Federal managers and executives are among the best-educated professionals in the nation. But that education and experience can be a problem if leaders lose sight of the people they are there to serve—people who often lack the experience or knowledge government officials may take for granted. Consider that two-thirds of American adults don't have a bachelor's degree, and less than 4 percent have a graduate degree, Census Bureau data show, whereas the Office of Personnel Management reports that 51 percent of federal employees have a bachelor's degree or higher.
What’s more, as recently mentioned in a blog post by the Federal Communicators Network, 52 percent of adults don't read at a "proficient" level (here's an example of something written at that level). That was a finding of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, a large-scale study developed under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The data, also used by the Education Department, show this isn't limited to older, foreign-born, or rural adults. Even 25 percent of bachelor's degree holders and 39 percent of associate's degree holders suffer from illiteracy. To think of this in different terms, 30 million adults don't read above a 3rd grade level.
Low literacy is connected to lower rates of civic participation and less trust in government. Surveys show that only a third of Americans trust the government to do what’s right and just 18 percent of Americans trust it to do the right thing most of the time. In this environment, it is essential that government officials find ways to communicate effectively with the people they serve. But how should this knowledge about literacy inform the way federal leaders make and communicate government decisions?
From our earliest history, humans have relied on storytellers to create a framework for making sense out of a chaotic world. Information overload is another form of chaos. Leaders who understand this—who understand how to communicate effectively and build trust—create incredible value for their organizations.
There are three things in particular that federal leaders can do to ensure their organizations communicate effectively with the average American.
- Ensure that your communications staff are educated about their audience and motivated to communicate to that audience on its level. Communications must be part of your strategic vision. Reward those who take the time to speak the language of their fellow citizens, regardless of literacy or educational level. This must be a priority for your communications staff.
- Get to know some of the citizens you serve. Talk to some of your stakeholders and their families. Shake their hands. Call them up. There's no substitute for getting to know someone. This will give you valuable background to support meaningful communication. It's also an opportunity to lead by example. If you make the time, those who work with you will do the same.
- Consider giving your customers and fellow citizens a formal role in your communications process. This can be through a formal sounding board or a series of ad hoc focus groups to provide input on major initiatives and campaigns. Borrow a trusted tactic of the private sector and A/B test different ideas and language with real customers. This isn't just a way to ensure you will be understood, but will empower citizens to feel like part of your team. That will build the trust that's essential for effective government and create new messengers who can reach your audience in ways you cannot. Be sure to set up safeguards to ensure that information stays confidential.
The people you serve are your ultimate bosses. But if you learn to reach them, and take the time to do it effectively, you will see greater success for yourself, your team, and your organization.
Joseph Maltby is a change management specialist in the U.S. federal government and chief operations officer at Young Government Leaders.