Conversations with Leaders: Admiral Thad Allen

With more than 218 years of service to the nation, the U.S. Coast Guard is a military, multimission maritime organization that safeguards U.S. economic and security interests. We had the pleasure of speaking with Admiral Allen about the Coast Guard modernization, its many successes, and the use of social networking and Web 2.0 technologies.  Here’s an excerpt. 
On Leveraging Web 2.0 and Social Networking Technologies– I’ve been following the evolution of both social networking theory and information technology for quite some time. Over a year ago, it became very apparent that the new [so-called] digital natives were coming into the Coast Guard. They were coming from a different social atmosphere, if you will. [In response], we decided to start a series of experiments that kind of took hold and became permanent operations. A year ago April, we set up a Facebook page for me, so I could experiment with it. It became so popular that I needed an official Coast Guard Facebook page. We created an official commandant’s Facebook page, where you sign on as a fan rather than [as] a friend, so we could manage it better.  The real breakthrough, though, came last fall when we completely changed our website. [We introduced] the Commandant’s Corner. We also established a commandant’s blog: iCommandant. To date, we have well over 300 posts [to that blog]. It is a way I can communicate with the general public and my own people on strategic issues. When I’m traveling, focusing on things that are important, I can [update folks through the blog]. I also have guest [bloggers] post. It’s been a terrific way to expand the discussion, create more inclusiveness about what we’re doing, solicit stakeholder input, and move beyond some of the traditional [ways to communicate]. It’s still a work in progress. It’s still going to evolve, but we’re very encouraged by where we are right now.

On Coast Guard Modernization–When I was interviewed by [then] Secretary [Michael] Chertoff to be the commandant, I proposed to him that I would undertake some sweeping changes in the Coast Guard. This ultimately has become known as modernization. For many years, we’ve wrestled with some very tough problems around the command and control, logistics and maintenance, and mission support. My goal was to put that all together in a comprehensive plan on how to reposition the Coast Guard, so we’d be more flexible and agile moving into the 21st century. To be capable of sensing more nuanced changes in mission demand and demands for our services. It really is an effort to create a change-centric organization that’s more adaptable. There have been many times in the history of the Coast Guard where it has adapted to change—making significant changes in reaction to its operating environment. I think sometimes, after a couple of generations, we forget it. Sometimes we lose the courage to believe ourselves. I’ll give you a couple of examples. One was in the late 19th century, when we had a fundamental decision to shift from sail to steam [powered] craft. This new technology was not well understood. Many weren’t in favor of it. Probably, the biggest game changer—short of what’s happened in the last 20 or 30 years with information technology—was the introduction of wireless telegraphy. Most people don’t realize it, but the Coast Guard was the first to use wireless ship-to-shore telegraphy in support of law enforcement operations in the late 19th century [to combat] the opium trade. I’d like to create a Coast Guard that continually remembers, senses the environment, and changes incrementally—rather than every 10 or 15 years doing chainsaw surgery.

On the Future of the U.S. Coast Guard–It really relates to repositioning the service to be more flexible and agile in our current operating environment. What I’m really trying to do is create a change-centric organization that continually adapts to its environment. That is a much more daunting task. To change how we think, how we act, how we interact with our environment, and fundamentally change our business processes is really what we’re doing right now. An enduring legacy that I would like to leave is that we have [created] a Coast Guard that was capable of sensing changes in demand and proactive in doing what this country needs us to do.

Read this conversation in it’s entirety: Admiral Thad Allen

Listen to the complete interview: The Business of Government Hour

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