Coffeeneuring #5: A Tale of Two Cycletracks

A Starbucks like every Starbucks in the world.
A Starbucks like every other Starbucks in the world.

Coffeeneuring 5: Starbucks
Date: November 3, 2014
Distance: Ten miles

Why do you go to Starbucks? You go because you know exactly what you’ll get. From the logo on the cups to the layout of the bathroom, a Starbucks in San Diego is just like a Starbucks in New York. You can travel across the breadth of this nation (and around the world) and you can count on Starbucks to deliver the same coffee experience, no matter the location. This ability to deliver uniformity is a uniquely American talent.

Why can’t our genius for standardization be applied to bike lanes?

The thought occurred to me as I was at a Starbucks. Combining coffeeneuring with errandonnee, I was on my way to the Apple store in Georgetown. After taking the 15th St Cycletrack and and the M Street Cycletrack, I stopped at Starbucks for coffee. I went there because I knew what I would get.

15th st Cycletrack
The well-designed 15th St Cycletrack, where bikes and cars are kept carefully apart.

But biking around DC, you never know what you’ll get. This city’s bike infrastructure is a wildly chaotic mess that changes by the day.

The DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) started out so well. The first cycletrack, on 15th Street, is perfectly designed. Bikes are protected from traffic by a line of parked cars. Lanes are marked, signage is good and it’s clear to everyone how the protected bike lane works, thanks to the efforts of reforming Mayor Fenty and DDOT Director Gabe Klein.

In contrast, the M Street Cycletrack was compromised from the start, by Mayor Gray, who sold out to the politically-connected Metropolitan AME Church. There would be no bike lane in front of the 1500 block of M Street, so that they could double-park cars all over street.

Careful!
This is insane. The M Street Cycletrack leads you into a spot to get broadsided by a car.

Heading west, it gets worse, as the cycletrack weaves in and out of bollards and parked cars. It leads you into traffic and cars merge into the track, blindly, as they attempt to turn right. This poor design has made it worse for cyclists and drivers. M Street before the cycletrack was safer.

Later in the week, as I returned to the Apple store, I discovered something even more dangerous than the M Street Cycletrack – the M Street Cycletrack at night. Navigating the serpentine cycletrack in the dark, as cars nip at your wheels is an experience only for the most daring of urban cyclists. Hope you have good health insurance.

 look out!
Cyclists go left, cars go right, everyone meets in the middle. Bad, dangerous design by DDOT.

Why can’t DC have cycletracks with the consistency of Starbucks? Why are they all chaotically different and hopelessly compromised? Why are they so poorly designed and so obviously unsafe?

This is a country that gave the world Apple and Google – we know and appreciate good design. We can create uniform cycletrack experiences, no matter the environment. And a good design already exists, on 15th Street. Take that template and apply it across the city. Give us safe cycletracks, DDOT.

Photographers Not Working as Photographers

I don’t like fall. To me, it means shorter days and colder temps, both of which I hate. But it’s diminishing daylight that really gets to me. As sunset creeps toward 5 PM, it’s like the whole world is coming to an end.

The season has one redeeming feature: changing leaves. In the mid-Atlantic, the green slowly fades into yellows, oranges and reds over the course of more than a month. The trees have just begun to change colors in downtown Silver Spring:

Changing seasons

I took this photo on my lunch hour, with my iPhone 5. But I thought the picture was too busy and didn’t like the trash can on the left. The branch extending across the top of the photograph was what interested me most. I thought it would make a good Instagram shot.

I cropped it in Instagram, then used the enhance button and applied the Walden filter to give it a desaturated look – like a faded photo found in an attic. I liked the creamy blankness of the sky. Lastly, I turned down the shadows to bring in a little more color in the leaves and to increase the contrast between the branch and the leaves. Here’s the final result:

Looking a little like fall in downtown Silver Spring #igdc #dtss

All this took about five minutes, back in my cubicle at work. I added it to a few Flickr groups and a couple days later I saw my photo on Capital Weather Gang, used to illustrate the arrival of fall in DC. And it was the second photo of mine that they used this week.

I work for a government agency but don’t shoot for them – they don’t have staff photographers, a photo library, a photo budget or photo editors despite the fact that we need photos all the time for web pages, brochures and social media. Instead, as a contractor, I write, edit, go to meetings and toil away in bureaucratic obscurity for the agency.

I’m far from alone in this situation. If you check out local blogs or art gallery shows, you will find the work of talented photographers, nearly all of whom have jobs with the federal government or corporate organizations. They’re photographers not employed as photographers. Instead, they’re system admins or technical editors or even senior management.

We live in a visual age but organizations large and small devote few resources to photography. Think what a company could do if it engaged, organized and compensated their own unofficial staff photographers. After all, who could tell the story of your business better than the people who work there?

Like the legions of photographers in other jobs, I’m going to continue to take photos, because I enjoy it. Photography gets me through the seasons, like the dying fall, and it might just deliver me to a future in which photography is recognized for its storytelling potential.

The Cynic’s Guide to Government Contracting

There’s an interesting post by Ben Balter on why government doesn’t use open source. It’s a good read, in which Balter presents all the reasons why government doesn’t use open-source software for its web sites, from the demand for enterprise solutions to a desire to avoid transparency (really).

Why is government so bad at building web sites? Why do they frequently build nonfunctional monstrosities like healthcare.gov, with its price of $840 million (and growing)?

Because there is no Web Department in government. There is no Web Development Corps of dedicated usability specialists, designers and editors. There is no government-wide web strategy.

Instead, government web sites are built ad hoc, created by individual agencies with wildly varying degrees of competence. Some are good. Others look straight out of the 90s. There is no standard design nor is there a standard platform. Instead, every agency builds what they want, with only a cursory nod toward the needs of the public.

These web sites are largely built by contractors, with names that sound vaguely Greek, like Synergos, or sound high-tech, like Advanced TechnoData Inc (ATDI, for short). These companies exist solely to win government contracts. They’re experts at it, and form and reform, based upon government requirements. If there’s a contract that asks for a small, disadvantaged business with a transgendered Intuit at the helm, then that company will come into being.

In their protean stage, these companies are little more than a sign on an office door and a web site filled with stock photos of happy tech workers. To succeed, they have to win contracts. For that, they have specialists in responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs). These specialists are expert at analyzing RFPs and then parroting back the requirements in the most convoluted and voluminous manner possible. These responses go back to government, which analyzes them, and then selects the lowest bidder.

Congratulations – your company has won an RFP. You promised you’d build a web site. Now you have to hire the people to do the work. Why don’t you have them on staff? Because you have no money to pay anyone until you win a contract. So, you go out and hire them – quickly. You want them on site and billing, so that you can get your money.

But it’s hard to get good help, especially when it comes to developers. You do the best you can, optimizing for speed and price over skills and experience. Better to get a cheap developer today then spend six months trying to woo top talent.

You created a beautiful Gantt chart, one with different colors for every week of the web development process – and it’s all gone to hell. Recruiting takes longer than anticipated – people have families, other jobs and they can’t start immediately, as much as you want them too. And just getting them into a government building is a chore – you need a person just handling the paperwork. Getting your staff computers and software from unresponsive government IT departments takes even longer.

Along the way, you decide on a Content Management System (CMS). Maybe you were strongly encouraged by the government CIO. He goes to big conferences sponsored by big software companies, ones that he hopes to join. He has a preferred CMS.

So, you ask your developers, “Can this CMS do what we want?” Of course they say yes – what else are they going to say? Their jobs depend on it.

You spend months in the planning stage. Wireframes are presented to rooms full of feds. Designs are revised endlessly. Everyone offers opinions but authority is elusive.

You move forward, months late. The build phase is a trainwreck. It’s where plans collide with reality. You find out you can’t put a button there and that the slideshow isn’t Sec. 508 compliant and that it’s not clear who’s going to write all this content anyway.

But the money is flowing. Your people, though they may be frustrated, are billing 40 hours a week. The COTR (Contracting Officers Technical Representative) is happy. His job is to make sure that the money is being spent. It’s a game where you don’t want to have any funds left at the end of the year.

Dog and pony shows are put on for senior management. You don’t show them the actual site (which doesn’t work) but you show mockups to people working on Blackberries.

Developers work late into the night hacking the thing together. It’s a big mess of ugly code, workarounds around workarounds, but it should hold up, provided you don’t get too many visitors.

You launch. It doesn’t suck. It works, kinda. You have a pizza party in the break room. The developers are surly, as if they hate the site, the process, you, everything. The feds hardly seem to notice their new site. And the public, well, their emails of complaint go into an unmonitored inbox.

While the web site may not be perfect, and it may be impossible to update (thanks to your CMS choice), the important thing is that the money was spent. It’s good enough for government work. The thought cheers you, as you pull into the driveway of your McMansion, paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Matt Mullenweg Is a Very Dangerous Man

Matt Mullenweg is a very dangerous man.

At the inaugural WordPress for Government and Enterprise meetup on May 6, the co-founder of WordPress & founder & CEO of Automattic, discussed the amazing journey of WordPress from a home-spun blogging tool to the world’s most successful enterprise content management platform.

Mullenweg believes in democracy. He believes in competition. He believes in open-source. All dangerous notions in Washington, DC, a city devoted to closed-systems, insider deals and imperial government.

WordPress is free. Government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on complicated content management systems that don’t work. “Why is the free thing better than what your agency spent $5 million on?” Mullenweg asked.

WorePress LogoFor him, users drive software. They are always right. Users will decide whether WordPress survives or fails – and he accepts that. “You win because you’re the best,” he said.

I asked him how government could avoid debacles like healthcare.gov. He called for more transparency, imagining a world in which hackers could fix the doomed health care site and develop their own, better vision.

No one got fired for healthcare.gov. Why should they? The project managers at HHS followed all the policies and procedures for government procurement and contract management. You can’t blame the contractors either – they were just doing what the feds told them to do, as crazy as it must’ve seemed at the time. Healthcare.gov was built according to all the regulations and was a $1 billion failure.

The world is moving in Mullenweg’s direction. We, as consumers, pick winners and losers – not the government. Yet, we have a federal bureaucracy designed for the 1930s.

Walter Russell Mead calls this “the blue model“. He writes:

The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.

Big Government doesn’t work in a world that’s become small, dynamic and user-driven. For example, Mullenweg works with a distributed team that gets together once a year. He doesn’t even know what some of his employees look like. In contrast, government spends millions on buildings it doesn’t use and struggles with implementing even the most basic of telecommuting policies.

Working in government, I have an old Dell wired to an ethernet jack. We don’t even have a working copier. Office supplies are locked away. Wi-fi is forbidden.

At home, I have a MacBook Pro, wi-fi, WordPress, a digital camera, Dropbox, an iPad and a host of other tools – as well as better coffee. The consumer market provides me better tools than a billion-dollar bureaucracy.

If government is to survive, it must be reformed. We can no longer afford a massive, unresponsive federal state that’s tied down by endless rules and regulations.

Government must become responsive to citizens. It must adopt the WordPress model that users are always right. Citizens pay for government and they deserve better.

If government does not reform, debacles like healthcare.gov are not only likely – they are inevitable.

Governments like China fear WordPress for the openness and free expression it provides. The American government should fear it too. WordPress demonstrates a new, more democratic and more user-driven way of working together. It’s impossible to go back to the blue model. Matt Mullenweg is a very dangerous man.

The 21st Century is a Really Bad Time for Control Freaks

The 21st Century is a really bad time for control freaks.
– Alec Ross, former Senior Advisor for Innovation to the U.S. Secretary of State

The State Department trusts its employees to tweet – why doesn’t yours?

The above quote was mentioned by Graham Lampa, State Department Office of Public Diplomacy, at the SocialGov Summit, a workshop on how government agencies are using social media to help build a more connected, responsive, and performance-driven government. The event featured digital experts from the State Department, USAID, Peace Corps, Red Cross and the Philippines government who discussed using social media to connect with audiences at home and abroad.

Lampa brought up the quote from his former boss when someone asked, “How are tweets cleared in your agency?” The answer is that State trusts its staff. In a rapidly changing world, there is not time to send social media through some cumbersome review process, particularly when you have staff scattered across the globe. State trusts its Ambassadors and consular staff to speak for the agency – and the country.

A friend of mine used to work for a Very Important Nonprofit (that no one has heard of outside of Washington). It believed that the world waited for their announcements as if they were Kremlin communiques. Even a simple tweet required multiple levels of sign-offs and approvals, with anxious emails parsing every single word over the course of days, sometime weeks. When the tweets finally reached the outside world, they read as if they were written by pedantic lawyers. They were ignored.

This is how you kill off social media. Who would want to tweet for an org like that?

But your employees will talk about you. They’re tweeting, posting on Facebook, pinning on Pinterest, holding Google Hangouts and taking pictures on Flickr. The conversation is taking place and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Communication can’t be controlled, even if you review every tweet employees produce during working hours.

“The 21st Century is a really bad time for control freaks,” as Alec Ross says. The State Department has 270 locations in 172 countries. It’s budget is in the tens of billions of dollars. They have guns, badges and the power of the federal government but even they can’t control what people are saying about them online. State wisely recognizes that they can’t control the conversation – instead they must contribute to it, using their best resource: their people.

Your employees want to help. They’re already talking about you on Facebook. Rather than tangling them in some social media policy, trust them to communicate your message online. After all, you hired them, didn’t you?

Get employes on your side. Get them tweeting for you. They are your best resource for they represent the authentic voice of your organization. Make them ambassadors for your brand – and get out of the way.

Storytelling: The Most Powerful Communications Tool in History

We are storytelling animals. It’s what differentiates us from our primate cousins. We are literally Homo narrativus. We use stories to assign meaning to our lives, transmit vital information and communicate with future generations. Without our storytelling ability, we would never have evolved out of the jungles of Africa.

Human history begins with stories, like The Bible, the Odyssey and the epics of India. These stories were so important that they were memorized and passed down countless generations prior to the written word.

Storytelling is an ancient and powerful tool that we all possess. The ability to process, remember and share stories is man’s oldest and best trick.

But we live in a dreary age of PowerPoints and TPS reports. Why can’t you remember anything from yesterday’s HR briefing? It’s not your fault; it wasn’t a story.

Lead with a Story

Paul Smith addresses that problem in Lead with a Story, a guide to using this ancient tool in the modern world. Storytelling is a skill that’s increasingly being adopted by major corporations trying to break through the clutter of messages that we’re all deluged with.

In a talk at the annual Federal Digital Communications event, Smith explained the power of stories to an audience of government communicators.

Storytelling is a skill that we can all learn. We literally grew up with it. What makes a great story? Great stories are:

1. Simple. What is the plot of Lord of the Rings? While it sprawls over hundreds of pages, the plot is really simple: destroy the One Ring. Great stories are simple, with a clear problem for characters to solve.

2. Timeless. Fads come and go, but the great stories are timeless. Boy meets girl, whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, or the latest Hollywood romcom, is one of the oldest and most commonly told stories.

3. Universal. While you may not speak ancient Greek, you can understand the desire to get home after a tough day (or decade). This is why a classic like the Odyssey is a universal tale.

4. Viral. Someone tells you a funny joke in the elevator and you immediately want to share it. Jokes were viral before the cat videos of YouTube.

5. Memorable. The story of Noah and the Great Flood doesn’t just appear in the Old Testatment – it is also a part of ancient Babylonian texts. Why? The whole world being wiped out with one survivor? That’s a great story.

6. Inspirational. We long for inspirational stories. While other ages had saints, we have business profiles of inspiring figures like Oprah, Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz. We read these stories of perseverance and success because we want to be inspired, looking for motivation to act upon our own dreams.

Good stories engage audiences. Rather than showing people a slide full of numbers, tell them what the numbers mean. Tell them how they matter to one person. Connect with your audience with stories of how people use your product or service.

For example, I had a job where I had to tell actors to be on time for a performance. I could’ve just yelled at them. Or just repeated the call-time over and over again.

Instead, I told them a story – The Tragedy of the Late Actor. The year before, one of actors was late. We replaced her. She didn’t get a chance to perform.

None of the actors were late. They remembered my message (don’t be late!) because I expressed it in the Tragedy of the Late Actor.

The reason is the human gift for narrative. Stories are how we remember information and direct our lives.

The next time you need to communicate something, whether it’s an article for the corporate newsletter or a message to your significant other, think about how you can make it a story. Write a beginning, a middle and an end. Have a clear protagonist, with a  problem for them to solve.

Tap into the ancient gift of storytelling – our most powerful communication tool.

Update: check out the slides and notes from the day’s presentations.

 

 

Friday Photo: Two Phones Edition

Two phones
I have two phones on my desk.

I had too much fun during the government shutdown, taking advantage of the unpaid break to drink in beer gardens, eat delicious jamon and go on coffeeneuring adventures.

But now it’s back to work. While my bank account is thankful for this, the reintroduction to the absurdities of government can be a painful one.

I have two phones. We’re switching from our 90s era phones to new ones. Rather than just replace one with the other, they left both, so I have two phones on my desk with two different numbers. It’s like I’m a 1950s businessman. I haven’t had the chance to talk on both phones at the same time, barking out orders, but I’m hopeful I will have a chance to do so soon.

Communicating Science: Make It Relevant

How do you communicate science to a general audience? That was the subject of a recent presentation I gave to the Federal Communicators Network. Based upon my experience as a science communicator for NOAA and The Nature Conservancy, I suggest that writers:

  • Use common terms
  • Avoid acronyms
  • Get out of your organizational bubble
  • Make it relevant to the reader
  • Stress benefits, not features

In the talk, I used case studies from my current job as a Communications Manager for The National Weather Service (NWS).  For example, NWS has a great new technology under development  – Wireless Emergency Alerts.  When talking about this new service, do you communicate the features (cell towers, polygons, alerting authorities) or the benefit (getting a text alert before a tornado hits your house)?

You stress the benefit, obviously. The benefit establishes relevancy in the mind of the reader. Grab the reader’s attention by leading with benefits and then you can explain the complicated details.

Don't Mess Up My Block – First Amazon Review

My novel Don’t Mess Up My Block has its first Amazon review! And it’s a good one:

As someone who spent many years dealing with consultants, federal contractors, and federal employees …. this book rings all too true. The people, places, and situations are much too familiar … for me, it was a non-fiction “day in the life” – or “you won’t believe the day I had”. Well done Joe! The author has captured life on the Beltway merry-go-round.

I know the reviewer and if anyone is an expert on the Beltway merry-go-round, it is he. Glad that my book rang so true with someone so attuned to the absurdities of life in Washington.

So, what are you waiting for? Don’t Mess Up My Block is just 99 cents on Kindle.