John Klossner's Ink Tank

The inside scoop on the Federal 100 Awards

 It's that time of year again for the Federal 100 -- where FCW recognizes the top personnel in the federal IT workforce. Every year, when it's Federal 100 time, my relationship with FCW turns into a series of code words. Typically, when I speak with an editor about the cartoon topic for an upcoming issue, I need to get some details and we have a 10-20 minute conversation. There are two times each year when no details are needed.

1. "It's time for Fed 100 nominations."
2. "It's the Fed 100 issue."

In the 14 years I have been drawing cartoons for FCW, I have learned that the Fed 100 process speaks for itself. People get nominated. People win. There is a dinner held in honor of the winners. From an editorial standpoint, this can be challenging. As the old cartoonists' saying goes (when talking about a cartoon that doesn't allow for an editorial angle) "Are we for or against honoring people who make the industry better?" And, as far as my cartoons on the subject go, let's just say I'm going to keep drawing them until I get it right.

That said, I wanted to find something more about the Fed 100 and the processes surrounding the presentation. All good FCW readers know the awards started in 1990 to honor the people doing good work in federal government. (It seems that those working in Washington were targeted by political candidates as not doing a good job -- can you imagine that?) So I asked the people behind the Fed 100 at FCW if they'd care to share some histories and personal anecdotes from their years with the presentation.

Unfortunately, they were all busy preparing for the dinner, leaving me to beg Editor at Large (and FCW Insider) John Monroe to drop one or two of the 100 plates he is spinning to answer a couple questions I had about the Fed 100. A couple questions turned into a couple hundred (I am the master of the follow up 3 questions) and before he knew it, he was using his valuable time to answer whether anyone has ever snuck into the Fed 100 dinner. What follows are some things you may not have known about the Fed 100, and some things you may not want to know.

(As always, I am grateful to John Monroe for his time and vast store of experience at FCW. My questions and comments are in bold.)

Is it always 100 people?

Always 100. Never more, never less.

What is the difference between the 100th honoree and the 101st, who doesn't make the cut?

The difference between 100 and 101 is often slim. I occasionally feel bad about someone who really deserved it but simply didn't deserve it more than the others. That's often what it comes down to. If you have two people who did equally good work, the difference often is the importance of the work. (In response to this, I propose creating the "Fed 101-200," who will be honored at a metro Starbucks the next morning.)

Has the event ever been delayed or cancelled?

The Fed 100 dinner has proven immune to blizzards, hurricanes, American Idol season finales and other disasters that strike fear into event planners everywhere. On the other hand, we’ve had an entertainer who was arrested just weeks before the event. The person was out on bail by the time the dinner rolled around, but it didn’t seem like such a good fit anymore. You can imagine the panic around here. Who could we find to fill in at such late notice? Who could uphold the standard of entertainment that marks this awards dinner? Someone from the Antique Roadshow? The Home Shopping Network? Nah, we went for Comic God Dave Barry (his contract stipulated that appellation), who graciously agreed to return to the event where he had been such a huge hit just a couple of years earlier.

Any memorably bad meals or culinary mishaps at the dinner?

To be honest, I can’t recall any memorable culinary mishaps, aside from one of a personal nature many years ago. As I always do, I requested a vegetarian plate. Most years this is not a problem, but this was the exception. I got a small plate -- salad size perhaps -- with pasta that looked suspiciously like SpaghettiOs along side some wilted carrots. My nearest dinner companions looked down at the meal, looked up at me, coughed politely and turned the other away. I spent the evening dreaming about the dessert bar. Which is always fabulous, by the way. But don’t expect me to divulge the details: You need to win an award to learn more (or at least buy your own ticket).

How many different venues have hosted the dinner?

A small handful. The most memorable was the Building Museum, which features a large fountain in the middle of the room. A striking visual, but unfortunately the large pool was practically even with the floor, so someone who wasn’t paying attention could easily walk right into the water. Which several people did, drinks in hand. One person, with admirable fortitude, just kept on walking until they came out the other side.

Is it possible to attend the Fed 100 virtually? Does Second Life have a fed 100?

This is still very much a real world event. Although I must admit it would be intriguing to see what avatars the winners might pick. How awkward it would be if more than one person showed up as a Klingon.

Are there any people who have the golden touch as far as making nominations -- they've nominated a large share of winners?

Definitely. It’s not a matter of gaming the system -- the judges will see through that. But think about the award criteria. We are looking for individuals who have gone above and beyond their job descriptions and made a real impact on their organizations or on the larger federal IT community. In many cases, the judges will be familiar with a nominee’s work and its importance. But if not, it’s up to the nominator to spell it out in clear, compelling terms. That’s why some of the most successful nominators are former judges: They know how to make the pitch. Of course, a pitch is only as good as the product behind it. The best written nomination won’t succeed if the individual isn’t deserving.

But there’s another factor here: Good leadership. Organizations or programs that are blessed with strong leaders are more likely to have more than their fair share of Federal 100 winners. Why? Because the employees are more likely to have clear missions and to be provided with the tools they need to do their job. Add some innate talent and ambition, and you have a winning combination. And when those leaders nominate their employees, they carry a lot of weight. Good leaders win awards Great leaders have employees who win awards.

It doesn’t always work that way. We had a situation once in which some a staffer nominated the boss for the award -- apparently at the boss’s behest. The judges knew better and elected to give the staffer the award. Yikes. We received a call from the anxious staffer who asked us to reconsider. We were more than happy to say that the judges’ decision was final. Justice was done.

What is the most dominant color of clothing at the dinner?

Once upon a time, it was classic black, but that’s not true anymore. Let me tell you, the federal IT community knows a thing or two about fashion. In fact, for several years, FCW would run a collage of photos after the event showcasing the best-dressed attendees. One year I had the task of accompanying the photographer around the reception room looking for people to profile. But after 15 or 20 minutes I realized that I had the fashion sense of a Muppet and that the photographer had just been humoring me. I bowed out with what little dignity I had left.

If someone showed up in jeans and a collared shirt, would they be allowed admission?

It never worked for me.

Who has won the award the most times?

Five people have won the award five or more times: Alan Balutis, Robert Guerra, Ira Hobbs, Renato DiPentima and Donald Upson. Don Upson takes the prize with six awards. Each year we see a number of repeat winners. That’s because good employees tend to do good work year after year. Although some people have suggested we should test for steroids.

Can you tell me more about the dessert bar?

Actually, I am not much of a dessert eater during the rest of the year, so I don’t know how to describe what’s on the bar. It’s just a good spread -- my favorite part of the event each year.

Who is the highest level official, or biggest celebrity, that has attended?

Over the years, we’ve had numerous generals and some high falutin congressional types (including Senators Al Gore, right before he became vice president, and Al Franken, when his rank was still Comedian). This year we are expecting Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and, more important, a 2010 Federal 100 award winner. But the way I see it is this: When it comes to winning the Federal 100, a first lieutenant deserves as much respect as a general and a network specialist can ask a CIO to stop hogging the bread basket.

Are there any tables in the hall you'd recommend sitting at, i.e., where is the best seat in the house? The worst?

Sitting is assigned based on a complicated algorithm that I couldn’t begin to explain. But I would make one observation: The best seats in the house are not always at the front of the room. Several years ago the entertainer was Paula Poundstone. If you have ever seen her perform, you know she likes to mix it up with the audience, beginning with the front row. She had a number of VIPs squirming like worms on a hook just wishing a fish would swallow them.

How many congressional members have won awards?

Quite a few members of Congress have won the award, especially during the days of procurement reform in the 1990s. Fewer have won in recent years, although Tom Davis managed to nab the top winners with the Eagle in 2001. But here’s a little bit of Fed 100 history trivia for you: Al Gore won the award twice while in the Senate -- 1992 and 1993 (although he was the veep by the time the second award was given). And why did he win, you ask? Let me quote our write-up from 1992 (pre-campaign):

When Congress voted last fall to double federal spending on supercomputers and to create a high-speed nationwide data network, it was largely due to the persistence of Gore. For years, the lone voice in Congress supporting the High-Performance Computing and Communications Initiative, Gore was both the brains and the brawn behind the 1991 legislation. He single-handedly created the awareness, sensitivity and sympathy for supercomputing needed to get the bill passed. A two-time Democratic senator from Tennessee, Gore is the author of the frequently repeated comparison of the National Research and Education Network to the nation’s highway system.

He won for inventing the Internet. Well, not inventing it, per se, but for being its strongest advocate. Who knew?

Have any foreign officials ever won an award?

One of my favorite winners of all time was Sabile "Billi" Tmava, a refugee from Kosovo. She won the award in 2000, when she was only 17 years old, for her work at a refugee camp in Germany, where she trained other refugees how to use the Internet to locate and contact family members. Allan Holmes, who was editor of FCW, arranged for her to travel here to receive her award in person. It was a great event.

Has anyone ever crashed the event?

If I’m reading the between lines correctly, you are asking if the Salahis might have honed their skills at the Federal 100 before moving up to the White House. But, no, as far I know, that never happened. (But now that I think about it, I was surprised to bump into Al Roker at the dessert bar one year, but I just assumed he was somebody’s date.)

And lastly, since you won't be in attendance, will you consider selling your dessert ticket?

You will have to pry it from my dead cold hands.

Federal 100 blank bracket

Posted by John Klossner on Mar 19, 2010 at 12:19 PM1 comments

A new way to think about favoritism in the workplace

In a former life, I was a playground basketball addict. One of the basic rules at every urban playground I've ever been on is that the team that wins the game stays on the court (for the other rules, see below). When there are several dozen players waiting for the upcoming games, it is in your best interest -- if you don't want to wait a couple hours to play again -- to win the game.

I consider myself a person with a sense of fairness (this will be covered by Steve Kelman's "positive illusions" reference, below). When I first started playing on playgrounds, and had dibs on an upcoming game, I would take the next four people who had been waiting the longest. You know -- first come, first served. Not surprisingly, that didn't often lead to a win. I quickly learned that fairness wasn't as important as the 6'8" guy whose team had just lost.

This would lead to some awkward situations: Everyone would ask you how many people you had for the next game, and you had to use all kinds of code to tell them there was no room on your team without saying you were saving three places for the ringers who were inexplicably losing the game in progress. "I have enough." "I'm all set." We've got our squad." "We don't need any more." Most people understood the unsaid clues. Some would try to argue their way on -- "Where are they?" "You have five?" (This was especially tricky when, early in that day's games, there were only three people waiting and you planned on recruiting four players from the team that lost the current game.) Occasionally someone would get upset when they realized that someone who had just lost a game was staying on with your team. But, for the most part, people understood.

All this was to win a pickup basketball game or two, and hopefully get more playing time for myself. I hope I'm not wrong in assuming that a typical federal agency manager is more motivated to succeed than a teenager on a playground.

I was reminded of this while reading various accounts concerning charges of favoritism in agency hiring and promotions.

In a recent blog entry, Steve Kelman contends that federal employees who claim favoritism when being passed over for promotions might be suffering "positive illusions" or -- to put it in plainer language -- they aren't as good as they think they are (see the reference to my sense of fairness, above). I'm sure on the basketball courts of my past there were many players who didn't get chosen who thought they were better than they were ( I'm sitting here with my hand raised), but that doesn't mean there wasn't favoritism going on.

I propose a different line of thought. Rather than deny that favoritism is taking place in the workplace, admit it. Of course there is favoritism going on. Wouldn't we be better off by acknowledging this and moving on from there?

The larger problem in this situation is that so many federal employees think that favoritism is rampant. If people think there is no chance for advancement or reward, they will not be motivated. This in turn could cause managers to only hire and promote people they know because they are comfortable with either their presence or their work, which will then cause the employees to claim favoritism, which will cause them to lose motivation, which causes the managers. ... I think you see where this is heading.

Instead of spending all this energy denying that preferences exist, let's all agree that managers have preferences, which should calm things down.

Note that I didn't say "solve the problem." By agreeing that favoritism exists -- and it always will as long as human beings are involved -- we need deal with the various lines that separate "good" favoritism from "bad" favoritism. For example, good favoritism is having a preference for skilled, motivated employees who pay attention to detail. Bad favoritism is being particular to someone you see at family dinners.

Is it favoritism if you're particular to people with advanced degrees and high grades? Is it favoritism if you prefer working with other members of your gender? Is it favoritism if your favorites are coworkers you've worked with for over 10 years who you know are skilled and experienced? Is it favoritism if you're paying someone back for a job they gave you earlier in your career? Is it favoritism if you, as a manager, bring in someone from outside the agency who you've worked with in the past? Is it favoritism if you have a preference for people who can help the office recreational basketball team?

As you can see, the argument over favoritism contains many fine lines. It's just that arguing that favoritism doesn't exist isn't one of them.

Meanwhile, here are the other basic rules of the playground:

1. The guy playing in long pants and dress shoes is either a really good player who doesn't need to look good or a really bad player who doesn't know any better. There is no middle ground.

2. If you are on a playground and two or more players from a Division 1 college basketball team show up, they get in the next game. No questions asked.

3. On your first visit to a playground, don't call a foul on anyone other than yourself.

4. If you are shoved into a basket support and the other guy says "local rules," you might want to check out other playgrounds.

5. Wool socks are a warning sign.

6. Don't play at a park with bullet holes in the backboards.

Posted by John Klossner on Mar 11, 2010 at 12:19 PM5 comments

10 suggestions for improving the feedback process

Free pizza

In reading the cover story in the Jan. 31 New York Times Sunday Magazine about a boy who grew up in Alabama, was a popular high-school student and is now leading a jihadist cell in Somalia, one element of the reporting that stuck out for me was the paper trail. Or, to put it in technologically current terms, the digital trail. As someone who is old enough to naively believe that one still has a right to privacy in this culture, I was amazed at how complete a picture could be created of this person--who left the country five years ago and is currently thought to be living in the Somali bush--from chat room comments, e-mails and conversations with old friends.

It made me think about the profile that can be created on each of us by searching through our electronic records. It also made me want to be much more careful and well-thought about anything I've ever written. And then it made me depressed, realizing that for me it probably is way too late.

If we all became more aware of our digital trail, would that create digital morality? Would we be more thoughtful if we knew that a body of our work was being gathered to create a public profile? It is with this in mind that I entertain ideas to improve the online public suggestions process. recently held a forum to get suggestions for improving its Web site. In reading through the piles of comments, one finds--like too many online comments sections--a dearth of well-thought out and considered material. In talking with experts about improving the online feedback process, one suggestion repeatedly comes to the top: the elimination of anonymity. If people have to openly stand by their words and thoughts, they will put more thought into them, or at least avoid the knee-jerk reactions that sometimes clutter comments sections.

This stands in contrast to the original appeal of being online: the Internet where, as the famous New Yorker cartoon put it, "Nobody knows you're a dog." One of the strengths of online conversation was its anonymity. We all thought that the ideas alone, without the associations of who stated them, would flower and carry the conversation. The least powerful among us could converse with the powerful and connected on a level playing field. All ideas had equal access.

Well, it now seems that we've run out of ideas. (My personal theory is that everyone in the world now has a blog, and all these comments are being randomly generated by a server in Wilmington, Del.). It appears that nothing productive will come of the online suggestion process until we return to a world without anonymity. This doesn't have to be a harsh process. There are ways to make it subtle, even enjoyable. I offer the following ideas for making the feedback process more productive or, at least, more entertaining:

Require all comments to include an accurate photograph of the commenter.

Post all submissions on a Beltway billboard with the photograph.

Charge for comments (this may not improve the suggestions, but it will provide spending money for lunch or budget deficits).

In order to comment, applicants should be required to read--and choose from--100 other comments.

In order to make more than three comments, applicants must provide a note from their doctor.

Make applicants use a screen name from a list of Sesame Street characters. Then, at least, it will be entertaining when we see a call for free pizza for federal employees from Big Bird.

Include a timer in the submission form: The longer the commenter takes to submit their proposal, the more words they are allowed to use.

Automatically reject submissions three times in a row, thereby enabling only the truly committed to make submissions.

Put breathalyzers on all new computers.

Build a Web site to serve as a template of the Times Sunday magazine. This site will collect all comments made by you throughout your life, and construct a written profile of you based on your digital writing. You will be able to see your profile develop as you comment, and all comments will include a link to this site.

Suggestion boxes

Posted by John Klossner on Feb 16, 2010 at 12:19 PM0 comments