Leveraging the power of citizen engagement to dramatically improve customer service, agency focus and cost efficiency.
Is Anyone Listening?
November 9, 2010 at 5:31 pm #114760
The frustration of American voters is that no one is listening. When opinions are solicited, the tool being used is so restricted by its construct that people’s thoughts and feelings are not captured. In order to engage people, you need to use open-ended tools. I am thinking now more of commercial than government tools and would need to look at more govenment sites to consider how they measure up in terms of openness of expression.
Facebook has become a widely used mechanism. Why? Why do people engage in Facebook? They want to talk about what is important to them. How can government encourage Americans to share what is most important to them?
I am retired from the US Department of State. In the context of that department’s work, perhaps people would like a site to share experiences from their trips, give advice to other travelers, say why they think our relationship with a specfic country is good or bad and how we could improve it, etc., engage in communications with people from other countries about what we have in common, etc.
November 9, 2010 at 7:46 pm #114768
I am so glad that you have framed the issue of “Citizen Engagement” as fundamentally being one of good “listening”. (And, if I have misunderstood that, then please let me know.)
Whether it’s a personal relationship, or an economic one, or a government/citizen one, the best ones are those where people have the sense that, even if aren’t completely satisfied with the results, at least their concerns were being understood and, as such, appreciated and valued by others.
Conversely, there is nothing more frustrating than having someone who says that they are really interested in what you have to say, and then, show you by their subsequent actions, that he/she were just pretending to understand you.
Ironically, the White House’s formal effort to do a better job of engaging more citizens, and listening to their ideas and feedback about how to improve their government (i.e., the Open Government Initiative) has a lack of any powerful examples of how federal employees can be better listeners to the people “out there”. (Being a “rock-star” at a “Gov 2.0” conference might be “awesome”, but is not culture-changing.)
One exercise that could have been a powerful example of listening (but ended up as an example of “pretending to listen”) was the White House’s “Open Government Dialogue”, an online experiment in May/June 2009 for citizens to collaborate about how to improve public engagement. Five months later, without even offering a draft for public feedback (i.e., “Is this what you said?”), the White House issued the final Open Government Directive.
Why were most of the Top-10 ideas generated by citizens not included in the final document? Was anyone at the White House even listening? Was this all just an exercise in “pretending to listen”? It would have been easy to explain the exclusion of Obama’s birth-certificate, but what the other ideas, like making it safe for the honest and innovative federal employees who suggest ways to cut waste? Why was that dropped? We don’t know.
By failing to explain the gaping lack of linkage between their alleged “listening” and the final product, the authors of the Open Government Directive unconsciously, ironically, and clearly flagged themselves as models of the very type of behavior (i.e., poor listening) that they are supposedly trying to discourage in others within the federal bureaucracy!! (Another great example of the “Do-as-I-Say, Not-as-I-Do” method of mis-Leadership.)
Am I a perfect listener? No, I am not. Sometimes, when listening to my wife, if I use too many “uh-huhs”, she challenges me by saying “Okay, what did I just say to you?” As I get older, she is catching me less often, so I think that I am actually getting better at this “listening” stuff.
Here’s one Lesson to Younger People: Before we got married, 30 years ago, the minister counseled us to “communicate, communicate, comunicate”. He was absolutely right. But the easy part of that is the Talking, the hard part is to “Listen, Listen, Listen”. It will save you, and everyone else, a whole lot of frustration.
However, the culture in Washington, D.C. is, like most “headquarters-thinking”, simply not used to listening the “little people”. One does not simply will him/herself to be a better listener .. or issue a directive telling others to do so. It takes practice … and the Humility to admit that you don’t know .. or that might not have understood, as much as you think you do. But Humility does NOT come naturally to D.C. (although Obama showed a little bit after the recent elections), so it has to be carefully cultured or, despite our sincerest wishes, it will not grow there. Hypocrisy will kill it.
So now, it appears, that the “Listener-in-Chief” and his helpers need to show that they understand that THEY need to be better listeners before they can inspire or direct others to be.
IMHO, Stephen Buckley
(Your thoughts appreciated.)
November 10, 2010 at 1:21 am #114766
Part of the reason that much of the populace is “not listening is that they are in information and cognitive overload. They are unability to keep up and process & integrate excessive information because:
– too much information (of various value) is availiable
– too much information demand from their work and relations
– constant multi-tasking with interruptions that strains memory and attention, and
– inadequate work and hone info infrastructure to help reduce the need for planning, monitoring, reminding,
reclassifying information, etc
November 10, 2010 at 5:38 pm #114764
Some good points in your message, Gary. The key to handling so much information and demands on time is to have our values and priorities straight. What counts the most in your life, in my life, in anyone’s life? Keeping focused on what counts is what gets important things done.
Remember, “It’s the economy stupid”? I am a guilty as anyone of wasting time, becoming inmeshed in others’ priorities for me and my time. Whenever I have been unsuccessful, it’s from lack of focus on my values and priorities.
For a leader, values and priorities, however, are not personal. They most be the values and priorities of those for whom you are responsible; as a politician, statesman, government employee, the values and priorities of those you serve.
There are times when I want to stop the world and get off. The spinning is dizzying. A breather is necessary for us all to reconsider and refocus. Are we doing what really matters or are we filling our agendas with things we think we “should” do not the things we know we “must” do?
Hope a number of us keep discussing this topic and finding ways of engaging citizens in our government, with all its faults, still the best one on the planet.
November 10, 2010 at 5:38 pm #114762
Thanks for your response. You got it, friend, listening is the key.
Have you watched Secretary Clinton, former NY Senator Clinton? I have been amazed at what she has done. When she first campaigned, I noted her success in upstate NY, where I grew up. Upstate is a predominately Republican area. I would have thought that NY City would have been her stronghold but it was upstate that gave her her first and continuing success. Why? Because she listened. She characterized her trips as listening trips and she did listen and incorporate people’s wants and needs into her campaign and her policy initiatives. When she became the Secretary of State, she did the same thing. She listened. She asked questions. She incorporated people’s suggestions, ideas and feedback into her work. Morale at State is excellent. She is also respected by her colleagues in the Department of Defense and by world leaders. No small feats these.
What does her behavior tell people? I respect you. I am here to serve you. Who else can show the kind of turn around she has made from a vehemently maligned and unsuccessful health policy initiator to a successful Senator and Department Secretary? Some lessons to learn here.
I think that it is also easier to negotiate if you are a good listener. If you make the zero sum game your technique instead of WIN/WIN, everyone comes away from the table with something and is ready to re-engage on other issues. When you really listen, you find out what is important to the other party. You can signal what items you are willing to modify. You reach a point where you can really negotiate. Give and take is the basis of true democracy.
Winning in politics, if it precludes winning as a nation and as a responsible party in world governance, is only a short-term strategy. Unfortunately for Americans, short-term strategies have taken over the business and political worlds and led us into our current unhappy situation. Pursuing goals without noting their unintended consequences buys trouble. Eventually credibility is weakened and support is withdrawn.
I enjoyed your remarks especially those about your wife and your minister. It is the parts of our every day life that teach us the big lessons. I have to say that I have learned a lot from my children, from teaching and from being a manager. Often the feedback which stung the most is what I learned the most from.
Stay in touch. Building groups of like-minded people is the surest way of making lasting change.
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