WikiLeaks and the Crisis of Government Communication

The lack of professional standards is a problem.

"Fewer than 3 in 10 Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted since July 2007—the longest period of low trust in government in more than 50 years." --  Pew Research Center, Nov. 23, 2015

In the United States, federal government communicators have no shared professional standards of conduct, other than what they can piece together on their own.

This was one of the key findings of a groundbreaking study conducted by the Federal Communicators Network in 2016—the first-ever survey of federal communicators by federal communicators.

Out of 153 self-identified federal communicators who completed a small-scale survey administered by FCN:

  • Just 1 percent—2 people—agreed "a great deal" with the assertion that "communication professionals' roles and expectations are generally consistent across government."
  • They were more likely to strongly agree that individual performance expectations are clear (18 percent—27 people).
  • But then again, there was overwhelming disagreement that those expectations are appropriate (11 percent—17 people). 

(Click here to see the raw survey data in table format; look for question 5.)

If expectations are unclear it's because U.S. government information professionals utterly lack governmentwide standards and guidelines with which to do their jobs. This much became clear on diving into the confusing hodgepodge of research about what specifically it is that all federal information providers must do.

While superficially one may think that "accountability," "transparency," and "no spin" cover it—in fact there are times when the government is allowed to use appropriated funds to communicate in a way that can be (and often is) perceived as propagandistic or wasteful.

For example, the Smith Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 made it legal to distribute domestically U.S. government information intended for foreign audiences. While some decried the end of the “propaganda ban,” others saw it as a reasonable modernization of the law, given that the Internet makes traditional information segregation impossible. (One could of course ask whether traditional government propaganda should cease altogether, since it is no longer covert.)

The U.S. government currently attempts to control for inappropriate communication using three distinct mechanisms:

Clearly this framework is not enough. Many have expressed concern about the extent to which taxpayer dollars are used inappropriately when it comes to federally sponsored communication:

"NASA tweeting that Congress should give it more money so our astronauts won’t have to ride on Russian rockets. reporting overly optimistic statistics on jobs saved and created by stimulus funds. The Department of Health and Human Service website encouraging the public to “state your support for health care reform” during the congressional debate over Obamacare. These are just some recent examples of the executive branch using our tax dollars to shape our opinions." -- The Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2015

What happens when an agency goes too far? The Government Accountability Office launches an audit and issues a report, or Congress calls for research as agencies regularly do advertising, marketing and public relations. Right now the government is trying to figure out why exactly agencies spent $893 million on advertising contracts in fiscal year 2013 and almost $4.7 billion in total during the prior five fiscal years.

Research shows that 62 percent of the public has a positive view of federal employees. Considering that the public's view of the federal government is at a record low, it makes sense to establish a professional code of conduct and clear goals and objectives across the board for federal communicators. That would enable us to stand as gatekeepers when our agency is about to do something ill-advised. (These are my opinions only; I do not speak for my own agency or the government as a whole.)

In the U.K., such a code and a plan is already standard practice, and although the data are currently slim, one can reasonably assume there is a connection between communication and perceptions of integrity. For example, the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 ranks the U.S. beneath the U.K. when it comes to perceptions of integrity. While Britain is ranked among the top 10 performers in the world (tied for No. 10 with Germany and Luxembourg), the U.S. comes in lower (No. 16). This isn't by any means the worst performance on the chart (North Korea and Somalia are tied at No. 167), but the numbers do tell a story.

A fascinating dissertation by H.J.M. (Erna) Ruijer of Virginia Commonwealth University's Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, offers some insight. It's called "Proactive Transparency and Government Communication in the USA and the Netherlands" (2013).

The author's research yielded some important findings. First, she showed that while the Netherlands is characterized by "principles-based" government communication (e.g. "do the right thing"), the U.S. is "rules-based" (e.g. "follow the letter of the law"). It is noteworthy that the Netherlands is ranked among the Top 10 in the Transparency Index as well.

In both countries, most communicators "valued proactive transparency highly and . . . were actively involved in implementing proactive transparency." Additionally, communicators "contributed to making information more findable, relevant and understandable for its users."

However, on the negative side, in both countries, "communicators indicated they sometimes leave out important details, give only part of the story or specifically highlight the positive elements in the information." 

Perhaps most significantly, Ruijer found that a healthy organizational environment was necessary for communicators to deliver real information and avoid propaganda and spin. She writes:

“Communicators working in an organization that supports proactive transparency provide more substantial information, use less spin and are more inclined to solicit feedback and participation from stakeholders."

The fact that the public does not trust the federal government, but instead awaits release after release of leaked information from Wikileaks, is a very real crisis for the U.S. government.

If you don't believe me—after all, the political communication associated with an election is completely separate from the information world of the civil service—I certainly hear the objection. Factually speaking, most of the interest Wikileaks stirs up is no doubt "political." Additionally, available data indicates that trust in individual agencies is high.

But I would still argue that all of us—both political appointees and those in civil service—are nevertheless considered by the public as part of that hard-to-pin-down-or-understand-brand known as "Washington, D.C." And sadly, the name of the city itself has developed a tainted connotation.

This crisis can, at least in part, be resolved by turning to federal communicators already on the payroll. We may not have an impact on perceptions of American politics, but we can make a difference in the world of the civil service. So equip us with the tools we need to ensure that federal government communication is reliable, and entrust us with the official role of gatekeeper.

Doing something is better than doing nothing. Improving federal communication is a step in the right direction. We all benefit from increased clarity, proactive transparency, accountability, and public trust.

Don't we?

Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity.