How Poor Communication Fosters Distrust in Government

If federal operations seem opaque to the public, it’s often by design.

People nowadays don't trust the government. Maybe you think they shouldn't trust the government. Frankly, sometimes I don't trust the government. And sometimes, unfortunately, that mistrust is well-placed. (Just pick up any newspaper.)

Most of the time, though, we government employees are a pretty decent bunch. Hardworking, honest, and we genuinely want to help. We want to make a difference, even if it's a small one. But something often gets in our way—we don't control the system.

To a much larger extent than people appreciate, the structure of society determines how the individuals within it behave. Imagine a country with ineffective, corrupt, or absent police. How would that affect your feelings and behaviors around self-defense? Or how about living under a religious dictatorship. Would religion be appealing?

Culture is a manifestation of structure. It is "the way we do things around here," and it reflects the values underpinning our system of law.

Back to government.

Often people lament the poor quality of government communication versus the private sector. In fact, the 2010 Plain Writing Act was passed as a way of addressing the problem, by "forcing" agencies to speak clearly.

Half a decade later, it remains routine for government-speak to be unintelligible to many. It is better, but we aren't close to there yet.

The reason government communication often leaves much to be desired? It has little to do with government writers and everything to do with structure—including the culture that stems from it.

The nature of government is to be relatively opaque about its activities. This is not a revolutionary statement but common sense. It's not just because of national security, it's a law of bureaucracy: All large, complex institutions easily become "too big to fail," motivated by a kind of self-sustaining survival instinct. 

And thus the social function of Congress, the justice system, the media and various watchdog groups, whistleblowers and others is to force the government to be more transparent. As fraud, waste and abuse is "outed," bad practices have to stop because they simply cannot withstand public scrutiny.

This is the context in which the goal of government communication bears reconsidering.

The classical view is that the writers serve and reflect the agency in which they are situated. If the agency is turgid and obtuse, then guess what? So will the writing be.

But what if the job of a government writer were reconceived—as a tool to serve the public? It sounds almost insane to put it this way, right? Serving the taxpayer ought to be the first order of business. But let's be honest: It is difficult to extricate an agency's self-perpetuating tendencies from the mission it carries out. And employees will naturally reflect this inherent conflict, which makes it important for the agency itself to use communication as a corrective tool. Meaning, you don't operate in reactive mode, wasting resources fending off charges of poor stewardship after the fact.

Instead, you use the communication function as a diagnostic tool. You consider every single decision through the eyes of an impartial third party. Flowing from that approach, you design a comprehensive communication culture. People routinely think, talk and write from the perspective of "what would my mother think?" or "how would this look on the cover of the newspaper, above the fold?"

It sounds simple and obvious but in practice it is easy to make common sense complicated. You pack a lunch before you go to work with the idea that 10 minutes of preparation can save you $10 and a long line at the salad bar. In the same way, creating a culture of accountability, well in advance of any specific writing task, is the best way to invest in the communication function.

Copyright 2016 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.