Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 20, 2013

Private and Public Cultures: Communicating

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 20, 2013

Two weeks ago I started thinking-out loud regarding the sometime tension between public and private cultures, especially related to homeland security.  I suggested the two sectors are divided by contrasting perceptions of context.   Given the difference in context, it is not surprising two very different concepts of operations emerge. Last week I gave specific examples related to planning.

This week I look at communications.   The differences here are especially profound, but as far as I can determine have nothing to do with my context-and-concept framework.  Today no theoretical notions, just observational reports.  If you have a hypothesis that explains the differences, please let us know.


Scheduling, Size, and Agenda

If I am doing private sector meetings in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco I begin setting up the schedule four to six weeks before.  I can usually do three or four meetings a day. Typically I exchange notes on agenda and key questions or purposes about two weeks prior.    The most important meetings are usually a working lunch or dinner.  These are set aside for two-hours plus and are conceived as encouraging non-linear conversations.  The vast majority of meetings are one-on-one or, perhaps, four or five altogether.  Early in my private sector career I was instructed to seriously discount the potential of any meeting involving more than seven people (myself included).

If I am doing public sector meetings — especially in Washington DC — it is risky to set up more than one in the morning and another in the afternoon.  It is not unusual for me to make an appointment and have it shifted two or three times on the scheduled day.  It is typical to make a meeting with one person and for a team of twelve to show up.  Eating together is seldom involved, but it is a signal of unusual intimacy.   Most of the public sector meetings to which I am invited have also invited dozens of others, but often less than a dozen show up.  More –sometimes many more — are on the phone (teleconferences are less common, involve smaller numbers, and are generally less interactive in the private sector). I almost always have an agenda in my mind, but I have learned that being explicit is seldom helpful and often hurtful.  Many of my most productive public sector meetings are totally spontaneous pop-ups.

Participation and Purposes

A private sector meeting usually begins with either a problem or a purpose (hence the prior discussion of agenda).  Some sort of previously prepared product is presented that either defines the problem/purpose or purports to solve/advance the problem/purpose.  Questions are asked.  Criticisms are offered.  Answers and explanations are attempted.  There is a conversation, often facilitated by the most senior person or an outside consultant. Adjustments in the original product are made.  Action steps are assigned. Who is assigned what is especially important.  What is the A Team assigned?  What is given the soon-to-retire guy and why? This signals the real priority associated with the product.  Some sort of follow-on measure or meeting or such is targeted.   Someone almost always follows up immediately in writing with what the meeting covered and decided. Who sends the follow-up and the proportion of CYA to advance-the-plow is significant. Corrections or “clarifications” to the follow-up can become very complicated. The product may be badly conceived.  The conversation can be stilted and non-productive.  The action assigned may be anemic and have the half-life of a May Fly, but this is a regularly repeating pattern.

A public sector meeting usually begins late, almost always ten minutes late.  It is not unusual to have a significant number of participants showing up thirty minutes late.   The meeting is often designed to generate a big piece of a product and it may be designed and constructed in the open meeting.  Positions are staked out. Pennsylvania is interested in X. HHS is insistent on Y.  Red Cross won’t play unless ABC is assured.  The product is accordingly adjusted, sometimes on a big screen in front of everyone.   Questions may be asked.  I have seen effective questioners transform meetings and products.  But when questions are answered it is much more reminiscent of a thesis-defense than a dinner conversation. Another version of the product is distributed claiming to reflect the meeting outcomes.  Sometimes it does, often by padding the product and making it even more unwieldy and unreadable, occasionally in an integrative way.  But in any case, the authors can claim to have consulted key stakeholders and peers.

In the private sector “products” — as used above — are usually a collection of research, production, organizational, and/or marketing actions.   In the public sector products are as often written documents of some sort.


Private sector meetings are more and more informal.  This trend has been especially pronounced over the last ten years.  Casual Fridays have overtaken the whole week.  The discussion ranges from family to a couple of cells on the spreadsheets to purposeful (very short) stories.  There is — in many, though not all, private sector settings — a deep bias toward “blending.”  Private and professional are blended.  Numbers and narrative are blended.  Everyone is expected to contribute to the conversation in a balanced happily blended way. Courtesy counts. Cool counts.  Generation Y has a serious claim on the culture.

There is — at least to my taste — a persistently paramilitary flavor to most  public sector meetings.  Many more ties are worn in the public sector.  Many more PowerPoints are shown.  There are many more formal presentations and “official” interventions.  The size difference between private and public meetings, noted above, probably has a considerable influence.  Command Presence counts. Baby boomers continue to define the culture.

When these two cultures come together the rhetorical results can be dramatic, especially when there is numerical parity.  Private sector conversations seem off-point or ill-informed or glib to many in the public sector.  Public sector interventions seem long, defensive, and bossy to many in the private sector.

At a private-public session a few months ago a senior government official attempted to direct the discussion by asserting his (and his organization’s) greater knowledge of the situation.  It was an extended comment punctuated with just a tad of table-pounding.  It was followed by uncomfortable silence.  I was trying to conceive a follow-on question that might open up some shared space.

A younger private sector guy broke the silence with, “I don’t believe you.  You may be absolutely right, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t believe you.”  The following is a paraphrase, “I don’t believe you because you are claiming more knowledge of your world than I have of my world.  You are claiming to have more control of the world than I believe is possible.  And you are speaking to me as if I was a child.”

I wish it was possible to report that this was an epiphany that unlocked greater understanding on both sides.  Instead it seemed to deepen the chasm.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 20, 2013 @ 4:20 am

Phil this is an interesting and quite amazing post. It explains much to me about your style and competence if nothing else and demonstrates to me why you are in demand, in particular as an outside assistance to inner organization dialogue and outside effectiveness for that organization.

One distinction between public and private is that while both organizations need to survive and be funded and staffed both have different time frames and opportunity costs to their decisions or delayed decisions. Thus, while public efforts are designed to accomodate political decisions or lack thereof by the deciders and sometimes difficult to decide in the public sector who the deciders are in fact or in law then delay on the basis that what is not known outweighs the known so NO decision is the right decision. Perhaps the larger private sector organizations also fight again the desire to postpone knowing that doing so can enhance the competitive advantage of other orgs.

It would interesting to know if your clients are often repetitive in making demands on you once you have provided your first inputs. No need to disclose here but my interest would be in identifying whether the seeds you have planted germinate and grow or just become part of the jungle.

And a final observation would be should a President be one to clear the forest of underbrush or is that the main job? Preventing fires or starting fires?

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 20, 2013 @ 4:44 am

And Phil are the contractors who seek public dollars a third culture or one of the other two? Do we know how much of each year’s appropriations at all levels of government, including tax expenditures, goest to the private sector and NGO’s?

Who are the real welfare queens? Romney’s 47% that pay NO taxes or receive government checks? Not really sure how he defined it.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 20, 2013 @ 6:49 am


It is my experience that government contractors — especially defense and intelligence contractors — are another distinct culture. It is a gross generalization, but the “Defense/Industrial Complex” hybrid can seem to mix the worst of private and public.

Your reference of different time-frames anticipates what I expect to post on next week. And a big part of the time-frame difference is, in my judgement, a result of the cycle-time for system feedback in the two sectors… which I also read in your comment.

I read your question about “repetitive” demand as a question of demonstrable effectiveness. I am of two minds on this issue. First, there are moments when I look back on over forty years of professional output and wonder if I contributed anything that was not ephemeral. My most ambitious efforts to effect systemic and sustained shifts in strategy have mostly failed. Again and again, I might add. But as I have mellowed into semi-retirement I am very pleased to see small successes — that did not mean much at genesis — producing surprising value over time. The second judgment may be little more than self-justification. It may also be reflective of how the biggest changes often emerge from a confluence of many small ones. I am not sure and cannot trust my own judgment.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 20, 2013 @ 7:11 am

Phil! I am sure you made a difference. During 20 years at FEMA I used to say to staff if I won on one issue or policy out of ten I viewed that as success. Actually more likely one out of every hundred.

A primer! When hiring a consultant the federal government can do it through the personal process or by contracting! Goods and services provided to the feds is normally by contract.

The grant world is a development of the 60’s and 70’s with probably the leading grant judicial decision by SOCTUS in 1982/3 Pennhurst School v. Califano.

And then in the late 70’s Cooperative Agreements a hybrid between grants and contracts became popular when the feds were dealing with STATE and their local governments. All varieties have strengths and weaknesses. OMB Circulars on grants now codified at Title 3 of the CFR are deliberately opaque.

The federal/state agreements under the Stafford Act predecessor statutes were ruled in essence a contract in Texas v. US (1973) AND enforceable as such. Actually FEMA is very weak in both contract and grant administration. A hidden subsidy?

As to DoD, DCAA [Defense Contract Audit Agency] its performance would shock almost any independent reviewer. The revolving door is huge at both DCAA and DoD with most flag ranks worrying about their post-employment opportunities as opposed to their current assignments.

Well all of the above what Congress wants–a very corrupt Congress IMO.

Comment by Rubin, Claire

June 20, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

You raise some very interesting issues, but I think a different forum for discussion is needed.

Too many of us either are, or may be, contractors to delve into the questions you raise in this medium.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

Perhaps I should have mentioned that despite some feeble efforts there are still no ethics rules for federal contractors or consultants hired through the federal procurement process. There are rules for consultants hired through the personnel process.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Private and Public Cultures: Action

June 27, 2013 @ 5:18 am

[…] This is — depending on your responses — probably the last in a short series of posts on perceived tensions between private and public sectors in homeland security.  Prior posts have considered context, concepts, and communications. […]

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October 29, 2013 @ 8:25 am

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