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.
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.
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?
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.