Shutterstock.com

Federal Leaders Are Highly Educated, And That Can Be a Problem

The people you serve are your ultimate bosses—make sure you’re communicating with them effectively.

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.  

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.