Knowledge gaps, limitations, and (yikes) failure!

Yesterday morning, I wrote about my initial failure to grasp  the ramifications of some of what AOTUS David S. Ferriero wrote about in “No Small Change,” his first blog post on April 7, 2010.  Some of what he described, such as the need to confront and handle properly the management of electronic federal records, was obvious to me as a historian.   (Getting a handle on that is incredibly challenging and much more complicated than most people in the private sector know, at least judging by the listservs and blogs I follow.  This approach by NARA won’t do it.)   I knew enough about the culture of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at which I once worked to applaud his call for change.

However, my later Fedland acculturation and limited information sources blinded me at first as to Ferriero’s intent in using the term “Citizen Archivist.”  Accepting that I could be wrong, opening up my field of vision, and getting to know David and how he rolls, has helped me better understand his vision.  To get it, I had to step back but also to step closer.  I owned up to my mistake here yesterday.   (Added:  I don’t mind admitting error, seriously or lightheartedly; I did so again in a post on Friday about a visit to NARA on February 16.)

My comment at AOTUS blog was pretty long.  (I’m glad I have my own blog nowadays!)   I focused on something I’ve long been interested in:  how the environment and culture in which people work affects outcomes.  There is much to be learned from studying best practices but private sector templates can’t always be applied directly in the public sector.   I’ll return to my comment in a moment, in order to contrast it to something @digiphile tweeted about yesterday.  I need to explain why more so than most archival bloggers I examine and discuss issues such as mistakes, failure, and course correction.

Because of the trashing my generation of archivists once took, I’m especially interested in why “Washington” sometimes falters where it should stand strong.  And how people handle tactical mistakes and errors in judgment of the type that surrounded Stanley Kutler’s lawsuit against NARA.  The consensus view by those in the know is that my generation of archivists was doomed after  Bob Woodward studied fragmentary information publicly disclosed by NARA to write an article in 1988 about Jew counting at the Bureau of Labor of Statistics.

Fred Malek lost out on the chairmanship vice chairmanship of the Republican National Committee after Woodward wrote about his Nixon era actions. And that was it for Bush-era attempts to open “abuse of governmental power” information my colleagues and I had marked for disclosure from the secret Nixon tapes.  The NARA Nixon Presidential Materials Project essentially shut down for several years.

The December 14, 1992 article in The New Yorker by Seymour Hersh which included public defamation of my boss (Fred Graboske) and his team finally is available online.  If you choose to click through to it, you need to also read my critique of some of the assertions about Richard Nixon.  Some of what Hersh implies would have been recorded on the then secret tapes should be taken with a grain of salt!

This morning when I looked through my evening feed on Twitter, I saw that @digiphile tweeted this yesterday:  “you need to be able to disrupt the status quo by making sure…you have a culture that celebrates failure”- @VivekKundra http://j.mp/xSxJ4i

I’ve long wondered, can you establish that in Washington?  Would Kundra address the barriers to creating a culture that embraces failure and how to overcome them?  I read his comments at the link Alexander Howard provided but didn’t see what I was seeking–acknowledgement of Hidden Washington.  You have to handle Hidden Washington with care, it can be that dangerous.  But you also have to signal, obliquely and carefully, that there are elements that affect how government works that are not open to view.

I like the way Roy L. Ash, Nixon era Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, did that when we at NARA sat down to talk to him in 1988.  I like social media.  It enables me to have a voice I didn’t have in the past.  But insights such as Ash provided back in teh ’80s are what I’m missing now, as I study the social world.

“After leaving government, I went out and talked to business groups. . . . many of whom thought, and still think, ‘Why doesn’t the Government run like business?” . . . I said, ‘Imagine your board of directors comprising your customers, your suppliers, your employees, and your competitors. Now, how are you going to run your business?’

Ash explained that when he worked in private industry,  “my Litton experience was one of maintaining a highly entrepreneurial environment that was just one step short of anarchy.”

Litton, an organization with some 120,000 employees. had no formal organization chart, “deliberately,” Ash said.

“Organization charts tend to focus people’s attention on their territorial rights, not on their opportunities to range across the board, if they want to.” Yet he saw constraints other than hierarchies and territoriality in the public sector, as well. “In a pure venture capital environment, you know that up to half of your ideas are going to fail. But you know that the other half are going to more than make up for the half that failed, on a profit basis. Government doesn’t get that same credit for the half that fails versus the more than half that succeeds. The scorecard is different . . .I can point out a lot of my mistakes in business, but I also can point out how those were overwhelmed with some other successes.”

He added, “But I wouldn’t have been forgiven those mistakes, had I been in Government.”

In discussing how one taps the entrepreneurial spirit, Ash pointed out that executive departments actually vary in how “loose and open” they can be. “But risk taking is quite a different matter than in business. . . . In business, if you have a fragmented organization, you may make a mistake here, and you may experiment there, but you try to offset it even more by successes elsewhere. . . .The President’s public is not so forgiving.” According to Ash, this can lead to conservatism in the sense that it “means caution. It means initiatives not only well-thought through, but initiatives that you’ve fairly well tested, and believe the public will regard as positive, rather than negative. . . You can’t get too far ahead, I guess.”

The key word?  Competitors.  In the private sector, you don’t have your competitors on the board.  There may be people rooting against the success of your company and trying to engineer your failure or to counter your moves.  But they aren’t on your board.  In Washington, they are.

How much richer the social world would be, and more likely to achieve the larger successes many proponents of its use seek and deserve, if those with deep immersion in government, and historians who study it, could and would join the conversations!   I enjoy immersion in the world of communications 2.0.  But I wonder at times why people, especially those outside Fedland, seem skittish about acknowledging limitations, course corrections, even failure.  And most of all, to acknowledge that there are things they don’t know but are willing to consider, even learn.  Isn’t that how the physical world works, after all?  Why not the virtual, too?

This celebratory week for the social world may not be the best time for me to turn aside and look at limitations, the need to search for greater understanding, even of failure and its causes.  But then again, why should I look at the social world as something fragile and not really robust enough to consider what I discuss here?  So maybe it is just the time to do it!

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