Openness, closure, orthodoxy, stereotypes–part one

In his blog essay on the Unconference, Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke observes, “It sticks in my craw when a move to openness becomes an occasion for a new closure.”  He adds, “Moves intended to criticize the rigidity and hierarchy of some other form of group or collaboration sometimes harden quickly into their own form of exclusionary orthodoxy, their own fetishized manners.”  I like what he says.  I’m using it as a setup for a couple of posts about stereotypes, calcification, and communications.

Exclusion and closure can stem from many elements, not just in-group behavior of the type on which Burke touches.  This is why it is critically important to think through choices in communications to see if they actually align with the needs of the audience.   It is hard to parachute in and advise an organization on messaging and collaboration.  Your first job is to get internal stakeholders to trust you and to tell you what you need to know.  It takes time to form bonds of trust–that is, assuming they develop.  Yet you can’t put your duties as a consultant or official charged with guiding communications on hold until you get up to speed!  

Good communications depend on contextual sophistication.  But it isn’t easy to acknowledge that subordinates may know specific information that you do not. Ego can get in the way.  Not so with the Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero.  I saw his vibe in the way he laughingly pointed to Karl Weissenbach, director of the NARA Eisenhower Presidential Library, during a forum last October.   I liked seeing that.  David seemed perfectly willing to share the spotlight, and then some!  He didn’t have the quote a panelist asked for in his own notes so he turned to Karl.  Many senior officials would just roll along and ignore the question that came up.  David?  All about getting the information out there.

Why is sophistication so important for those tasked with handling communications issues?  You have to think at the outset, who will participate and are we overlooking some who can’t or won’t?  To make fine distinctions among those providing input, data, or opinions. 

What inhibits that?  Any number of things.  Unfamiliarity with the group being targeted. Or just taking the easy way out: imitating instead of innovating.  The desire to jump on the bandwagon, to do what is popular.   The unorthodox can very quickly morph into the orthodox.  This is a potential problem in many change initiatives.  Something becomes cool and everyone decides it’s the only way to go.  It becomes fetishized or, more cynically, viewed as the way to curry favor with the powers that be.  Whatever the motivation, the outcome is the same:  calcified thinking even within a culture that strives to reward innovation, flexibility, and adaptation.

Candid, honest conversations about choices have to occur up front before you roll out an initiative. It’s easy for observers to lose faith, to stop clicking on your links, to miss out on follow-up, to stop checking back to see if there are improvements or course corrections.  (I recognize that I’m doing that right now in one area I should be watching closely.  I have to fight against it!) 

Not everyone is going to have the patience and curiosity to stay the course, to keep reading or listening, to adjust their impressions.  First impressions do matter!  I’ve been in Fedland long enough to know that once a critical mass among an audience decides “He or she hears but doesn’t listen,” it’s awfully hard to regain their trust.   Sometimes loss of faith is justified.  Sometimes not. 

Templates don’t work at agencies such as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) because what executives seek to reform and the reasons why change is needed differ greatly among functional units.  I really like the vibe in Don McIlwain’s post about the awarding of the Jeanne Schauble Memorial Award to Ed Cachine at the blog of the National Declassification Center (NDC) .  The dedication, humility, awareness of importance of mission, the recognition that there is pressure to deviate which must be withstood.  All this from a unit that deals with national security classified records in an age where we’re surrounded by chants of “information wants to be free!”  But the NDC has a more sophisticated take on things, which is expressed beautifully in its motto:  “Releasing what we can, protecting what we must.”  

Because of the need to streamline and improve the declassification procedures, the NDC went through its transformation process before the rest of NARA did.  It’s one I’ve followed with interest because my late sister Eva once worked there as a supervisory archivist and team leader.  And because so many of its supervisors and managers are my friends, as is Executive for Agency Services Jay Bosanko. 

I focus on the National Archives but also on some larger issues here at my little niche blog.  I have to work to keep in mind that not everyone has the deep network of friends I do at NARA.   Not only that, but it is obvious that I became a strong supporter of David Ferriero, after his outreach to me last year.   I want the National Archives to succeed in as many initiatives as possible.  That explains why I sometimes nudge it to change course from my perch at Nixonara.

It can be difficult to explain a vibe to those who haven’t observed it personally.  So I use a lot of photos at my blog, from NARA’s past and present.  I try to humanize not only myself, because I was subject to stereotyping by the Nixon side for my work with the White House tapes, but the many federal officials I count as my friends.  Some of the issues I’m interested in are challenging to explain.  Some I handle better than others. If I struggle sometimes, it’s no wonder that people at NARA vary greatly in how effectively they communicate, as well.

You see Jay below with Jeanne Schauble in 1998.     The last two photos show some of the NDC officials and bloggers in 1999.  Don McIlwain, Neil Carmichael, A. J. Daverede, David Mengel.  You can spot Joe Scanlon, presently the NARA Freedom of Information Act & Privacy Officer, standing along the wall, in one photo, as well.  


My blog doesn’t have a wide reach, although I’m gratified that so many people inside and outside the National Archives do read it.  Sometimes I put photos up here as a means of sharing them with NARA peeps!   It’s a way of keeping high-ranking officials from seeming remote.  And the feedback I get suggests that younger staff enjoy seeing what their bosses looked like when they were their age.  In an agency where the Big Dude himself started out as a library shelver at MIT, I like to show what people looked like and how they interacted when they were archives technicians or young archivists and archives specialists. 

Eva’s friends were pretty patient about being photographed by her as they were eating and drinking at parties. But I understand why sometimes, as Jay and Joe both did on occasion, they raised a glass or fork and held it deliberately in front of their faces when she aimed her camera their way!  Can’t say I blame them.  But there’s a nice vibe captured in photos of such actions, too, come to think of it.  Pictures do speak louder than words sometimes.  So do reactions to them!  I’m still laughing at how David Ferriero reacted when I showed him the photo below last year, ha.  Yeah, that’s his future Executive for Agency Services on the left in 1998, holding a glass up to his face. 

It’s not easy to blog from Fedland.  But there are so many topics that need fine brushwork rather than broad strokes.  I saw that last year when I read Steve Aftergood write in Secrecy News about an issue related to NDC.   That led me to think about why people sometimes use stereotypes.  I’ll take that up in my next post.  Nuance matters, matters a lot!  I was reminded of that, when I read this broad brush article about what is shaping up to be a must-read book about Watergate, Leak by Max Holland.  Stay tuned for more thoughts on communications, calcification, stereotypes, and emancipation!

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