Secretary Clinton’s Sounding Board, Primarily a "Cathartic" Outlet for Employees?

ca·thar·tic [kuh-thahr-tik]
1. of or pertaining to catharsis.
2. Also, ca·thar·ti·cal. evacuating the bowels; purgative.
3. Psychiatry

a. psychotherapy that encourages or permits the discharge of pent-up, socially unacceptable affects.

b. discharge of pent-up emotions so as to result in the alleviation of symptoms or the permanent relief of the condition.

An FSO once called the Sounding Board, “one of the greatest things to come from Secretary Clinton’s reign over the foreign affairs.”    He explained that it is “a message board where people can post ideas on ways to improve the State Department and other people can viciously shoot them down.  It is high entertainment.” 

I don’t know about “high entertainment” but according to a December 2009 issue of State Magazine, the Sounding Board, at (behind the firewall, sorry!) provides Secretary Clinton a window into employee concerns at the State Department, but that it also serves another valuable purpose: “It promotes communication between employees, alerts management to problems and concerns and gives management the opportunity to provide feedback or dispel myths.”

Here is how it works (extracted from State Magazine):

  • First, employees submit ideas about how to better achieve our foreign policy goals (with an emphasis on the “how,” not necessarily the “what” or the “why” of foreign policy). The ideas should discuss the impact or cost savings, resource requirements and any obstacles or challenges. Colleagues can then comment on the ideas, adding perspective, highlighting concerns and filling in details that may be missing.
  • Unlike an e-mail suggestion box in which only a few people see an idea, question or response, an online forum such as The Sounding Board opens the conversation to everyone who is interested. The interactive dialogue fosters a community of ideas where employees can share thoughts and best practices.
  • Since its launch in February [2009], employees have logged more than 250,000 visits to the site and submitted more than 900 ideas, which have generated more than 3,200 follow-up comments. The response has been so overwhelming that The Sounding Board staff has been unable to keep up with submissions.

The article includes a couple of its touted results:

“The Bureau of Administration implemented a bike-share program to facilitate local trips to interagency meetings and will also build more showers for bicycle commuters. The Harry S Truman Building and the Foreign Service Institute cafeterias introduced “greenware” disposable food packaging and committed to reducing non-biodegradable waste.”

Also, some nine months after it was launched, the Sounding Board reportedly was recognized as “a model for employee outreach and was one of three innovative programs studied by the National Economic Council and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.”  Apparently, other agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, were looking to the Sounding Board for good ideas as they launch their own initiatives.

Fast forward to December 2010.  Below is an excerpt from Everything Is Broken: My Two Years at the U.S. Department of State, written by Brendan O’Connor, a master’s student in Community Development and Action at Vanderbilt University. He worked in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations from July 2008 to July 2010:

“[B]efore resigning to attend graduate school in the summer of 2010, I had the chance to meet one-on-one with a high-level manager (and now ambassador) involved in oversight of the Sounding Board. He stated that the Sounding Board, which had been sold to us as a bottom-up tool for employee ideas in early 2009, was primarily a “cathartic” outlet for employees. Someone might want to explain that to the mass of State employees who cropped up to suggest specific, often in-depth ideas online — over 1,500 by the summer of last year. Indeed, when I left there was no meaningful process in place to review and take appropriate action to either reject or on some level adopt these employee suggestions.”

Read in full here.

So hundreds of ideas later — a senior official of Secretary Clinton’s staff called the Sounding Board a “cathartic” outlet?”  Cathartic as in “purgative,” as in “strongly laxative.”

Sounds dirty.

We have a few nosy questions concerning this new model of employee engagement:

How many ideas have been submitted to the Sounding Board since its launched in Feb 2009?

How many submitted ideas are currently under official consideration?

How many ideas have been implemented?

How much cost-savings have been realized through the implemented ideas?

Is the amount of the cost-savings more than or equal to the cost of manhours to run and manage the Sounding Board?

What process is used by the Sounding Board Team to screen the submitted ideas for review and action?

Since the Board provides Secretary Clinton “a window into employee concerns” how many ideas have been brought to her attention?

If you had luck getting your idea to stick using the Sounding Board, we’d like to hear from you – on the record or on background.

Related Post:
Oh, No! The Sounding Board is in WaPo’s In The Loop