We need to rethink “word of mouth” culture in government

I’m currently listening in on some interviews in which we ask various BC government employees how they find the information they need to do…

We need to rethink “word of mouth” culture in government
Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

I’m currently listening in on some interviews in which we ask various BC government employees how they find the information they need to do certain parts of their jobs.

And the most common answer, by a long shot, is “I ask ______”

“_____,” for record, is never the same person across interviews. There’s no all-knowing person. “_____” is usually someone they used to work with who has been in government for a long time and knows lots of other people.

Do you remember playing telephone as a child? If not, here’s how you play it: One kid makes up a totally random message like “bears like to eat sushi” and whispers that to another kid, who whispers it to someone else and eventually the message had gone through 15 different kids and now the message has become “I love my unicorn stuffy” or something.

I recall playing this a lot as a kid, and never once did the original message make it to the end unscathed.

So, when I keep hearing people say that they get their information by asking other people, it really worries me.

What if we’re in a giant, real-life game of telephone, where the stakes are a lot higher?

I love storytelling. I love talking to people. Word of mouth culture is great for relationship building, and adding context and heart and depth to work.

But when word of mouth is your primary source of information, it’s incredibly problematic because:

  • It’s not inclusive. It relies on you knowing someone, and not everyone knows someone or even has the ability to have a conversation with someone.
  • It’s not persistent. The stories and data and context disappear as people move around and leave government.
  • It’s not consistent. People are unreliable narrators. They forget and mishear things and bring their own understanding and experiences to a story. Just like in the game of telephone, the message shifts and changes with every person who tells it. The original information gets warped until it’s not recognizable, and people apply it the info and learnings to their own work in different ways.
  • It’s not open. It shares knowledge with a very limited audience, when there are many, maybe thousands, who could benefit from that knowledge.
  • It puts an unfair burden on the people who are identified as the holders of the knowledge.

Documentation takes time. It seems to go against agile principles. But it’s crucial to good work. If we want the teams who come after us to continue to build upon the work we’ve done, we have to be clear and open about what we’ve done and why, in a way that is findable by anyone who might need it, regardless of their relationships or rank.

I fear that word of mouth is our ingrained culture, and culture is really, really hard to change. But I’m hopeful that if we become aware of this, we can slowly, collectively start to shift towards a culture where we talk to each other and we also write stuff down and make it open for other people to find.

So please:

  • When you do work that others can benefit from, write it down and put it somewhere that others can find it.
  • Keep it simple. You don’t need to include every detail — just focus on the key points.
  • By default, put it somewhere public, unless it needs to be locked down for specific reasons (I would argue that most things don’t actually need to be locked down.)
  • And, most importantly, hire content designers. In every team. Most teams need more than one.

By the way, I recognize that there are not a lot of good places to put things in public in our government. We should work on that. In the meantime, just do your best.