by David A. Kosub, Ph.D
One of the greatest scenes from one of the greatest movies in cinematic history depicts Tom Smykowski vociferously defending his role connecting the software engineers with the customers. In that scene, Smykowski finds himself justifying his job to “The Bobs”, who are ostensibly tasked with identifying redundancies, office space inefficiencies, and ultimately downsizing the office.
The Bobs struggle to recognize the value in connecting technical staff with the public – a role we know to be vital to any federal agency. I tend to agree with the character’s impassioned argument in defense of his position, that the experts at times are “not good at dealing with customers”. I identify with this argument because, as a communicator, I am also ultimately a connector.
A key skill of communicators is knowing how to connect people. After all, as Smykowski reminds us, it takes people skills to get the job done. Communicators, he opines, are also good at dealing with the customers, such as the public (or Congress, for some Agencies). Communicators use finely honed skills to help individuals see eye to eye. For example, senior leadership can benefit from hearing feedback and ideas from team members across the organization. Offices with priorities incongruent to each other benefit from a better understanding of what their counterparts are doing. The public often needs a communicator to connect subject matter experts with the interested public to assist them in comprehending complex government information. When these situations arise, communicators need to flex their excellent interpersonal skills to effectively connect people and information for greater understanding.
One approach I’ve found helpful in my office to connect people, ideas, and knowledge is hosting regular, informal, knowledge-sharing lunch sessions for staff to simply talk about what they do within our agency. Participants have noted that they are helpful to better understand what each piece and part of our organization is doing (especially for new staff), and they are a great way to put faces to names, all in a relaxed, laid-back setting where everyone can speak freely.
When I reach out to employees about these events, here is how I describe these sessions to encourage participation:
- Ever found yourself wondering:
- What exactly our office is involved with, and who is involved with it?
- How can I pull valuable insights from my colleagues that may help solve a particularly vexing issue
- Where can I hide when another info request comes in?
- OMG why is a new process being developed when I’m still trying to figure out the last one?
- Who is that person sitting across from me?
- …When is lunch served?
Well, wonder no more! We are hosting regularly occurring sessions to learn more about exactly what we do at all levels, identify solutions, break down the internal office silos, and communicate, communicate, communicate! These sessions are meant to be informal (i.e. absolutely no PowerPoint allowed), informative for all and by all staff, and relaxed (come and go as you please) …all while enjoying your lunch.
Communicators deliver messages. Each federal agency juggles many initiatives and projects on any given day, each representing an important “piece of flare” worth touting to the masses. To get the information out, it’s important and beneficial to have communicators strategically positioned at all levels of an organization to capture and disseminate it quickly. It also allows the connectors to see the progress of each activity and help identify how different pieces interact with each other. Observing that information firsthand allows Communicators to develop a messaging strategy appropriate for the target audience that best reflects the goals and outcomes of the individual activity and larger program. Understanding all of these ideas and aligning communication strategies with the mission of the agency is how Communicators connect ideas and people. Before information is released, Communicators are able to recognize potential questions or concerns that may arise from stakeholders. When done well, a uniform, timely, concise, clear, and accurate message—or set of messages—moves all agency employees in the same direction with the same voice.
Along these same lines, communicators connect the data dots. Long gone are the days where decisions shift based on gut feeling alone. Rather, data drives most decision making. In order for the public, Congress, and the media to fully understand the underlying pretext for a new policy or changes to existing programs, the data driving decision making must be clearly explained and comprehended by the audience. A successful communicator will transform data in visualizations that will provide the proper context, provide the necessary written explanation, and publish this key information for consumption far and wide.
So, the next time you hear The Bobs ask, “what exactly would you say you do here,” I hope you will join me in saying that you too, as a federal communicator, make connections. Now, get back to those TPS reports already!
About the Author
David A. Kosub is an eleven-year veteran at the NIH who is strongly committed to achieving the mission of his agency. He has served in many diverse policy-oriented roles across the NIH Office of the Director and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In his current position with the NIH Office of Extramural Research, he analyzes and interprets legislation impacting the grantee community (such as that stemming from the 21st Century Cures Act and appropriations language), responds to a wide array of comments and questions from the public, distills intricate and detailed policy guidance into clear and comprehensive written materials (like the NIH Open Mike blog), and interviews subject-matter experts for the next All About Grants podcast to further share useful information to our applicants and awardees. In addition to his drive to help researchers unlock the mysteries of “all things NIH grants”, David is passionate about using administrative data to better inform decisions at NIH, which will inevitably affect the wider extramural research community. Prior to these communications and outreach roles, he focused on planning for, evaluating, reporting on, and coordinating trans-NIH research priorities, particularly those addressing infectious diseases. He earned his doctorate in Immunology from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas in 2007. This research experience, which involved exploring how HIV disease progression adversely alters the innate immune system over time, strengthened his passion for biomedical science, and also inspired an interest in how public policy decisions propel research to address health concerns. When David is not deciphering the many NIH grant and research policies out there, you can find him pounding pavement across the District of Columbia while training for his next marathon somewhere around the world.