Posted on Aug 14, 2009 | 10 Comments

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?”

[Myers answers]

“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.


  1. Ed Gutman
    August 14, 2009

    This was something that always bothered me working with NASA. Communication amongst teams was practically non-existent, and even when they did, it was generally slow. A lot of: the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. If that’s a problem internally, what more in communicating messages and ideas to the public?

  2. Andrew Hoppin
    August 14, 2009

    3 good points Ariel. Not applicable to all Gov’t though– at the New York State Senate (where I’m CIO), staff and Senators are, by and large, embracing opening up through social media, “constituents” are by and large valued and listened to in social media, and, we developed a content policy that is the basis for limited moderation (e.g.: no use of personal invective) of constituent content contributions on NYSenate social media sites. I’ve been impressed by the willingness of staff & Senators to change.

  3. Ariel Waldman
    August 14, 2009

    @Andrew – I completely agree. That’s admittedly part of my frustration about all of this – that it’s spotty depending on who your manager is. Some people in NASA don’t have these issues at all, while others do. Someone with authority in all government agencies needs to take a stand to insist on a close-to-consistent experience.

  4. CityTrader
    August 14, 2009

    As Much as I’d hoped the Obama administration would usher in Gov 2.0, I’m afraid I have to agree with these points. We’re just not ready yet. Maybe things will get there in time for the launch of Obama administration 2.0?

  5. Links: 14 August 2009
    August 15, 2009

    […] 3 points on why government isn’t ready for 2.0 yet. [Ariel Waldman] […]

  6. Celeste Merryman
    August 16, 2009

    Thought provoking post. I think also that this is one area that has complex solutions. I worked for NASA for nine years. At the end of my years, worked on projects related to knowledge sharing and employee networking.

    I think Andrew Hoppin brought up an interesting example too that made me think–why can’t NASA be like other government agencies?

    I do think that NASA employees should be able to share their personal experiences about work. But they need to understand the difference between sharing confidential/ITAR/ like information that can be used in harmful ways by “mean” people. Gen Yers in the workforce have a completely different approach to sharing, a lower bar and openness that older generations who did not did not grow up on the Internet have. I think that is where some of the clash is occurring.

    I not sure I put my figure on it yet. However, I am thinking that state, senate, and mayoral offices are elected offices and need to be connected to the people. I think it is expected that “their” people have direct access to what is going on.

    NASA’s mission includes engineering and technology that can and has been used in the US military which makes SOME of the information sensitive. Since NASA employees do the work, they have access to this information, and unless they have a really good filter, they could share the WRONG information with the public. In fact, I think there was an incident recently of a NASA employee sharing and selling ITAR information online. Don’t quote me.

    But, there are so many people that work for NASA that don’t do those kinds of jobs, that work in support roles who just want to share what it is like to work for a really cool organization that is out of this world. There is a sweet spot for sharing that NASA has not yet found.

  7. REMarkify! | Hacking Space With Ariel Waldman
    August 20, 2009

    […] Navigating the social web as a bridge between personal and professional and not shutting down personal blogs or seeing the use of social web tools akin to playing Solitaire. This applies more to NASA, as it’s a wide-spread government issue that I recently discussed here. […]

  8. Lisa Ballard
    October 15, 2009

    This is an appalling invasion of privacy: “people being forced by their managers to unblock people who are harassing them from their *personal* social networking accounts” No employer should get away with interfering or mandating what workers do lawfully in their spare time, including how they set their personal social media privacy controls. We wouldn’t allow an employer to mandate that the CEO could stop by any time and inspect your car or house or read your diary. A worker’s freedom to pursue social media experience in their spare time should be out of an employer’s jurisdiction. NASA should take a stand that they will not attempt to interfere with an employee’s right to use social media in their free time as they see fit. Obviously some managers are sorely in need of guidance on this issue. They can do this even without tackling the perhaps more complex issue of social media use while at work.

  9. Paul Weaver
    October 31, 2009

    @Ariel @Andrew Hoppin I can now see why the NASA CoLab project failed to really get off the ground and we lost you both from CoLab. As a Volunteer in NASA CoLab in Second Life (the virtual world part of the physical NASA CoLab based at Ames) from England I always felt that communication with the public from NASA was at the least strained. Now I begin to understand why this was so, it wasn’t people didn’t want to communicate its that the iron fist of the country known as ‘the land of the free’ was controlling them. Its a shame that the powers that be within NASA have not understood how to properly use Social Networking as there were so many people wishing to work with them. Much of the work that they offered would have been done free of charge as they also believe in NASA’s aims.

  10. Jon Verville
    March 14, 2010


    I’m excited to see the podcast from your talk at SXSWi. I just watched the Google talk about poisionous people. Incredible! It was definately an awesome talk. I work at NASA Goddard just outside of the DC beltway on an engineering wiki. If you are ever in town visiting schingler or jessykate, let me know, I’d love to meet you!