Leadership, Stupidity, and Assumptions

If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know I favor government agencies using social media to meet their missions. Strongly favor. I see these tools as offering tremendous potential benefits. Yet there are also other considerations at play.

Did you know the Department of Defense runs its own TV station called the Pentagon Channel? I haven’t really explored it, but the point is it exists.

Did you know that the Air Force blocks the Pentagon channel? Yes, that’s right: one of the major military services prevents its members from seeing what the larger organization is broadcasting.

At this point, you’re probably thinking one of two things:

  1. The Air Force IT people are idiots, or
  2. Someone in the Air Force knows something you don’t know

When I hear of seemingly absurd situations, I try to remember that leaders generally aren’t stupid. Partly, that’s because I’ve made my own decisions that seemed stupid on the surface but reflected knowledge that wasn’t commonly known. Partly, it’s because of my basic faith that most people make thoughtful decisions. Even if I disagree with their conclusions, I try not to assume they’re inane.

So I didn’t appreciate this blog post. The writer was so busy ridiculing Air Force leadership that he didn’t seem to read the explanation he included from a spokeswoman: it’s a bandwidth issue.

Not fear of online video, concern about wasted time, or a desire to quash the use of social media. Nor a too-limited focus on information security, privacy, or any of a hundred other reasons government agencies can be slow to adopt these tools.

Granted, I don’t know what else the spokeswoman said, and I don’t know what else the blogger might have uncovered. Maybe the bandwidth concern is a smokescreen. I’ll probably never know.

But that’s my point. It’s far too easy to snipe from the sidelines. Too many people think they know everything going into these decisions, and that they know better what should be done.

For example, the blogger thought it was important for Air Force personnel to be able to watch a cooking show.  As a taxpayer, I’m wondering why my money is going to pay for the creation of such a show, and why my money should be allocated to provide bandwidth for anyone to watch it.

But I also assume there’s more to that story, and that the decision makers have reasons I’m not aware of.

By all means, the blogger and others should ask those questions.  And government leaders owe the public the answers.

But even as you question, and even if you disagree, don’t assume the people making the decisions are stupid.

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5 Responses to “Leadership, Stupidity, and Assumptions”


  1. 1 Mike Hessling September 6, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Also a valuable life lesson: don’t assume you know everything or are smarter than everyone else. Said much more elegantly by David Foster Wallace jn his commencement speech to Kenyon College.

  2. 2 John Evan frook September 6, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    Strongly worded, and true. The needed change rolls from the stately positions of 100K AirForce IT career people — who have months and months of accumulated time off through academia….The idea is we all must be responsible, and we all must assume that the goal is self sufficiency. Earn your keep or get out of the way. Anything less is not reform.

  3. 3 Steve Radick September 7, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Jeffrey – good, thoughtful post (as always). I agree with you that leaders generally aren’t stupid, and in the government, these leaders generally have tons of competing interests that they have to balance before making decisions like this. The biggest issue that I have from these types of issues – in any organization, mine included, is that we generally don’t get to hear the answers to the questions that you mention above. As you say,

    “By all means, the blogger and others should ask those questions. And government leaders owe the public the answers.”

    However, for far too long, the people making these decisions don’t provide these answers. We get lots of “no comment” or “I am not authorized to speak to the media” answers. As anyone who’s taken a communications 101 course knows, in the absence of information, people will make assumptions and will make up their own information. Where is this information about the bandwidth limits? Maybe it is a smokescreen, maybe it isn’t. I’m hoping that Capt. Faggard or Paul Bove from Air Force PAO can shed some light on this subject and clear it up.

    I’ve run into far, far too many IT staffs who proclaim that data security is their top priority and THAT’s the reason that they block software downloads or access to websites, but the browser that they recommend using is Internet Explorer 6, and their reason? Because that’s the “supported browser” is usually their only answer, if they give you an answer, that is. Now, if this same staff starts talking about bandwidth concerns, what are you supposed to assume?

    The undercurrent to all of this is communications and transparency. If bandwidth truly is the reason, then show some statistics, show some numbers, show something. Read this post and the comments in Technosailor’s post about a similar topic – http://technosailor.com/2009/01/26/security-problems-and-government-20/. Lots of good comments in that post that exemplify how a lot of folks feel about all of these security and bandwidth concerns that are always bandied about. Yeah, we know they’re important, and we often don’t understand all that’s behind the decision, but saying, “because we said so” just isn’t enough anymore.

  4. 4 Navy Civillian September 9, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Navy employees are allowed access to the Pentagon channel. I personnally have never witnessed any abuse by having such access. Most people don’t access it and those who do access it, attempt to do so during breaks or lunch hour. Usually they just give up waiting for it telecast to load.

    The few times I was successfull in accessing the Pentagon channel there was worthwhile information provided. I learned things about Military personnel life, what was going ont at different locations, and once there was a story about the use of a weapon system on which I had worked.

    I think the Pentagon channel is worth having, but will likely have to access it from home or somewhere other than the office.

  5. 5 Chris Sukach, Chief of Emerging Technology, Air Force Public Affairs Agency September 9, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks for the post! And you’re right, our reason for blocking streaming video is bandwidth. If left unfettered, streaming video is one of the largest consumers of bandwidth on our networks. While we would like it to be otherwise, we have limited network resources/bandwidth and the priority must be given to mission support. In an effort to balance our needs against our limited resources, we currently block most streaming media. However, when we determine value for a specific site with streaming video, we allow access on a case by case basis. As such, the Air Force now allows the Pentagon Channel’s streaming video on its computers.

    To continue the discussion, I’m curious, how are other governmental agencies balancing seemingly unlimited demand against limited bandwidth/resources? Any best practices or is this bandwith discussion already taking place somewhere else? If so where? Thanks for your thoughts!


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