We Need A Plan for Federal Communications

Trust in government is at an all-time low. Poor communication is one reason.

As a government communicator I have always had a heightened sensitivity to the gap between what the public wants to hear and what the government wants to say.

I've also understood that the government tends to play catch-up with the communication tools used by the private sector. (It took us years to legitimize the use of social media.)

In 2016-2017 one of my major labors of love was a research paper called "Advancing Federal Communications." Dozens of us worked on this paper. It called for professional standards for federal communications, similar to the concept used in the UK.

There, the government releases an annual plan for government communication outlining its priorities.

When it comes to communication, the UK also explicitly values measurement, what we might call evaluation.

We all know that in the United States, trust in government is at or near historic lows. We can speculate as to why that is. No doubt performance is a significant part of it.

But so is communication.

When I started working for the government in 2003, the preferred communication style was excessively technical. Nobody could understand what we were talking about. Subject matter experts ruled.

Landmark: President Obama signed the 2010 Plain Writing Act requiring that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use.

But problems remain.

Somebody very smart recently was asked what they would do to improve the function of an organization. That person said, let's talk about enhancing the quality of what's already there—not knocking people down. I agree with that approach.

So let's be positive, and talk about what government communicators tend to have in common: dedication, smarts, nuanced thinking, clarity of writing, technical skill. Let's build on that.

At a higher level, government communicators also tend to be good at offering strategic, nonpartisan advice.

But federal communicators often don't have a seat at the table where communication decisions are made. (Even if they're literally, physically in the room, objective advice is often not wanted.)

They are not taken seriously. And the reason for this, I believe, is a lack of standards for the profession. For example, project management has the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), and related certification.

Government communicators don't even have a single unifying definition of "communication." Furthermore, there is no bachelor's degree in the civil service that I am aware of. There is no major concentration in "federal government communications." There isn't even a guidebook that tells people what legal and regulatory authorities they're following as government communicators.

You wouldn't go on Shark Tank without a business plan. Similarly the government cannot magically operate communications without a strategic communication plan for the employees who conduct outreach or convey information.

This really has nothing to do with politics, and it shouldn't. Government communication needs to be nonpartisan.

The only way for a body of work to avoid being dragged into ideology wars is for the work to adhere to a set of professional standards. You should be able to audit government communication accordingly.

Unfortunately, most of what the government has in the way of standards for communicators can be reducible to "thou shalt not," as in "thou shalt not engage in propaganda, puffery, or grassroots lobbying."

While it's helpful to know what NOT to do, this doesn't exactly tell us what TO do. We know that communication is an affirmative duty to ensure accountability and compliance, but that's about it.

There are multiple ways to tackle the situation, but first and foremost there has to be motivation at the highest levels to tackle it. (Not only among communicators themselves.)

Here's hoping that the future will bring us an institutional structure dedicated to establishing standards and annual plans for government communication. Those should clearly establish what the public can expect and how they can complain, and obtain recourse, if they don't get it.

Here's hoping that the government will use its communicators to the fullest, to share as much information as we can, as accurately as we can, as clearly as we can, to ensure the most accountability and compliance possible.

Copyright 2018 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.