVING our country in our own way, many of us in harm’s way (in overseas areas that are dangerous).

Jeff Ribeira

I’ll echo everyone else and say, “great post!” I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of or read that Cluetrain Manifesto before, and it appears to be packed with some really great stuff! Even though it was originally published in 1999, the sentiments still stand, and should be consulted by any organization trying to engage people over the internet. I’ll definitely have to go back and study it a little more closely. Thanks for sharing!

Andrew Krzmarzick

Aldo – I’m so glad you joined GovLoop and I am loving your blog posts. Thanks for sharing your insights.

I agree with you and the problem with passion is that too few operate with that level of energy and commitment…doesn’t it come down to the 90-9-1 rule? 1% uber-passionate, 9% revved up enough to go more than the crowd and 90% just trying to hold it down.

So my question: how do we make it easy for people without that passion to contribute in small, but meaningful ways? (The new “Like” buttons you’re seeing on GovLoop are one answer! 😉

Aldo Bello

Jenyfer, Jeff and Andrew…thanks for the love! @Jeff, glad I was able to turn you on to The Cluetrain Manifesto…those guys were really prescient. @Andrew…I agree with your assessment and think that if we let even a small number of committed individuals shine through via a “true” federal social media presence, then THAT would be a step in the right direction. And yes, I love the “like” buttons!

@Chris, right on, and the importance of “having a face” (or of NOT being “faceless”) is echoed by Dr. Mark Drapeau’s blog post Five Big Questions About Government Social Media in 2011.