Did You Get The Memo?


When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a May 2012 contract solicitation seeking a magician to appear at an education and training conference, some thought officials must be asleep at the wheel.

The notice came just a month after the General Services Administration was rocked by reports of lavish spending on a 2010 conference in Las Vegas that included a mind reader and other entertainment. It came 11 months after President Obama issued an executive order launching his Cabinet-level Campaign to Cut Waste. It seemed that certain civil servants at NOAA had proverbially failed to “get the memo.”

Within hours of the inevitable news reports, the magician hiring was canceled.

In an era when digital communications are instant and omnipresent, the government’s approach to getting those memos out appears to need fine-tuning.

Nearly half of federal managers are “not at all familiar” with the Campaign to Cut Waste, according to an August survey by Government Executive’s Government Business Council. Most managers typically hear about new directives through the news media, the survey found, but more than half of the 500-plus online respondents said their colleagues are “rarely or never” well-informed about current events. About a quarter of respondents never hear of presidential directives, and only about a third said their agency monitors compliance with executive orders.

These new results echo the Office of Personnel Management’s 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, in which only 48 percent of respondents reported they were satisfied with the information they receive from management
about what’s happening in their organization. In similar private sector surveys, 65 percent were satisfied.

Chief responsibility for getting administration directives out to the federal rank and file begins with the Office of Management and Budget. “OMB provides policy guidance to agency leadership, and it is agency leadership’s responsibility to implement policy,” says an OMB spokeswoman. “Since each agency has a different mission and structure, implementation considerations necessarily vary.”

OMB reinforces best practices and collaborative tools through the chief executive councils—the Chief Information Officers Council, Chief Financial Officers Council, Performance Improvement Council, Chief Human Capital Officers Council and Chief Acquisition Officers Council—which meet regularly.

OMB also reaches out through private sector sites. When Obama issued an executive order May 9 on making federal data more accessible, for example, OMB the same day issued details. A Project Open Data notice was published on GitHub, a website favored by industry computer code writers, along with background for agencies on Data.gov.

The Office of Personnel Management also has a pivotal role in getting the word out. Because chief human capital officers are responsible for distributing memos inside their agencies, OPM posts memos on the CHCO Council website, which also offers automatic alerts. OPM also sends memos to the heads of all agencies and conducts monthly briefings to reiterate guidance.

To relay the directives down the hierarchy, many executives recast the message and its implications in their own memos or emails. A January email from Kathleen Hicks, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy, to “policy colleagues” said: “You have no doubt read the recent media articles on possible furloughs for DoD civilians. Dr. Miller and I understand that the lack of official information to date has been frustrating in this unprecedented time of fiscal uncertainty for DoD. We have shared with you the last formal guidance provided, which was the deputy secretary’s memo on planning for sequestration (see my January 11 email), and we have been told not to speculate beyond that.”

At NOAA, the route of communication varies by the type of directive, according to Deputy Communications Director Scott Smullen.  “A purely financial document that was directed
at financial advisers, such as CFOs, budget directors and NOAA leadership, would be distributed through the CFO Council and in direct correspondence to NOAA leadership,” he says. Personnel actions are distributed to the director of workforce management, NOAA leaders, and then to all hiring managers. 

“We also discuss them in our leadership forums such as our weekly CFO council meetings, and our weekly meetings with senior leadership throughout NOAA’s line offices,” Smullen adds.

There is no shortage of private sector specialists with ideas to improve federal workplace communication. Federal employees “are multidisciplinary, from many different backgrounds, and many of them have different intents and motivations, with all supporting a similar mission but doing it in a different way,” says psychologist Andrew Ritcheson, a senior clinical consultant and program manager at Andover, Mass.-based DRC, whose clients include the Military Health System. “Even getting information out there that’s strictly informational—such as ‘the facility will be closed tomorrow’—is hard. But trying to change an attitude or behavior or support a cultural change presents a whole different kind
of  communication problem.”

Ritcheson says “a common failure is leaders whose responsibility is to craft a message and disseminate it effectively who instead outsource that function, taking a distant and removed approach.” A key second stop in basic communication is often missed, he says, adding that “they do not query whether the communication was received and acted upon.”

Technology is a big help, but it’s only part of the solution, according to Joe Herres, executive vice president of parts and services at Manassas, Va.-based H3 Solutions. “A big missing piece within government is that it usually takes a
technology-first approach rather than saying this is the particular thing we need to achieve,” he says.

One way of getting information out faster is through “bring your own device” policies, Herres says. Many people with a government-issued BlackBerry and their own cellphone “at the end of the day will put the government device on their dresser and carry around the personal one,” he says. If an official communication ends up on the device an employee “takes to a movie or uses on the weekend,” he adds, that employee is “more likely to forward it or take action.”

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