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.)
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