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Tillerson to Shut Down @StateDept’s Sounding Board, Erase 7 Years of Institutional Collaboration

Posted: 5:11 am ET

 

On August 17, the State Department released an eDepartment Notice that the Sounding Board will be “retired” as of August 31st. A red banner reportedly went up on the Sounding Board site only on August 23 reminding users that the site will close on August 31 and that they should save any content they want to preserve in their local files before August 31st.  None of the contents in the Sounding Board will be archived.

The Sounding Board is an employee internal forum for ideas and collaboration launched in 2009 by then Secretary Clinton, and maintained throughout Secretary Kerry’s tenure.  Together with Communities and Corridor, they were all created and maintained to “enhance diplomatic initiatives by providing effective employee collaboration and information sharing capabilities.”

Some employees think of the Sounding Board as part of the agency’s process improvement and see it as a valuable feedback loop.  It is also a central repository of employee opinions and suggestions. In the last seven years, the Sounding Board was reportedly used by over 120,000 users, generating 4,000 ideas. It also resulted in the implementation of some 130 suggestions/requests. We understand that some of the implemented ideas include the creation of pedestrian walk signals outside the Harry S. Truman building which increased employee safety, the creation of ePerformance guides, improvements in the female bathrooms in HST and others that helped with employee engagement and morale.

The State Department did inform employees that it is planning on establishing a “new forum for employee suggestions and responses,” but apparently it did not explain what was wrong with the current Sounding Board, and why a new forum is considered necessary.  There is also no timeframe when the new forum will be operational and employees were instructed to use the Redesign Portal to provide their ideas to management in the meantime.

So after August 31, stuff will just go to some kind of “digital suggestion box” in the Portal and no one can see (presumably with the exception of those designated to watch the suggestion box) what topics are under discussion or what subjects are important to employees. Also — we have no way to verify this since we have no access to the portal —  apparently the ideas accepted in the Redesign Portal are restricted to topics related to the redesign effort only.  So how’s that going to work?  Does anyone know?

Employees were informed that they can still share their concerns with the Director General through the DGDirect email, and collaborate with others using Communities@State, an internal blogging program; and Corridor, an internal professional networking application. Those platforms, of course, are not suited for a community back and forth discussion that is unique in a forum setup.

So the State Department basically gave employees a 2-week notice that it is shutting down the Sounding Board, that the contents will not be archived or be available for viewing, and that the replacement forum will not be ready when the current forum shuts down next week.

Look, given that the State Department is already suffering from abysmal morale, this is one way of just digging a deeper hole. While we can understand why Secretary Tillerson and his circle might want to start from scratch with a new employee forum, this is not the way nor the time to do it.

Cost Savings

What savings do you get with a Sounding Board 2.0?  And seriously, what is wrong with the current Sounding Board? What is the justification for shutting it down? How much money does the State Department generate in savings in building a new forum vs. maintaining the old forum? For an agency with a 30% projected cut in funding, the questions “how much” and “why” deserve some answers.

Options

We expect that it would be objectively trivial in cost and time to preserve the Sounding Board. Some suggestions floating around:

1) Keep the Sounding Board “as-is” until the new forum is operational. Archive the Sounding Board when the new forum is activated.

2) Keep the Sounding Board “read-only” until the new forum is operational.  This would curtail the submission of new ideas but allow employees to read/view the archive as needed until the replacement forum is activated.

3) Hybrid Sounding Board/Redesign Portal, except that the “redesign” has a lifespan. If State bundles the Sounding Board with the Redesign Portal, what happens after the reorganization is completed? Bundling them together requires unbundling them later on, which we imagine could require more work than if it were a stand alone forum.

4) The Sounding Board is government record, is it not? Does the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the nation’s record keeper has anything to say about this planned destruction of government record?

Demolition

The State Department may call this the Sounding Board’s “retirement”but in fact, since its archive will not be retrievable/viewable, this is actually a demolition. And it’s not just the demolition of the employee forum itself, but a demolition of the employees’ collective ideas, contributions, and memories.  In reality, it would erased the last seven years of the institution’s collective work.

If the State Department goes through with this, it could only re-enforce employees perception that its new leadership does not walk the talk. You cannot say that the “Secretary values and wants employee feedback” and expect people to believe that if at the same time, you’re demolishing the system that affords employees the ability to provide feedback.

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6 responses

  1. 1. Disgusting? Wasn’t the Sounding Board only created during HRC’s tenure as a cathartic outlet? Diplopundit was actually skeptical back in 2012. 4,000 submissions and with implementation of only 130 mainly superficial ideas. Changes to toilets, walk signals, commuter showers. Great. But what about major issues like SCRA for FS folks, help enrolling your kids in local schools upon return to the US, dealing with Virginia’s draconian tax man? DS, you questioned in 2012 whether “the amount of the cost-savings more than or equal to the cost of manhours to run and manage the Sounding Board”. Did you ever get answers? So maybe that’s why it’s being shut down.

    2. AFSA is useless unless you have a niche issue you want them to deal with. They do absolutely nothing for the FS as a whole as evidenced by their most recent meeting with MED. The State VP queried all of us for input, but in the end all he talked about was medical clearances for FS kids with disabilities. Really?

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    • There seems to be a glitch in the comment system. The following was sent to us via email in response to your comment:

      START COMMENT:
      While the Sounding Board may have been created by HRC as a cathartic outlet (I joined DOS under Kerry), I would argue that that says more about how depressingly cynical she is than the merits of the SB itself. It’s true that most of what’s been implemented from the SB is relatively superficial (although it never hurts to go after low-hanging fruit and make even a few people’s lives a little easier), but that’s really a symptom of the fact that all recent administrations have been mostly dismissive of any democratic ideal of fighting for their employees wellbeing and ability to do their jobs, and prefer to focus on their pet issues (it just so happens that previous admins had priorities that were, at least, not actively harmful to the purpose and functions of DOS). To be clear, I’m talking below the level of big foreign policy (e.g. America First vs lead from behind), but in terms of things like SCRA for the FS, tax issues, schools, etc. All of those have been discussed extensively on the SB (along with things that I personally consider to be a waste of time, like getting a milkshake machine in the cafeteria).

      If the balance of discussion on the SB in recent years has been less on the former and more on the latter, I suspect that’s tied to people being cynical that the 7th Floor actually pays attention to the SB. (it’s something of a chicken-egg problem). However, Tillerson and crew repeatedly talk about how they “welcome employee participation in the redesign”, and that it’s an “employee driven process”. If they actually acted like it (e.g. not starting out with a predetermined ~30% cut), and seriously solicited people’s feedback for how to make DOS more efficient and BETTER, then the SB would be a terrific tool for that, since people can share and refine ideas/suggestions and vote publically. Especially given their ostensible concern for saving money, it makes absolutely no sense to reinvent the wheel (if they ever actually do create a public employee feedback platform in the future). The software for the SB is fine (and given how simple it is, there’s no way it’s labor and/or resource intensive), although I would never rule out refinements. The problem for this or any platform is that if leadership doesn’t take it seriously, then it will be a struggle to get employees to do so. And right now, I don’t know anyone who believes that this administration actually appreciates or respects employee feedback (e.g. the unwillingness to have public Q&A’s/Town Halls).

      Finally, the immediately pressing question is, as D points out, since the Sounding Board is a government record, how can it be legal for Tillerson et al. to simply destroy it? Are they at least keeping a copy offline and, if not, will anyone take legal action to force them to live up to their responsibilities?

      END COMMENT

      Liked by 1 person

  2. christ. theyre not even archiving it, theyre just erasing it from existence and not replacing it immediately. f-tards.

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  3. Strange coincidence that the Department’s announced decision to dissolve Sounding Board occurs immediately after AFSA silences the Open Forum. Remember the justification AFSA gave for its “automatic unsubscribe” of its membership from Open Forum? It said active duty already have their own social media exchange, i.e., Sounding Board.

    I urge strongly that AFSA reinstate full member access to the Open Forum. It might even lead to an increase in AFSA membership.

    If AFSA cannot wake up, see what is happening with this Administration, and take action, then what is it good for?

    Liked by 1 person