Preventing School Shootings - An Exchange With A Friend

What follows is my side of an exchange with a friend about yesterday's massacre. I share her grief; despite our differing ways of thinking about social problems, our hearts are broken together. I hope and pray that we as a nation will start to focus on solving problems rather than scoring points.

Having worked in government for almost 10 years and trying to reform what's inefficient I believe very strongly that power should be distributed and not concentrated in any one sector of society. Also that the more you inhibit people in favor of the machine, the more the abuse of power. When you destroy the Second Amendment you destroy freedom.

Enforce the law we already have, keep guns away from criminals, but train law-abiding people to use them responsibly. Put armed guards in every school or have armed, trained volunteer parents patrolling the grounds. The problem is not guns. The problem is that when this guy started shooting, the school was defenseless.

Imagine that it is your child G-d forbid in the school and you are at work. Do you NOT want someone armed and protecting them? Consider that we have armed marshals on planes. And that we are in a horrible budget crisis. How long does it take to call 911?

Think about it. If you are a criminal then you are not really worried about gun control because you are buying guns ILLEGALLY. But if you are law-abiding and can't get a gun, then you cannot protect yourself.

There are guns on planes. There are guns in federal buildings. There are guns in banks. There are guns everywhere you need to protect people. Sitting around and singing kumbaya or running to the closet is not going to work (note - as my friend pointed out, one teacher did save 18 children this way so it did work partially).

But the bigger issue is not guns. It is that we have a terrible attitude toward mental illness in this country. We marginalize people who are different instead of looking after them, and each other.

The time to intervene is WAY BEFORE there is a problem. But we always fix things looking in the rearview mirror.

The bottom line is that quick fix mantras and relying on big government to solve all our problems can only lead to abuse and repression of individual rights. Everything has its place. We should instead take the difficult path of self-responsibility and sticking our necks out for our neighbors. We desperately need to change our culture toward more self-accountability and empowerment.

Just like when the Jewish people bought land in and founded the modern state of Israel post-Holocaust - and now defend it. We did not wait for someone to intervene on our behalf.

We waste so much time debating so-called morality issues that are nobody's business (like gay marriage). We (speaking big picture, mass culture) have completely lost that sense of community that the U.S. was founded on. Where we looked after our neighbors, where we asked questions of how people were doing, etc. That can of course go terribly wrong (e.g. repressive insular communities that refuse to call law enforcement when needed or that try to operate outside it) but what is lacking is that balance.

As far as extremist radical ideology: Please. Lobbying, marketing, propaganda is not the province of one political party or the other which is why people complain that DC is in gridlock. It is, because nobody can seem to get over themselves, shake hands and do business.

Note: As always all opinions are my own.

Why Feds' Morale Is Getting Worse (It's Only Partly Internal Communication)

"Two-thirds of all federal agencies experienced decreasing employee satisfaction." 
- Federal Times, Dec. 13, 2012

The Washington Post article on federal employees' morale led me to reflect on what seems to me like a downward trend. Here are my thoughts on the reasons why:

1 - Increased centralization under the new Administration for greater efficiency - less autonomy for individual agencies, less autonomy for leaders, less autonomy for managers, less autonomy for staff.  
2 - Discomfort with the rapid pace of change and new initiatives. This could be related to the Administration coming from "outside the Beltway" - e.g. traditional Beltway/Washington culture is much slower and more interpersonal vs. this Administration works rapidly and is very techno-centric. (This comment refers to management style not political ideology.)
3 - Increased scrutiny on (blaming of) federal employees due to the bad economy. Impatience with the civil service culture. Endless headlines about wasteful grants for shrimp on a treadmill. This goes back to #2.
4 - Restrictions on spending (like no more "tchotchkes") and budget - leading to lots of ideas but no money to do anything with them.
5 - Pay freeze, government shutdown, threat of sequestration. Generally the perception that we federal employees are constantly under siege.
6 - No money or time for serious training. 

  • #1 is technology - e.g. cloud-based collaboration - we can't seem to get out of the email. We should be out of it. Knowledge management. Data analysis. Visual presentation of information. Not happening. 
  • #2 is project management. Serious deficiency. 
  • #3 is critical thinking, which comes from advanced education, which should be on-site as a regular part of work. Ideally it would be college coursework - so that people can advance themselves as they advance the mission. 
7 - Inefficient or insufficient change management efforts. Lack of attention to organizational development, human capital, internal communication, alternative dispute resolution, meditation rooms, marking important events with ceremonies, culture committees. Times are changing rapidly, organizations are restructuring, and people expect a high level of customer service (like they get when they're not on the job when they go shopping or out to eat.) There is a growing disconnect.
I can think of other things too, such as the proliferation of social media (so that employees can complain and commiserate more easily and more publicly about stuff that has always been problematic - e.g. perceived lack of fairness in decision-making), but these seem like the biggest issues to me in terms of what's different now than before.
A good workplace is one-- 
  • Where people are happy to come to work in the morning
  • Where they are engaged in their work and in the mission
  • Where they are free to innovate
  • Where they can dissent and have their dissent listened to
  • Where they can point out fraud, waste and abuse and not get marginalized or worse. 
These are the kinds of things we should measure, manage and improve. One wonders if we would only put as much effort into employee morale as into annual charity campaigns like the CFC, whether we would see some productivity improvements as a result.

"All the research suggests that the more engaged employees are, the more productive they are." - John Palguta, VP, policy, Partnership for Public Service, quoted in Federal Times

It's not that one is more important than the other, but rather that you can't give back to the community effectively if your workforce is drained.

Note: All opinions are my own.

Why Plain Language Training Lacks Teeth

My daughter taught me a Taoist saying:

"Beautiful words are not true, and the truth is not beautiful."

There are many reasons why government writing is not plain. Only one of them has to do with skill:

1. Confused thinking

2. Lack of critical thinking

3. Lazy thinking - you pass the buck to the reader to figure it out

4. Jargon has replaced standard style guide - e.g. "writing for ourselves then pretending everyone else should understand"

5. Legalistic approach - "give them all the raw data and that way we're not interpreting it for them" - and can't get in trouble

6. Executive preference

7. Public Affairs type "messaging" replaces substantive information or Public Affairs can censor

8. Unrealistic deadline or insufficient staff

9. Lack of collaboration, stove piping - e.g. "Stay out of my business"

10. Communication is one person's job vs. everyone's

11. Writing not exposed to broad audience for critical review

12 . Insulation from negative feedback

13. Worse consequences for providing bad news clearly than for muddling the information or making it less accessible

14. Clear communication seen as too simple - "Reads like USA Today"

15. Writing for professor of economics not 8th graders

16. Fear of misinterpretation, intentional or not; fear of negative press

17. Fear of getting in trouble or losing one's job for conveying bad news

18. Lack of ability to use visual aids when appropriate

19. Communication staff is operational rather than communication-focused

20. History or context of the information is omitted deliberately so as not to raise further questions

Plain language training is only partly useful to address the above. In fact one could argue it is a panacea used to divert attention from the real issues.

That's why PL is a law.

You Have Spinach In Your Teeth

A good friend will tell you when something is "off."

Not long ago I had the habit of wearing orthopedic men's shoes to work. They are comfortable, OK?

For years not one colleague would say anything. (Although they did make a comment one day about my mismatched socks.)

Then I worked on a project with someone different. We had never been friendly. But as we worked together I came to appreciate her sharp observations. They made the project better and she had something to say about me, too.

"You might want to rethink the shoes."

I had to laugh. What a statement!

So it is thanks to this colleague that I actually went and broke in a pair of shiny flats.

It is this same colleague who would tell me, without fail,

"Dannielle, do this." indicate that some aspect of lunch was appearing when I smiled.

Do you tell people when a button has popped, they have lipstick on their teeth, or they've got toilet paper on their shoe?

Yesterday I saw another colleague on the coffee line. She had the most beautiful scarf on.

Except for one thing: the tag was sticking out.

I wasn't sure what to do because my hands were full. I couldn't catch it. But she was leaving the shop.

In my mind I imagined people looking at her and saying to themselves,

"What a beautiful scarf. Should I tell her about the tag?"

Impulsively I called out to her.

"What's up?" She looked at me strangely as she made her way through the crowd. Her arms were full too.

I said, "You've got a tag sticking out."

The line of mostly women looked on supportively, waiting for what would come next.

My friend: "Go on. Rip it out!"

Right here?

The person in line behind me became our volunteer.

"Excuse me, please hold this," I said.


You could almost hear the silent clapping on the line.

People relieved that the tag issue wasn't their.

And that if it were, someone might help before it got embarrassing.

Believe me when I tell you that a stray tag or any wardrobe malfunction can literally ruin someone's whole day.

I know this because I spent part of yesterday listening to someone worry aloud about the fuzz dripping off her sweater.

It was a gorgeous sweater and truly, nobody noticed. (The men looked at her strangely.) But she was actually apologizing by the end of the day.

In this holiday season bring someone good cheer: Tell them if they've got a booger.

When It's You Against The Group

The other day I was taking my daughter to school when a public service announcement came on the radio. It was sponsored by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, an agency I once worked for. The narrator was talking about foreclosure, and how the OCC could be able to help.

I turned to my daughter. "The OCC! I used to work there. Oh my G-d, a radio commercial! That's so cool!" and on and on.

My daughter said, "That's nice, Mom."

What did it mean to her, she wasn't there. But I was.

I remembered that day when Elizabeth Warren came to speak. It was sometime around 2004. She wasn't a senator-elect then. I sat at the back of the room and watched her rail against the exploitation of the consumer through deceptive marketing practices. She urged the OCC to get involved.

It was inspiring to see what Warren was trying to accomplish. She was outside the OCC system looking in. She was using her standing as a third-party wedge to say hey, the world is watching you. And we will hold you, the Agency, responsible.

Warren was standing up for the person against the group. And in July 2012, the Consumer Financial Protection Board, her brainchild, achieved its first enforcement action, together with the OCC - against Capital One. Nearly ten years later, a settlement of $210 million for deceptive marketing.

After the OCC I worked for Customs and Border Protection. One night a Border Patrol agent named Brian Terry fell in the line of duty and attention was drawn to "gunwalking" in a case that came to be known as Fast and Furious. I followed the case closely, in social media primarily. It was clear that whistleblowers in that case were not exactly welcomed with open arms.

I am interested in the ways groups act to silence people when those people threaten its dysfunction. There is organized intimidation. The person who notices or protests is made to seem out of touch, incompetent, crazy, etc. Remedies happen when someone tough enough to withstand it tells someone from the outside, who has no stake in the game and can't be persecuted by the group, who has to step in.

One of the causes adopted governmentwide in recent years is putting an end to human trafficking. This can take a variety of forms but is predominantly the sexual slavery of young women. I helped create an outreach campaign against it at CBP: "Death Is Not The Only Way To Save Your Life." (I think it was my friend and colleague Linda Kane who came up with that tagline.)

One of the reasons human trafficking is so difficult to eradicate is that when a girl is targeted, it's her against an immense machine. They threaten, beat, rape and imprison her. They take away her papers. They threaten her family. This makes it nearly impossible to report or get out.

Organized crime survives by targeting the individual who can't fight back. We saw this at Penn State too, with the needy children drawn into Second Mile, a charity run as a way for a pedophile to lure his victims.

Now in New York a case has just concluded in which a prominent member of the community, Rabbi Nechemya Weberman, was found guilty on 60 counts for sexually assaulting a minor he was supposed to be "counseling."

The fact of her victimization is bad enough. Worse than that - the community machine enabled the abuse by forcing her parents to pay for the "therapy" on pain of having her expelled from school. When the mother questioned his time alone with her, they forced her to apologize to him.

Supporters of the "rabbi" tried everything they could to keep this brave girl quiet. They tried to pay her to get out of town. They shamed her. A thousand men held a fundraiser for Weberman. The Grand Rabbi of the group called her unthinkable names, invoking nothing less than the Bible.

Upon the verdict, Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes even went so far as to say, "They better not fool around with this kid, her husband or her family." (a statement tweeted and retweeted extensively).

For the victim, the tables turned when she had the courage to speak out, and then when third-party institutions snapped into place. Followed and supported by public watchers who battled the insular sickness of this community, the same kind of sickness that saw students rioting in support of Jerry Sandusky.

And the ripple effect is like a rock thrown into a pond. There are statements supporting justice for the victim and posts by rabbis explaining why supporting a pedophile and silencing and shaming a victim is never religiously justified.

It's not easy to stand up against a group and cry foul. But people do it; there are ways. The main thing to remember is that you can't hold back a tsunami with your arms. It takes a village. Not just to raise a child, but to stand up against abuses of the system.

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