While listening to a congressional hearing on Enhancing the Relevance of Space, a quote from Miles O’Brien (54:39 minutes in on the webcast) carried a powerful message to NASA and similar government agencies:
“How do we communicate how beneficial NASA has been to our society from a technological, from a national security perspective, and from an inspirational perspective?
And y’all talked about what Congress and the government can do, but one thing I find when I meet with constituent groups, we just had a group up here yesterday from all the NASA centers, some employees. And they all asked what can I do? What can I do to help you or to help make sure that the American public understands how important this is for our future?
Ms. Myers and Mr. O’Brien, I’d like to give you the first crack at that. What can we tell our constituents? What can they do to make a difference?”
“You know I think the irony is that 40 years after the launch of Apollo 11 NASA suffers from a bit of timidity when it comes to unleashing the message. Now they have a natural legion of foot soldiers, evangelizers. Everyone I meet who is involved in space is deeply passionate about what they do; love what they do. They are committed to their jobs in ways most people are not. And unfortunately if they attempt to blog about it or tweet about it they get shut down. This happens all the time because the concern is that they’ll be off message.
It’s important to empower the agency and thus its foot soldiers to know that they can — they can be a part of this. If — if a flight controller wants to tweet and let her social network in on what’s going on inside mission control, assuming we’re not you know in some sort of mission critical situation that would cause danger to somebody, why not empower her to do that? But instead the message is you can’t.
So I think what Congress can do is to the extent they can streamline the rules for NASA and make it easier for them to do marketing, but also to the extent that they can avoid the tendency to get on the phone every time something comes across the bow that might — might offend somebody in somebody’s constituency. Because what that does is it cows the agency. And they need to be empowered too because if you unleashed the power of that workforce and allowed them to spread the word we could just stand by and watch them win the country over.”
Relearn the phrase “don’t burn bridges”
The quote above comes at a time where I still to this day receive emails from people inside NASA who tell me about how they were forced to shut down their personal blog for fear of being fired. Even worse, I still receive stories about people being forced by their managers to unblock people who are harassing them from their *personal* social networking accounts. The social web is a bridge between personal and professional lives and should be respected as such. Learning how to navigate this isn’t easy. Scrambling to put together a “digital policy” for employees might sound like the right solution, however, digital policies are equally dangerous due to their inability to evolve as the digital environment does. Starting off with general guidelines like “play nice” that encourage the use of social networks and respect privacy is a better first step.
Eliminate “the public”
The mindset of people in government is deeply rooted in using the term “the public” when referring to anyone who doesn’t also work in government. Not only does this term massively inhibit their ability to communicate effectively and connect with anyone, but it also frames their view for using the social web – something that “the public” uses and thus they should use as an extension of their job (instead of having a personal AND professional interest in it). This is a hard term to tackle, as I started saying it shortly after joining NASA as well. I recommend stepping down from using the term by saying things like “people will be able to better access this” or “this program allows people to get involved with XYZ”.
We need a “Freedom of Information, Except for Jerks” Act
The title of this section was joked about while conversing about this issue over dinner. The government has no standards or process in place for blocking abusive, harassing and/or all-around trolling people (see Tantek’s Troll Taxonomy). In fact, the government is so terrified of being called out for denying conversational access to someone, that they often pander to the poisonous person over protecting their own employees. As a result, “super villains” are created to feed off of the fear culture – a term Heather Champ, the community manager at Flickr, uses to describe someone who keeps coming back to haunt you forever. As Heather stated in a talk about Shepherding Passionate Users, “Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions and take actions that won’t be appreciated”.
Recommended listening for everyone: How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People.