Laws and Design

In a recent tweet, a senator shared with the nation a new bill being proposed to help regulate and control those that exploit the medical system. But the response from many Americans was very negative – not because they dislike this person based on political party but rather, because it appeared the person hadn’t done their homework about how the bill would affect multiple communities. In other words, this bill would help solve one issue and simultaneously create another.

For all the resources our congress has and in spite of most of them being there to help, rather than harm, Americans – how does this happen?

My experience on the Hill may shed some light. As an executive branch employee, I was amazed by how difficult it was to get information to/from Americans and Congress. When we had the opportunity to attend discussions with lawmakers, we quickly learned that they weren’t very interested in what anyone was creating/building/developing for Americans – what they cared about were dollars and cents…and particularly, how that money was being spent in their districts. Government programs were literally showing maps of the U.S. to highlight where dollars were being expended and then I watched as lawmakers gravitated to only those programs in their districts. I learned many, many lessons through these observations.

A second lesson was learned when talking with staffers – these are the people that help the congress people do, basically, everything. When asked how they decide to write a bill or vote on a bill, the overwhelming answer was: we google for information, we ask around our staff (who was generally an average reported age of about 25), and we try to determine the number of people in our district that will be happy or unhappy about the vote. When asked why they don’t ask the executive branch’s expert in the areas in which they vote – they said they don’t have access and wouldn’t know who to ask.

The punchline here is this: When Congress approves a budget, the executive branch spends the money to either a) provide services to/on behalf of Americans or b) investigate (research/innovate/problem solve) solutions….yet almost none of this information circulates back to Congress to ultimately improve national decision making.


*Photo by Helloquence Hey Beauti Magazine on Unsplash

Where’s the power?

I just finished a tour in the executive branch of
the U.S. Government and one of the questions I really wanted to better
understand is: where is power centralized? We all assume it’s within the
congress, the president, vice president, and cabinet. But in total, there are
only 552 people in that group. However, across, the executive branch, there are
2.4 million workers.

We don’t hear from these people and they don’t hear from us or even from congress.

Indeed, in order to get or send information from/to congress, executive branch workers must send information through legislative affairs. Imagine you are one of these workers and you are congressionally mandated to “create a sports program” (just an example). Which sport will you choose? What age group? How many teams will you set up? How will you hold tryouts? Will you even have tryouts? What plan do you have for the people who don’t make the team but feel they were supposed to? You can’t have access to an attorney very easily and it’s not in your mandate but still, what if someone sues because they didn’t make the team? How do you make the tryouts fair? Transparent? Account for all special needs and accommodations? What if you don’t know anything about sports? Or about injuries? Or about legal issues? Or about accommodations?

When you can’t share information, ask questions, or
even work with others who have expertise you need – you are left to guess, do
your best, and hope you keep your job. The wisest course of action is to not
get noticed in these situations because if your teams make the news, you’ll get
no reward – congress will. If your teams make the news with problems, you’ll
lose your job.

When we put our government workers in a vice, the system itself, by design, handicaps brilliance.

We need to reconsider the talent support we give our government workers and hold our elected officials responsible for ensuring that the management of the executive branch is a meaningful part of the presidential discussions. If we don’t address these issues, the power of change will be lost in the design of the system and we will forever be scratching our heads about why the government isn’t meeting our needs as we would hope.

Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr and Florian Hahn on Unsplash

System Change

One of the greatest mistakes we all make when we are young is to believe that our great idea is either a) totally brand new and/or b) that everyone is as excited about it as we are. It’s not surprising because we spend our early years oftentimes being praised whether it be at home or in school. Alternatively, those not being praised, must expend enormous amounts of personal energy to get the inertia needed to leave an oppressed environment. But those that do, will likely believe the former fallacies as well because they’ve proven to themselves that even without help, they can compete at the top.

And then we move into adulthood – we go to college or get a job, we move away, we get hit, hard, with the realities. Not everyone is excited for you. Not everyone wants to hear what you have to say. Not everyone believes in you. Not everyone even wants you to win – especially if your success somehow diminishes theirs. The real world can be much tougher than we are led to believe as children, regardless of background.

So what are some key lessons I’ve learned working in one of the most entrenched systems we have in this nation: The federal government?

First, listen. I can’t foot stomp this enough. If you don’t know what people want, how in the world are you going to convince them that your idea is something of interest to them? In military, we say WIIFM: What’s in it for me? No one can answer this question without first listening to the very people to whom you want to send your message.

Two, make the pathway to yes/agreement easy, clear, and beneficial to them. It is easy in any system but especially in one where we feel passionate, such as helping our children or protecting our nation, to feel the compulsion to defend and explain why our ideas are the best ideas. It is easy to fall into the trap of excitement and share all the details. Rarely does anyone want to hear them all – not because they aren’t excited for you or supportive of your idea but they have ideas and tasking of their own. It is presumptive to assume or suggest that your work is more important than theirs. Rarely is it the case that this is what we mean but nonetheless, this is where we accidentally, but commonly, misstep being lost in our own enthusiasm. Stay focused on gaining buy-in through collaboration over explanation.

Three, name your target but don’t create a rigid pathway to get there. Be open to others’ ideas for how to achieve the same goal. You might find they add substantially to either the quality or completion of the goal.

Always remember, when people are part of creating the solutions, they become your champions – but when they are the recipient of your plan, they become your critics.


Federal workers: America’s Unsung Heroes

I just finished my last days as a federal government employee – wow, what an experience! Inspired by the 2016 election, I wanted to better understand why we’ve become so messy, so angry, so unable to understand what our government is doing…

I’ve worked on government contracts and grants for years supporting our amazing military, answering the hard questions in education, and working with teams of scientists to tackle a wide variety of issues but this past election was so intense, it drove me to do something different. So I quit my job, walked straight into government, and started asking the hard questions.

But when I applied for a human innovation fellowship, I had little idea of what I would experience. I was asked in my interview to come into government, observe patterns of behavior, and make recommendations about how, from a human-perspective, we could re-design the executive branch. To say that it was a daunting concept to try to imagine would be a significant understatement. But also, to assume that one person could have all the ideas needed or even just new ideas that haven’t already been tried, would be equally unwise. As such, I spent a significant portion of my first year in this branch simply observing – just as I was asked to do.

My first observations, on my very first day, were of a group of people that conducted the on-boarding trainings I had to attend. These were some of the most enthusiastic, dedicated employees I had ever met. They exuded what I had hoped, but held little to no faith, existed across the rest of the government. One man in particular stuck out. He was the person in charge of ensuring the building was, and remained, vermin free so that we could be enabled to do our job. This man, who came into our meeting almost at a run and with a smile that lit up the room, literally offered us his cell number to call him any time of day or night, to ensure we had the best work space available to us at all times so we could serve America. All I could think was, whomever hired this guy was a genius! Even in a tie he’s offering to hunt vermin!

As my journey progressed, I met people at the lowest ranks who made sure my medical paperwork was signed and personally expedited if needed and other individuals at mid-ranks so eager to talk and share their work that it was almost impossible to end conversations because their enthusiasm to serve was so heartfelt. I traveled the world and met delegates from other nations who gave me insights and viewpoints from their own cultures and so many Generals and Admirals that wholly supported multi-national defense efforts. I met bright-eyed young people ready to shape the future and yes, I learned that rules and regulations – and many, many attorneys – exist among the ranks. But I can honestly say that I was not only surprised and impressed by these workers at every level, across every department, I was truly blown-away by the dedication to work, to serve, and to help others they displayed.

Simply put, I was inspired.

Innovation isn’t about re-inventing the wheel, it’s about simply connecting the dots and in that vein, I learned that our federal government is made up of over 4 million dedicated Americans willing, able, and enthusiastic about serving our nation, our people.

It has been my honor to serve among these unsung American heroes – I hope my experiences gives you hope and faith that while we may only see the arguments of our politicians on TV, there is an enormous force of individuals who are working hard for all of us, every single day.