j.j. toothman

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Middle management is ground zero for government’s digital divide

As I have mentioned in the past, the biggest hurdle to fulfilling the ambitions of Gov 2.0 and enabling government institutions with Open Government principles, has nothing to do with technology. Sadly, the biggest hurdles to achieving the promise of a new era of government enriched with technologies enabling access to and participation with government is completely about the existing culture of government.

There exists, without a shadow of a doubt, a massive “digital divide.”  Many organizations just assume ignore this fact of reality.  But it is undeniable.  It would be unfair to call this technology gap amongst the government populace as having age as its root cause. It is also unfair and would be, to be completely blunt about it, an egregious error to take a strategic tact at closing this technological gap by simply waiting for “generation Y” to emerge into positions of authority over the next couple of decades.  That approach is for the weak and unwilling.  People taking that approach are not the change agents we should have in place working to make things better.  Those people are not working.  They are waiting.  That approach is like watching your favorite baseball team in the playoffs and hoping the other team does something wrong so your team can win. 

Those of us in government who are rolling up our sleeves and drafting position papers, strategic plans, and trying out an abundance of tools and services in order to weld government with the social media practices almost all of us realize are, to put it most succinctly, one of the major mechanisms by which any of us will actually get in work done in the future, understand that workforce and organizational culture is the the biggest blocker to any utopian vision we have to overcome. 

Those of us who have accepted this simple truth also realize that we’re not doing enough to mitigate this problem.  As written by Publivate:

If there is a frustration, it is that I believe there are no or at least not enough actions aligning to the agreed upon problem of engaging culture blockers. Culture gets mentioned, everyone agrees, and then conversation turns to a technical or implementation discussion. We need to – arguably, have to – dig into the culture change deeper and on a regular basis. To not do this is robbing important momentum from public sector social media evolution.

There is no perfect tool or similar silver bullet that will correctly change culture.  There is a combination of elements that need to mix perfectly in order to make the culture change stew.  Actually, its not so much stew as it is a combination of ingredients to make a high-end gumbo.  And like any good gumbo, it needs constant stirring1 from the very beginning.  Constant stirring with no deviation from attention.  Almost like have a newborn baby around.

Most social media programs initiated within large enterprises (government institutions included) start from the bottom up. These grass roots, borderline guerilla tactics are typically initiated by social media believers full of energy, and most importantly, belief.  In fact, it is belief that these grass roots mavens have in abundance.  Digital natives (as Nick Skytland refers to them) are totally immersed in a social media existence.  Sharing so much text, imagery, and data about their lives is completely natural.  It is fair to say that they know no other way to be

So middle management exists as ground zero for the social media digital divide.  How can we approach ground zero?  What is the strategic plan to sway the middle management populace from social media skeptic to believer, adopter, and maven?   I argue that the digital natives are not best positioned to make such an approach.  Because they know no other way, they have a perspective that clouds their judgments and impacts their ability to strategically convert those mired in the middle.  Phrases such as “because social media is so cool” and “this is just how things are done now” have little to no weight with middle management.  Yet it can not be disputed that the energy is there if only because the craving to evolve the workplace is so intense. The digital natives are ready, yet uncoordinated.  The pockets of activity they engage in can easily be coordinated by first defining what the endgame is and pairing that goal with some mile markers to pass as they walk the entire organization towards Oz.

While digital natives may be the ones to do the heavy lifting, senior levels of organizational leadership need to help set the tone with enough participation to indicate validation of the cause.  It wouldn’t take much to be honest.  If one senior leader email to the troops per month were posted internally as a blog post instead of being sent to all@insertyourorganizationhere.gov with comments turned on, that would probably do it. And if one of those leaders invited everyone in his organization to connect with him/her on LinkedIn, that would further support the cause.

That’s pretty much what the digital natives need at this point.  Validation signs.  And a plan. Or an equivalent orchestrated guerilla tactics and coordinated underground efforts with tangible, measurable goals.  Approaching the middle from the top and the bottom will reduce the gap.

  1. any of you who have ever made homemade gumbo in the past know exactly what I’m talking about.  The key to good gumbo is a good roux.  And doing the roux right means stirring it constantly for the first 10 minutes of cooking time 

2010 Social Media for Government Conference in Chicago

I’ll be the first to admit that I had my expectations set at a fairly nominal level for Advanced Learning Institute’s latest Social Media for Government event in Chicago this past week.  But it was really a wonderful time.  The smaller size of the event (approximately 50 people) really gave me a chance to make some deep connections with most of the attendees.  Additional ALI did a great job of adding value by facilitating networking time by organizing lunch and dinner outings.  The location didn’t hurt either.  Being across the John Hancock Building, 2 blocks from Michigan Ave and 4 blocks from the lakefront provided easy access to social fun.  Hillary Hartley and I actually rented bikes, rode along the lake, onto the Riverwalk, into the Frank Gehry infused Millennial Park to soak in an evening of Indian music and dancing in the park. 


Regarding the conference content, there was some great presentations and case studies shared

The city of Geneva, Illinois shared a true participatory government example in explaining how a Facebook Fan Page for Geneva, Illinois started by a high school junior … on his own time … became adopted by the city and established as the official Facebook Fan Page for the city.  Truly inspiring stuff.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin shined light on a court ruling about how access to Facebook profile pages of a government official is not required.1 Essentially, that means that government officials with Facebook profiles can still choose who to connect with on Facebook.  And that means, that social media jerks can still be left on the outside. 

“Social scientists.”  A term used by John Ohab – the man behind Armed With Science – to describe the type of person that social media practicers are:  one part web-savvy technologist and one part communications expert.  I like that term and imagine myself making use of it in the future.

But many challenges and unanswered questions remain. Including the typical ones surrounding culture change (or lack of) to embrace these new tools.  While everyone in the room understood how the risks of social media tools are no different than the risks faced by organizations when introducing email and telephones into their operations, evidence of how to properly make that case so that stakeholders grasp the message remains an ongoing exercise of experimentation

In fact, I was stunned by the number of people – who were sent to this conference with the task and action item to develop tactical strategies of social media use in their organizations – face blockers in their workplace preventing them from using these tools.  That’s right.  Access to sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube is blocked at the firewall level.    Craaaaaazy.

My presentation was a case study of the Ames Spotlight blog project I worked on in 2007.  Within that case study, I discussed how open source solutions and community practices are tools in efforts of social media adoption within government institutions.  While my presentation wasn’t designed to stand on its own (its mostly a slideshow of photos) it is embedded below.


  1. I searched the interwebs for a link about this, but haven’t found one.  I’ll be following with the presenter to see if there is something on the web to point to. 

Speaking at the Social Media for Government Conference in Chicago this week

Probably should have mentioned this previously, but this week I’ll be speaking at the Social Media for Government Conference in Chicago.  I’ll be providing a case study on the WordPress blog I created for NASA Ames Research Center in 2007 (screenshot of that is below), including all the cultural, process, and legal barriers the team encountered along the way.1  But I’ll also be speaking about the value of open source community principles as a change agent within government agencies and bureaucracies – a topic I’ll be zeroing in on even more during a talk I’m giving next month at the GOSCON conference in Portland, Oregon.


Ames center.arc.nasa.gov blog screenshot built with WordPress

  1. This is a case study I’ve been wanting to share for a few years.  

The most accurate blog post on Gov 2.0 that I’ve read so far

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the past few weeks diving into the the online discussions regarding Gov 2.0, OpenGov, etc.  Basically, I’m playing catch up.  And I’ve found myself spiraling down some interesting worm holes.

But one of the best assessments of the Government 2.0 trend that I’ve read so far came from Aaron Brazell.  AKA Technolsailor.  Despite the fact that it was written in January 2009, I haven’t read anything else that truly captures how the Gov 2.0 trend is really going to play out.  I completely agree with Aaron’s notion that any external self described Gov 2.0 “expert” isn’t going to make much of an impact changing how government works.  I’m sure there will be an exception or two to that statement.  But you have to truly understand how government works in order to start making a difference in helping it evolve.  Here’s a key passage from Aaron’s post.

There is the elected government which changes every 4-8 years and sometimes longer (in the case of Congress and State legislatures). As well, there is an established government – career feds who are never fired, and rarely quit their jobs. They just move between agencies with established patterns and principles in tow. They are the foot soldiers who actually do the work. The established government is where the real change begins.

That’s exactly right and spoken like someone who has worked within government circles before.1 One of my major concerns with the Gov 2.0 and related trends is that the same evolution that took place in social media marketing circles will repeat itself. 

  1. which I believe Aaron has 

True Stories From Social Media

This tweet from Ryan Kuder reminded me that it’s time to tell a recent story of reconnecting and discovery.

It started back around March, probably.  I started following Chris Perkett (@missusP on Twitter). I’m not exactly 100% sure how it started, but it was probably due to a reply that Aaron Strout (who I had met at SXSW) tweeted her way about the Red Sox.  I’m pretty much a sucker for any kind Red Sox chatter, online or offline, so anyone talking Red Sox on Twitter is someone I’m going to start following. 

My virtual friendship with Chris evolved from there. Reading and commenting on a blog post or two that she wrote, a nice exchange about what Superman and/or Clark Kent would be tweeting if they were online, friending each other on Facebook…you know how it goes.  One day you’re exchanging tweets, a week later you’re sharing pictures of your kids with each other.

I’ve yet to ask Chris about how the next set of events were initiated.  Holding out because I’m traveling to Boston in September and hoping to hear the story in person at that time. But a couple weeks ago I received a Facebook new friend notification in my email inbox.  Turn out it was from Chris’s husband and it said:

Hi JJ, I see that you’ve connected with my wife and her PR firm…small world since we graduated from GHS together in ’89…hope all is well”

Yup, turns out @missusP is married to Rich Perkett, who I went to school with in Glastonbury, Connecticut and graduated from Glastonbury High School with in 1989.  It was that same year Rich and I got into a police chase while trying to perform some silly senior prank and only escaped Johnny Law by hiding motionless in the woods for about a half hour.  At least, that’s sort of how I remember the story. 

  Glastonbury HS, Glastonbury, CT

So yeah, small world huh?  OK, that’s just the first part of the story. 

Second part of the story starts with Rich’s Facebook profile and discovering that there’s a network setup for Glastonbury High School.  Who knew there was high school networks in Facebook? Certainly not me.  So I start navigating through the pages looking to connect with some forgotten friends only to see the name of another person who I recently met at SXSW. Who at the time, I had no idea I went to high school with.  Who just happened to graduate GHS in 1990, a year after Rich and I did.  The Queen of Twitter herself, Laura Fitton, aka Pistachio on Twitter is a fellow GHS graduate.  

Laura, I remember meeting you in Austin, but sorry…no idea if we crossed paths in Glastonbury.  Who knows?  Maybe we were in a class together.  Maybe we were on the same U.N. Club bus trip to New York City (that club was all about getting out of school for a day to go to NYC, right?).  Or maybe there was a boring Glastonbury Saturday night that we were all in the McDonald’s parking lot looking for stuff to do.  I know Rich and I spent more time than we would care to admit in that lot doing absolutely nothing.

We’re all starting to have similar stories of reconnecting.  As much as I’m enjoying making friends in far away places like Bucharest and Tokyo, the emergent possibilities of reconnecting with social media tools like Facebook and Twitter are equally, if not more, satisfying. 

It has me thinking of Rob Gordon in High Fidelity.  If Rob had Facebook and went to find the members of the “all-time, top-five most memorable breakups” group, he wouldn’t have to use the phonebook to find Charlie Nicholson.

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