Spam and Spam a Lot

The false hopes of unnecessary solutions can drown out meaningful conversation about how to fix government processes.
by | August 2, 2012 AT 2:25 PM

My email inbox is an eclectic assortment of work-related correspondence, friendly reminders from Ken that we're in dire need of a Vegas poker run and miscellaneous jabs from other friends at my inability to win a fantasy football championship. And, of course, spam. A few years ago, I started tracking the spam I was getting (not in some psycho-Excel-spreadsheet kinda way, but in more of "what's trending now" kind of way).

My filters are solid enough to block out messages of the "I'm a prince in trouble" or the "You too can be like a porn star" variety. It's the ones that are almost vaguely work-like that keep managing to get through to my inbox. They contain a combination of promises of workplace productivity, training opportunities and, of course, quick loans. Assuming those crappy quick loans and their outrageous interest rates are covered on other blogs, I'd like to concentrate on the equally crappy -- and harmful -- emails that focus on all the wrong things.

The training emails are particularly fascinating. Did you know that in addition to learning a new language in no time, you can also go to conferences that promise to develop your emotional intelligence, help resolve conflict with your employees, deal with difficult people, and (my favorites) develop stronger records retention, HR and procurement policies. Each email promises a better work environment and improved productivity for the low, low price of tuition and a few days of your time.

The problem is, much like the loans, any temporary relief that may come from a couple days away and a few new tools will not take care of the bigger problems. In fact, these sessions may even have big-picture consequences. First, the problems these seminars and conferences address seem like they are issues we face every day, but those are just surface issues. Dealing with employees and building stronger policies are all geared at coping with the symptoms of a deeper ailment. Symptoms like low morale, miscommunication, bad decisions, poor policies, the need for more rules, and internal conflict all point to a dysfunctional organization. But what made the organization dysfunctional? Did it just lose the employee lottery and hire the most horrible person for every position? Is it so bad that the organization cannot function without an emotionally in-touch fascist as a leader? Or is it that management is so bad that all the employees are consciously rebelling in an effort to make the leadership look bad or to draw the retribution of an even higher power?

No. Organizations are dysfunctional because they are not functional, and you only become functional when the work processes function.

The second category of spam has been equally fun to track. Apparently, all productivity comes from one of the following areas: new phone systems, consolidation of administrative functions, video conferencing and the ever-elusive paperless office. Let's just chuck the videoconferencing and paperless office options right out the window. I entered the public workforce in the early '90's and have been hearing the promise of those two strategies ever since. That's 20 years of hearing how we will all be connected via satellite and travel costs will plummet and save us all! While going paperless is a noble goal that will save trees, it seems all efforts to move that way have resulted in my writing a lot more -- editing more, more emails, new blogs and so on. Paperless offices and videoconference meetings are decent enough goals, but would they really improve office productivity? Maybe a little, but not by much. The truth is that they just wouldn't radically change how we work.

For that matter, can anyone explain to me how a new phone system, particularly a VOIP one, is going to help me do my job better? Phone rings, we answer. How much better does it get? And even as I led one of the largest IT consolidations in the country, I knew the only way we would impact more than budget is by finding a way to improve the relationship with the business side of things. We could argue if it was successful, or if it still is today. Other than arguing over costs, though, has it or will it change how we work? These things don't make us dysfunctional, nor do they make us more functional. At best, we'd still be a dysfunctional system (albeit one that might cost slightly less).

Spam email supposedly got its name from the famous Monty Python sketch in which a group of Vikings drowns out the dialogue with a chorus to their favorite spiced ham, thus "spamming" the conversation. While these nuisance emails are easy enough to ignore, they are spamming out the dialogue of what we really need -- the need to address the root cause of our dysfunction, which is the twisted up, gunked-up, leaky pipes that constitute our systems.

This blog is dedicated to bringing attention to the real problems of government: our lack of capacity, our incredible amount of CYA and the ensuing bottlenecks, batches and backlog created by these things. We spend a lot of time writing about supposed solutions that are not fixing these things. That's because sometimes the best course of action is to stop doing what isn't working in order to have some time to think of something new. In other words, block the spam so we're no longer wasting our time.

Here's a simple litmus test: After your agency is _______________ (fill in the blank with whatever new initiative you find yourself trying, be that "fully trained," "consolidated," "paperless" or whatever) will you be better at serving your customers? Will they get what they need faster? Will you make fewer mistakes? Will there be fewer handoffs? Will there be tracking of the work and more doing of the work?

If you can't answer those, or if the answer is no, you might want to rethink the initiative.

What business spam is blocking your organization from radical improvement? Let us know in the comment section and we maybe we can start a conversation around what works and what doesn't.