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John Klossner's Ink Tank

Note to feds: Go forth and fail!

Monty PythonThomas Edison said a lot of things about failure. "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work," Edison said. "Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless," he also said. "Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure," is another Edison quote. And, "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." Thomas Edison had pages and pages of quotes about failure. In fact, he may have said "I've made 10,000 quotes about failure that didn't make sense" but, unfortunately, that was one of them.

There has been much discussion about the "culture of fear" in the federal workplace, that fear being failure. This fear prevents personnel from trying new methods, as any failure results in consequences. This creates a mixed message: In a world where technologies and strategies change every 13 seconds, we are looking for new ways to communicate, new ways to work and new ways to do the job, but we are told not to screw it up. Heck, I make mistakes opening new jars of peanut butter (How do you get that paper off in one piece?).

How can someone find any fresh approaches to contracting without a couple errors?

I recently enjoyed one of those afternoons that I rarely -- okay, never -- have time for any more. I was able to find an open Saturday to join my good cartoonist friend Mike with a pizza, some beverages, and the "Monty Python, Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut)" DVD collection -- more than six hours covering the beginnings and careers of the iconic British comedy troupe. It included visits to the material that influenced the members, interviews where the players talked about their relationships and, of course, the famous sketches. It is full of little-known tidbits for even those of us who consider ourselves knowledgeable in many things Python. (For example, I had always written Terry Gilliam off as an outsider, the weird American who did the animation. But I learned from this series how integral he was to the group's concepts and often held them together during internal squabbles.)

One particular nugget that has stayed with me is from one of the interviews where a Python member (I forget which one)  recounts how in their first season on BBC television in 1969, they felt that no one was watching them -- neither viewers nor station management. But instead of causing them to worry that their show was failing, this gave them a sense of freedom to create the material they wanted without fear of trying to please anyone other than themselves. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

The sense of freedom the Python members felt when they thought no one was paying attention allowed them to be more creative, and we now have the "Fish-Slapping Dance." Does this mean they could have put any content they liked on the air? Of course not! They were motivated to include the best possible material on the show, especially since if it went off the air they would soon be searching for other TV writing jobs.

But what if BBC management, in light of their ratings, had insisted on them writing what was then considered traditional sketches?

Am I recommending that all managers ignore their employees and pretend they don't exist in order to give them space to be creative? Yes. (Note to all my federally employed friends: I tried.) If only it were that easy. My point is, if you are looking for something new, innovative, creative or original, you have to step back and trust the people you've brought in to do the job. You also need to accept a certain amount of failure.

As with Edison's experiments, for every innovation, for each "success," there are many more attempts and -- again -- failures. Where does the federal workplace find space for these mistakes? And, equally important, if innovation occurs in the form of a mistake, will anyone recognize it?

Of course there needs to be oversight and control over the myriad work processes that occur in anything as layered as the federal government. But there’s a fine line between being on top of a project and stifling workers' skills. If you know what the results will be before you start the project, then you will not be open to discoveries along the way. And then you will not allow failure. And you will always get the same results. Forever. And you will become a dinosaur. And this will allow you time to go catch up on all those old Monty Python sketches and Thomas Edison quotes.

failure cartoon

Posted by John Klossner on Oct 07, 2010 at 7:26 PM7 comments

Top 10 signs you have a Rising Star on staff

Klossner_cartoon_handshakeThe annual Rising Stars awards, which honor up-and-coming information technology professionals who work for government agencies and contractors, were recently announced, causing craziness in the cubicles, pandemonium in the parking lots, and euphoria by the espresso makers. But now that the confetti has been swept up and the rented tuxes returned, all thoughts turn to next year’s awards. Could a future Rising Star be among us? Awaiting change from our vending machines? Surfing the web on our Wifi? Swiping their smart cards on our security systems?

The following list offers a few clues that one of next year's Rising Stars may, indeed, be in your midst:

10) His suit coat matches his cargo shorts.

9) He asks what the high score is in systems integration

8) She delivers all white papers in 140 characters or less.

7) He sleeps in the office to ensure that the coffee maker goes on at the correct time.

6) When running a meeting, she presents all attendees with an iPod "meeting mix" playlist.

5) She creates a Facebook group called "People who want to be in a Facebook group with a Rising Star."

4) He single-handedly ports the agency financial management system to a Wii format.

3) He expresses the desire that the first Bush administration had "taken out PowerPoint when they had the chance."

2) She shares her fantasy of becoming Secretary of State in a Jon Stewart administration.

1) She wants to know why they can't text the award to her.

Klossner Rising Star

Posted by John Klossner on Sep 27, 2010 at 7:26 PM0 comments

Inherently governmental remains inherently confusing

Klossner schoolbus courthouseWhen I was a kid I remember encountering a game on the school bus -- which is where all our real social learning took place -- that was called, if I remember correctly, "picnic." (Many of the details of the game have been affected by the trauma I'm about to describe. Also, the fact of it being a kids' game, with different names, rules and versions existing throughout the land, combined with my ability to remember the name of the assistant gaffer on a 1952 movie but not remember what time my daughter gets home from school -- even though it has been the same time for 5 years now -- makes some of the details I'm sharing questionable. Just go with the gist of what I'm describing.)

The game took place by the first person saying "I'm going on a picnic and I'm going to bring X and Y.” Now, if the person's name was, say, John Klossner, they'd say "...I'm going to bring jelly beans and komodo dragons." This would go around to every person playing, and when it came around to John Klossner again he would say "...and I'm bringing jumping jacks and kiwis." And so on.

Those of you who have played this game, or have a natural affinity for children's-game logic, have probably figured out that the trick here is to bring items that begin with the same letters of your first and last names. In fact, the game -- again, as I remember it -- was based on people being able to "join" the picnic once they figured this out and could bring the correct items. (On a personal note: It was a handicap to have a "K" name in this game, as I ended up sounding like I was from Tasmania or had a bag full of marsupials with me.) I was not one of these people. I finally had to have the rules explained to me, but not before being subjected to a lot of 10 year-old derision. After that I was allowed to play, as they then had to search out another person who wasn't in on the "rules." But then that person would figure it out immediately, and everyone would be reminded of how I did not.

I am in the same position with the discussion about "inherently governmental," the term for defining what jobs should be confined to federal employees, and not private contractors. Generally speaking, these are (from an FCW article on the subject) "function(s) that (are) so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance by government employees." This discussion is taking place as Congress is pressuring the administration to better define "inherently governmental," the administration is trying to insource government jobs and reports are coming out that agencies are relying too much on contractor workforces.

Similar to my school bus experience, I am not sure what the rules are here. But there is one difference: In that childhood game, many of the other players knew the rules, and the entertainment came from watching someone try to figure them out. I get the feeling that nobody in the "inherently governmental" conversations knows the rules or, more accurately, everyone has their own set of rules. (There may be a children's game that serves as a better analogy, but none come to mind.) As the previously cited FCW article notes, there has not been an agreed-upon definition since 1992 when, if memory serves me, discussions were held via Pony Express.

I am fascinated by the "inherently governmental" discussions. Can government tasks ever be clearly defined, with differing governing philosophies being debated and, as is currently the case, successive administrations operating with differing plans for the role of the private sector in government?

This leads me to a few questions:

* Is defining "inherently governmental" an inherently governmental job?
* If a private contractor fells a tree in a national forest, does the sound made go on the public record?
* If an agency decides to outsource, is the acquisition process "inherently governmental?"
* If a contractor is invited to an agency office party, do they have to get a federal employee to respond for them? And…
* If I'm going to a federal agency, should I bring the Justice Department and a koala bear?

Klossner contractor cartoon

Posted by John Klossner on Sep 23, 2010 at 7:26 PM0 comments

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