Civil Servants Need to Stay Out of the Spin Business

It is easy to be pessimistic about government when citizens are regularly cautioned not to trust it.

The fact that government communications is ripe for abuse has undoubtedly contributed to trust levels in government that are at their lowest ever. While political corruption is chiefly responsible for public disillusionment (e.g. “Vietnam: The Loss Of American Innocence?”) it is also true that outsized spending on federal public relations contracts, as well as propagandistic agency communications play a role. Though the Government Accountability Office has long recognized that appropriately used communication is one of the government's top five internal controls, the way in which federal communications has been abused is not just wrong, but has also turned its dedicated practitioners into a public joke.

Fortunately, there are a number of efforts underway to remedy this situation. In the U.S. military, the nature and scope of the public affairs function has been codified. In the U.K., civil service communicators now have clear guidance as well. In the U.S., federal agencies and employees, including the Federal Communicators Network of which I am a part, are working to update and implement proper standards and prevent manipulation of statutory requirements that prohibit self-promotion and propaganda.

To give just one example, the General Services Administration has developed a short list of questions to be considered before requirements are written for advertising and marketing contracts. (Considering that we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, this is not a small advance.) These questions force the person writing the requirements to consider not only whether the proposed contract will violate the law, but also this crucial question: “Is the statement of work so broadly written that it could be interpreted to condone or encourage any of the activities described above? If the answer is yes, the statement of work/Request for Quotations is not yet ready for issuance.”

It is easy to be pessimistic about government; as citizens we are regularly cautioned not to trust it. As former British ambassador Craig Murray, who lost his job for speaking out about human rights abuses, once put it: "As a rule of thumb, if the government wants you to know it, it probably isn't true."

You can argue, as well, that a healthy distrust of government is not just good, but patriotic; with that I tend to agree.

But it is also true that we should not rest our laurels on the inevitability of alienation.

The fact is that we do have a country, a country needs a government, and as civil servants in particular we have a responsibility to help see to it that the government functions well.