The manager interviewed for this assignment was Chief Warrant 3 Linwood Bowers, the Chief of the Personnel Support Directorate of the White House Communications Agency (WHCA). Chief Bowers has held his present position for four years. The focus of the interview was the unique challenges of good communication.
One of the unique challenges Chief Bowers has had to face is the different language that permeates throughout the organizational culture of the Agency. WHCA is a joint command with individuals of all DOD services present. This joint environment is fraught with communication stumbling blocks like learning service unique terms. The importance of common terminology has been highlighted most recently in the Agency’s manpower review. Terms used to describe job functions are not clearly understood across service lines. The example given was one service uses executive officer to describe a junior officer assigned administrative duties in support of the unit commander and another uses the same term to mean the second person in the chain of command.
In addition, the operational focus of the Agency tends to create an environment of we/they. Where “we” is associated with the personnel in the agency that travel in support of the President, Vice President and First Lady. And “they” is associated with the support functions. The operational focus was used as a re-organizational decision point and consciously divided the Agency into Input/Output divisions. Because of manpower shortages, an attempt was made to give everyone a fixed as well as an operational/travel mission. This dual mission role has hampered focus and created confusion. One of the problems is that personnel are assigned a travel mission they have not been formally trained to accomplish. Personnel are assigned radio technician responsibilities and are required to learn based solely through agency on-the-job training. This unique approach to manning shortfalls drives the need for good communication and interpersonal skills.
Chief Bowers stated that the travel tempo impels him to communicate through email. Email communication does not provide an opportunity for “non verbals” as discussed in Arredondo (1991). “Visual cues (what’s seen) accounted for more than half of the impact on people. More than a third came from vocal signals (sounds and tones). Less than a tenth was the result of words (the verbal channel).” To recap, the relative impact of non-verbal communication accounts for 93% of the delivery of face to face communication. Email communication is a required necessary evil because the agency is spread throughout the country. As a result, effective consistent communications is being hampered and is not an established strength of the Agency in Chief Bower’s opinion.
Chief Bowers also voiced concern over inconsistent application of rules and standards of conduct. In his experience, everyone believes his or her situation is unique and therefore requires “special” consideration. The very nature of bearing arms demands a strong chain of command and consistent accountability. The lack of accountability and challenge of defending inconsistent “special” decisions has had the effect of undermining the chain of command. As a result, credibility or trust, a basic tenet of the communication process, is being questioned.
The challenges of a common terminology, operational focus, dual mission responsibilities, forced email communication methods, and defense of ill understood senior level decisions are not unique to WHCA. In spite of these communication challenges WHCA continues to provide Presidential quality service. WHCA’s people make the difference and succeed in spite of the stumbling blocks to effective communication. Interviewing Chief Bowers provided me the opportunity to see the agency from a different perspective.